What’s Ahead for Venezuela?

Venezuela expert Daniel Hellinger speaks about the nature of Venezuelan democracy and Chavez's chances of winning the upcoming referendum on eliminating the two-term limit on holding electoral office.

Megan Morrissey: What is your assessment of the
strength of democracy in Venezuela today? Is it better or worse now
than a decade ago, before President Chavez was elected?

Daniel Hellinger: It is difficult to answer this
question with a simple "It's better or worse" response. There is no
doubt in my mind that Venezuela is a more democratic place today that
it was before December 1998. The Bolivarian Constitution was a major
step forward in terms of democratic innovation and empowerment of
citizens. Anti-poverty programs and programs to foster endogenous
development have fostered "inclusion," a wide-spread sense among the
majority poor that they are now empowered. And at the grassroots level,
vigorous debates and innovative participatory practices have appeared,
many of which have received little attention outside Venezuela.
Community media are a good example here.

On the other hand, Venezuela lacks a responsible opposition.
When it comes to the parties aligned against the government, this is
hardly the fault of President Chávez. However, the lack of autonomous
mechanisms within chavismo
to hold government accountable is, in part, attributable to failures in
leadership by Hugo Chávez. The dependency of the chavista movement on
the charismatic leadership of the president indicates that the
participatory and protagonistic character of the Bolivarian
Constitution exists too much on paper, not enough in reality.

President Chávez might attribute this shortcoming to the
defeat of the constitutional amendment packages in December 2007, but
the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 provides for many innovative
participatory practices that have not been fully utilized. As for the
community councils, they seem to be working best in parts of the
country where there are previous experiences with participatory local
governance or where innovative leaders, such as Julio Chávez in the
state of Lara, have stimulated initiatives from below. However, in
other cases the councils have been instituted from above and provided
the basis for new patronage networks to evolve, short-circuiting
well-intentioned plans to shift resources from venal politicians to the

I also see a weakness in the failure of the judicial system
and the pro-Chávez media to function in a way that gives voice to those
frustrated with the corruption and inefficiency within the government
and the chavista
movement. As people do not want to weaken the Revolution by taking
complaints to the mainstream opposition media, this leaves them
frustrated and even more likely to express their concerns through
abstention or even voting for the opposition. And as for the courts,
the prevailing practice seems to follow the rule expressed popularly in
Mexico as, "For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law." That
is, while prosecutions of important opposition leaders may in fact be
grounded in law, they will seem selective as long as only opposition
leaders are brought to justice.

MM: It seems sometimes that Washington's rigid
definition of liberal democracy as the only "true" form of democracy is
the source of much misunderstanding and much prejudice about Venezuela.
What do you think people ought to know in order to better understand
what is unique about Venezuela's system of government?

DH: The prejudiced reporting of the mainstream media
in the U.S. means that people are unaware of just how well Venezuelan
democracy fares when judged by conventional criteria, such as free
speech, fair elections, etc. In fact, it is too easy to lose sight of
how amazing it has been that Venezuelans were able to settle the
question of Chávez's legitimacy through the recall election of 2004.
And no matter how often we bring it up, few people outside of
Venezuela seem to be aware how often Venezuelans have gone to polls to
choose leaders or vote on important issues.

I think there is much to learn from the Venezuelan experience
with participatory democracy in places such as Carora, where one can
see the best practices associated with Venezuela's more participatory
democracy. For example, we have severe problems in our cities. If the
mayor of Carora can trust people in local assemblies to decide on
priorities for spending half the municipal budget, at so far it seems
to have worked, why can't we trust people in Detroit, Washington, or
St. Louis to do the same?

MM: What were your impressions of the state and
municipal elections on November 23rd? Do you think the results change
the balance of power at all between the PUSV and opposition parties?
What do the results mean?

DH: The good news for the PSUV was that it showed a
capacity to mobilize voters, something in doubt after the defeat of the
reform packages in December 2007. The opposition has pretty
consistently gotten between 4.1 and 4.3 million votes nationally in
each the last four national elections. So the capacity of chavismo
to prevail nationally seems to depend on turning out at least that
number. The PSUV actually turned out well over 5 million voters.

Having said that, there is no doubt that PSUV losses in Zulia
(including Maracaibo), in Carabobo, and in much of Caracas area in
strategic terms poses serious problems for chavismo. It will make
harder the deployment of the new national police force, for example. It
also concerns me that some of the high-profile chavista
politicians who lost were awarded cabinet posts shortly afterwards. It
shows the president's loyalty to his allies, but it loyalty is not
always a virtue.

MM: Were the regional elections conducted in a
transparent manner? What are your observations about how elections are
conducted in Venezuela more generally?

DH: There is no doubt that the ability of the National
Electoral Council (CNE) to carry out fair national elections in the
midst of high polarization is an enormous accomplishment, one that must
in large measure be attributed to the democratic maturity of the
Venezuelan people. Few other countries in the world can boast of such
transparent balloting, especially where political tensions run so high
and where the results have such consequences for control of significant
financial resources.

