“Democracy as Usual, in Caracas,” The New York Times editorialized in December 1983. “Some events deserve notice because they are unremarkable, the democratic succession in Venezuela, for example.” Noting that military dictators had ruled the country until 1958, the editorial celebrated the successive election of four presidents. With an urbanized population and a progressive but anti-communist political class, Venezuela became a darling of the West, promoted as a model democracy for Latin America.
The outcome of Sunday’s legislative elections, in which a contentious opposition coalition gained a majority of the country’s legislature, will probably be a governmental stalemate. President Nicolás Maduro, a Socialist, remains in office, creating a divided government as in the United States since 2010. It is doubtful we will see editorials extolling democracy as usual in Venezuela in The New York Times anytime soon. But maybe we should.
Since 1998, Venezuela’s left has won the vast majority of national elections, including five presidential contests and multiple referendums. These votes have been certified by a national electoral institute lauded internationally for its transparency. This run of left-wing electoral success has come to an end—for now. Maduro has officially recognized the results. Despite dramatic news coverage rife with overheated predictions of fraud, democracy in Venezuela has indeed proceeded as usual.
That the elections unfolded peacefully should not be a surprise, given Venezuela’s solid democratic institutions. Yet with the election of radical Hugo Chávez in 1998, perceptions of the country changed. Practically overnight, Venezuela became a pariah that challenged traditional political arrangements and Washington’s hegemony in the hemisphere and beyond. From a relatively obscure Latin American country, best known for its abundant oil deposits, beauty pageants, and talented baseball players, it became the front edge of a political wave that transformed Latin America.
Venezuela’s new-found prominence did not produce greater knowledge of the country, however. The Chávez election was seen as an aberration, a temporary detour; Venezuelan elites vowed they would soon return to power. Along with many in the West, they failed to grasp the enormity of the changes under way in their country. The anger that fueled their rhetoric grew, in part, from shock at the profound transformation of their country. They express an emotional sense of alienation. As one middle-class Venezuelan stated, “They stole my country.”
Stolen by whom? Media coverage of Venezuela largely failed to document the yawning gaps in a society that consigned the majority—a mixed-race, indigenous, and Afro-descended population—to poverty and political marginalization. Chávez and his party, along with numerous social movements, mobilized this majority and began to redistribute the benefits of the oil-based economy to them. The passionate opposition of the old elites and the newly mobilized poor has been the driver of the polarization of Venezuelan politics ever since.
Alienated Venezuelans elite responded not only by ratcheting up the rhetoric, but also by organizing a coup against the democratically elected Chávez in 2002. Since then, and despite ample opportunities, the opposition had been unable to turn its bitter resentment into a political majority. At every turn in the political process they decried fraud, claiming Chávez and Maduro had turned democratic Venezuela into a communist dictatorship. American media, politicians, and the State Department echoed these charges right through this election—despite the right’s having previously won governorships and now a majority in the assembly. In this election, the right-wing alliance capitalized on the clumsy rhetoric of Maduro, the painful rise of violent crime, and the worsening of an already severe economic crisis. Nonetheless, deep rifts fragment the opposition, fractures that may become more apparent in the inevitable jockeying for a likely recall of the president.
The stakes in Venezuela’s elections are high. The country sits atop the largest oil deposits in the world: Control of the government brings control over the nation’s purse strings. Even today, few outside observers realize that the fundamental conflict in Venezuelan politics is not over democracy. It is over oil.
After 100 years of oil production and decades of rhetoric promising diversification, the economy, even after Chávez and Maduro, remains addicted to oil. The important social reforms that took place in health, literacy, education, and housing all depended upon continuing high oil prices. Beyond the toxic environmental impact of years of drilling and production, the country remains subject to the whims of a volatile international oil market.
The result of these elections and even a recall of Maduro will do little to resolve the underlying problem. As the world begins to move beyond the carbon era, Venezuela must take steps to wean itself from petroleum. A lasting solution to the economic downturn and the perennial political crisis cannot flow from oil. Sadly, neither side of Venezuela’s political divide has a realistic plan.
In addition to its distortions to the economy and its terrible impact on the local and global environments, dependence on petroleum has also extracted a heavy political cost. Oil distorts some Venezuelans’ views of the nation, their concepts of citizenship, and feelings of social responsibility. For decades, elites viewed themselves as the stewards of the oil wealth and thus entitled to most of its benefits. Although the opposition victory may lead them to seek a return to the old status quo, they will inevitably be disappointed. For Maduro and the movements that supported him, the challenges are equally as large, the most difficult being regaining the confidence of a doubtful electorate. At the least, there is no going back to the pre-Chávez era. As the victorious opposition makes new promises, it faces one stubborn fact: the price of oil on world markets will not rise any time soon.