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Volume 59 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: VENEZUELA


RENE SALGADO, Independent Consultant, Gaithersburg, Maryland


ON DECEMBER 6, 1998, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, swept into office with close to 60 percent of the vote, which represented a wave of strong popular discontent against the country's traditional parties—Democratic Action (AD) and the Social Christian Party (COPEI). Chávez was no stranger to Venezuelan politics; he had been at the center of a failed 1992 coup d'etat against AD President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Two years later, President Rafael Caldera granted him a pardon. Caldera, who had broken with COPEI to found his own movement, Convergencia, justified the pardon on the basis of national reconciliation, but critics have argued that it was inconsistent with the principles of justice.

In the 1998 electoral campaign, Chávez and his newly formed party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), capitalized on anti-establishment voter sentiment. Disaffection with the status quo had become increasingly evident since the end of February 1989, when demonstrations and riots erupted in Caracas after the Pérez government announced the lifting of price controls on several commodities and services—including oil and transportation—in the context of an economic adjustment program. The economic situation subsequently deteriorated even further in the mid-1990s.

Specific economic and social issues, however, were not at the center of Chávez's platform. Rather, allegations of governmental and party corruption and political system failure to address rampant inequities were his weapons of choice during the electoral campaign. Corruption was not a new topic in Venezuela's political discourse. In fact, it had been a recurrent topic in the country's political life since the late 1970s, when it became customary for the opposition to accuse the incumbent party of plundering state resources and oil revenues for its own benefit and the benefit of its political clientele. Concurrently, interparty discussion about meaningful policy issues gradually deteriorated.

Since oil and its by-products belong to the Venezuelan state and, by a type of folkloric deduction, to all Venezuelans the notion that "I am poor because someone else is stealing what belongs to me" became progressively entrenched in the social culture, particularly among the poor. Chávez astutely exploited this attitude and presented himself during the campaign as a patriotic leader who would vindicate all past wrongdoing against deprived groups.

Between 1998–2000, Venezuelans experienced six electoral contests, including two presidential elections and the election of an assembly to write a new constitution. In 1999, with the ratification of the new constitution, the country underwent drastic institutional change. The bicameral congress was replaced with a unicameral legislature. Executive power and prerogatives were expanded. The earlier presidential term—five years without the possibility of immediate re-election—was extended to six years, with the possibility of immediate re-election. Also, the country's official name was changed from Venezuela, to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. In the 1999 presidential elections, Chávez's mandate was reconfirmed, again by close to 60 percent of the vote.

Many Venezuelans who oppose Chávez feel that his government—which he calls his Revolución Bolivariana—lacks a well-defined program, solid ideological tenets, and an organic and politically conscious social base. They argue that his political discourse consists mainly of an aggressive rhetoric against the opposition—the old political elite, middle classes, entrepreneurs, the mass media, and leaders of organized labor. They assert that his rhetoric exalts militarism and leftist international revolutionary figures, and that his bolivarianismo is an oversimplified melange of Simón Bolívar's thoughts.

The armed forces are a key element in Chávez s governmental strategy. The President's proposal for granting military personnel the right to vote, which the Venezuelan left had been advocating since the 1970s, was approved in 1999 by the Constituent Assembly. Subsequently, the role of the military in policy-making and implementation has expanded. Military officers have been appointed to positions that had been held by civilians in Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil industry, and in government agencies. There has also been a proliferation of civil-military cooperation.

Many analysts agree that economic development and social insecurity are the most pressing Venezuelan problems. Uncertainty has contributed to hampering economic expansion, as investors have opted to wait until a clearer picture of the government's economic policy emerges. Current government rhetoric has alienated some of Venezuela's middle class and potential investors, and they are consequently pulling capital out of the country. The economy's underlying structural weakness has increased: The non-oil economy grew only 2.7 percent in 2000 and the overall export mix shrank more than 13 percent. Official unemployment remains at about 15 percent. Given the limited prospects for economic diversification in both the short and long run, a relatively sharp or prolonged drop in oil prices could plunge the fragile economy into crisis.

Closely related to the discomforting economic situation is the problem of public safety, a recurring topic in the mass media. High unemployment, weak law enforcement institutions, and a political discourse that tends to exacerbate social resentment have all contributed to the intensification of unruly behavior.

The issues raised and debated in the relevant literature parallel recent Venezuelan travails, but a caveat is in order. Many of the works included here were prepared by political scientists and policy analysts—mostly Venezuelans—while rather unexpected political events were unfolding or had just taken place; thus, some lack the refinement of studies delivered in hindsight. However, they are all valuable and some are illuminating. The contributions comprise studies pertaining to political analysis, electoral politics, institutional and party politics, and, to a lesser extent, to policy-oriented analyses.

In the area of political analysis, Keller provides an illuminating and provocative discussion of the shortcomings of the system inaugurated in 1958 (item #bi 97017873#). One point, supported with empirical data, is that at least some sections of the elite economic class and the mass media either applauded or indirectly paved the way for Chávez's failed coup. However, Keller also places some of the blame in the arrogance of the Pérez government and its failure to establish a communication policy to explain the goals of its 1989 adjustment program.