From afar, it is easier to monitor and judge the conduct of
the CNE, based in the capital, than to monitor how well the electoral
system at the level of the states and municipalities. But here we have
as evidence for the transparency of the process the unequivocal praise
from two important, independent civic organizations, Ojo Electoral (Electoral Eye) and the Electoral Observation Network of the Asamblea Educativa.
Here is a good example of the spirit, not just the letter of the
Bolivarian Constitution put into practice — civil society acting
autonomously to guarantee democratic processes.

Now, having said this, it is also important to recognize that
too many practices from the era of Punto Fijo (the old system of
1958-1998) remain in place. Take, for example, the media. No doubt in
reaction to continued opposition and propaganda from most of the
private media, government media carry out propaganda in favor of
government candidates. When RCTV's license was revoked, we were told
that it would be used to provide an autonomous outlet for production by
community based media. That hasn't happened.

MM: Venezuelans may go to the polls yet again in early
2009 to hold a referendum on whether or not to put an end to
presidential term limits. Is this indeed constitutional? Is there any
precedent for this kind of thing in Latin America?

DH: It is constitutional, without a doubt. There have
been many plebiscites in Latin America – the referendum on Pinochet's
rule in Chile in 1988 comes to mind, and votes on convening
constitutional assemblies, but I can't think of a similar process for
amending the constitution.

As for re-election without limit, there are not very many Latin
American examples, but in the United States there were no such limits
until Congress changed the constitution to prevent a repetition of
Franklin Roosevelt's successful run for a fourth consecutive term. Even
today, political scientists recognize that the term limit somewhat
limits the power of a president in his or her final years in office.
Among those who argued for unlimited presidential re-election in the
U.S. was Ronald Reagan.

Of course parliamentary systems have no limits on the tenure
of a government leader. Margaret Thatcher clung to office from 1979 to
1990, and her party never even achieved a majority in any national
election. Venezuela has a presidential, not parliamentary system, but
at least citizens have the ability to recall a leader constitutionally,
unlike the case in the United States, for example.

MM: Finally, what do you think is
likely to be the result of the referendum, and what are the most
important issues for Venezuela in 2009?

DH: Right now, based on the results of the November
election and the president's continued popularity, I would say it is
likely that the amendment will win. However, it is no sure thing – nor
should it be in a democracy. There will undoubtedly be a major effort
by the opposition, including the opposition controlled media, to defeat
the proposal. For this to be successful, however, the opposition
message must resonate with real citizen concerns. What might those be?

First, my own research and my own hunch is that many Venezuelans, especially the "ní-ní"
(independent) voters, who are the largest block in the electorate, are
wary of concentration of power, and there is little doubt that most of
it is already in the hands of the president. The mass reaction to
ending the RCTV broadcast license, despite the station's well-known
role in the coup of 2002, is an illustration of how much Venezuelans
are wary of abandoning checks on executive authority.

Let's also remember that the president himself has made the Bolivarian
Constitution the symbol of the revolution in progress. It is, he said
upon return from being kidnapped during the 2002 coup, like the "Popol Vuh"
of the Maya, the people's book. There may be considerable reluctance to
change such a sacred text – but then the opposition has little real
credibility here because most of it had some involvement in the coup.

Second, there remains considerable discontent with the
performance of the government – corruption and inefficiency. Until now,
the electorate has tended not to hold the president himself
responsible, but that may not hold true indefinitely. This will be more
likely to be a factor if the new opposition governors and mayors show
signs of governing responsively.

On the other hand, Venezuela, like just about every country,
is entering a period of high economic uncertainty. The over-valued
bolívar and inflation must now be confronted in the context of
declining oil revenues. Until now, it has been possible to fund the
anti-poverty misiones and at the same time allow huge amounts of money
to be transferred to sectors of the bourgeoisie that either exploit
political connections to the government or have simply found
independent ways to exploit the surge in consumer spending brought
about the by oil boom. Without a doubt, the two key issues for 2009
will be one old one – improving personal security – and a new one,
adjusting to the new economic situation.

Assuming that the government is unlikely to modify drastically the
basically state-capitalist nature of the economy, who will bear the
brunt of sacrifices needed to bring the economy back to some
approximation of equilibrium? Although Venezuela under Chávez has made
remarkable progress in reducing poverty, most Venezuelans, including
the ní-ní,
still live in a precarious economic situation. They may, for good
reason, see President Chávez as the main guarantee that they will not
slip back into the kind of penury that is still part of their
collective memory.

So, while I want to hedge my bet, I believe the president will win the
referendum to make possible indefinite re-election. I anticipate that
this will bring a predicable wave of condemnation from the media in the
United States. But if the expressed will of the Venezuelan people is to
allow re-election, we need to respect their decision.

I think it's also important to realize that even if President
Chávez were to lose this recall, he probably still would be the most
powerful politician in the country, and indisputable leader of its most
popular political party. Neither his supporters nor his opponents
should think that his capacity to shape Venezuela's future entirely
hinges on this referendum.

Daniel Hellinger is Professor of Political Science at Webster University, St. Louis. He is co-editor of Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era (LynneRienner, 2003) and author of Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy (Westview Press, 1991).

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