A number of works discuss mid-1990s political dynamics. One noteworthy book, by Vivas, presents a coherent account of the immediate prelude to the 1998 electoral race, including strategic and tactical shortcomings of candidates and groups opposing Chávez, and decisions by President Caldera that contributed to strengthening Chávez's stance (item #bi 00000546#). Other useful accounts on the 1998 race intricacies are: Lander and López, who trace the emergence of Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement and other political groups (item #bi 99006831#); Koeneke, who provides a brief but useful comparative description and discussion of messages by and about different presidential candidates (item #bi 00001995#); the collection of interviews by Randón (item #bi 00000548#); and Montero, who discusses campaign messages by former Miss Venezuela and Miss World, Irene Sáez (item #bi 98015796#).

Geyer, in an interview with Chávez before the 1998 elections, notes that the issues of corruption and morality in governmental affairs are key to his discourse (item #bi 00002376#). López and Lander discuss some key aspects of Chávez's ideological tenets, arguing that it will be difficult for him to govern effectively due to his inability to orchestrate political alliances (item #bi 00005445#). Maingón, Pérez, and Sonntag provide an informative examination of the political process that culminated in the preparation of the new Venezuelan constitution (item #bi 00005446#).

Some studies add to our understanding of state and local electoral politics, an area of political inquiry that started to germinate in 1989, when Venezuelans for the first time elected their state and local officials. Molina and Pérez provide a valuable analysis of the outcomes of 1995 and 1998 contests (items #bi 97018043# and #bi 00002438#). Maingón and Sonntag also discuss 1995 outcomes, providing useful information on candidates and party alliances (item #bi 98012878#). Álvarez offers observations on the limitations of municipal races that impinge negatively on democracy and participation (item #bi 98005336#).

In the area of institutional analysis, Crisp provides a useful, lucid account of the interplay between the executive, congress, political parties, and interest groups in the period between 1958–98 (items #bi 97012329# and #bi 99000007#). His presentation is generally value-neutral and provides an articulated mapping of the relationships between relevant political actors. The works show extensive and selective use of documentary sources and empirical data.

The poor performance of Venezuelan political institutions, particularly during the 1980s–90s, is traced to several deficiencies, including organizational problems within political parties and even well-intentioned but misguided political reforms. Ellner provides a useful comparative summary of some contemporary accounts (item #bi 97006466#). Crisp, Levin, and Rey offer a thoughtful discussion of legitimacy problems, economic decline, and institutional rigidities (item #bi 97018041#). Romero cogently and penetratingly argues that particularly during the last two decades, Venezuela has become a degraded type of democracy (item #bi 97005582#). McCoy discusses several explanatory factors for the political and policy failure of traditional parties; in particular their inability to learn lessons and adapt themselves (item #bi 00006829#). Meanwhile, Preciado offers a provocative discussion of the decline of AD (item #bi 00000529#).

Less theoretical but also valuable discussions of political leadership and institutions with proposals for democratic improvements are by Álvarez (item #bi 00002437#), UNDP (item #bi 99000027#), and COPRE (item #bi 00000543#). The latter covers administrative, political, and judicial reform. Meanwhile, Bolivar Osuna focuses on the judiciary and offers a critique on reform supported by the World Bank (item #bi 99006841#).

Policy-oriented studies cover a variety of themes at the central and regional levels. Kornblith, Añanguren, and Lugo examine the issue of military budgeting and expenditures and provide a useful account of the interplay of situational and institutional factors that have an impact on spending policies, as well as expenditure data from the early 1970s to the late 1990s (item #bi 98012881#). In contrast, España (item #bi 00000517#) and Navarro (item #bi 97017718#) focus on social policy. An observation made by España is that a large proportion of multilateral funding (i.e., World Bank or IDB) for social projects is often not disbursed. Navarro, on the other hand, contrasts alternatives for social policy implementation, emphasizing the importance of commitment as a necessity for success.

On regional and local developments, the most useful policy-oriented analysis of decentralization is contained in the compilation of articles by De la Cruz (item #bi 00000533#). This pioneering and well-grounded collection of articles includes discussions on the limitations of local finances and the inadequacies of personnel recruitment at the local and state levels. Less rigorous but still very valuable is the compilation under the title La descentralización en Venezuela (item #bi 99000006#), which offers a comparative account of decentralization in four states, including the oil-producing Zulia. Josko, using Caracas as a case study, discusses local policy alternatives for the informal economy (item #bi 00000518#), while Dagger examines local preferences in an important municipality of the state of Aragua (item #bi 00000547#).

It is useful to conclude this review by suggesting some issues that will likely remain attractive as subjects of inquiry and, more broadly, for their potential impact on the country's future. One is economic policy. It remains to be seen if President Chávez will continue his early approach or, if forced by circumstances, he will decide to change track. Policy shifts by incumbents are not unusual in Venezuela. Pérez, an earlier populist, adopted more market-oriented approaches in the late 1980s. Similarly, Caldera, during his 1990s mandate, was initially against the adoption of neoliberal policies, but subsequently changed course. Another issue for further research is decentralization, a process initiated in Venezuela in the late 1980s. It will be interesting to see whether enhanced centralization of executive power will restrict or be compatible with increasing regional and local decision-making autonomy.


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