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Volume 61 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: VENEZUELA


RENE SALGADO, Independent Consultant, Gaithersburg, Maryland


The years from 1998 to 2004 witnessed systemic changes in Venezuelan governance. Hugo Chávez, the army lieutenant who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, became president in 1998 and managed to have a new constitution ratified in 1999. The new constitution, replacing the one from 1959, enhanced presidential hegemony. The year 1998 marked the end of the political leadership of the Acción Democrática and COPEI parties, a trend that began in the early 1990s and resulted from a combination of factors, e.g., erosion of party legitimacy, decentralization, and an increase of civil society political participation.

The period from 1998–2004 also witnessed a drastic change in Hugo Chávez's political fortune: his impressive popularity during the first two years of his administration was followed by splits with former allies, the erosion of his prestige and even increasing disapproval of the regime, the Fifth Republic, that he helped to create. Since 2002 Chávez had to face an unrelenting media, frequent antigovernment demonstrations, civil and military unrest, and a two-and-a-half-month strike in the government-controlled oil industry that resulted in the firing of thousands of employees. In 2003, the opposition mounted a systematic effort to unseat Chávez through a recall referendum. Although the government tried to discourage its foes through several means—including delays in the National Electoral Commission response, harassment or intimidation of opposition leaders, and the initial dismissal of a good proportion of recall signatures from alleged illegalities—Chávez was finally forced to accept the scheduling of a referendum on his mandate on August 15, 2004, which, to the surprise of many, he won with a comfortable majority.

Most of the literature reviewed for HLAS 61 on Venezuelan politics focuses on Chávez and his Fifth Republic. Discussions feature changes in the political climate in the 1990s, explanations of Chávez's rise to power, his political performance and personality, and explorations of the dynamics of his regime, i.e., origins, norms, structure, values, and relationships with civil society and the military. The literature also sheds light on factors that have contributed to Chávez's isolation from former allies and that have undermined his support from various sectors of Venezuelan society, particularly the middle class. These factors include controversial decisions and policies as well as counterproductive presidential attitudes and behavior.

The changes that Venezuela has undergone since 1989—notably, the continuing disappearance of a stable democracy and the emergence of a kind of constitutional autocracy—has in turn transformed conventional accounts of the country's politics. Earlier works by prominent analysts often provided optimistic explanations for the so-called "Venezuelan exceptionalism." More recently the mood is less optimistic, and accounts tend to focus on political failures. One work comments on the changes in the perceptions of prominent analysts and contains a useful summary of their theses (item #bi2002002206#).

Accounts of factors contributing to Chávez's rise to power are generally useful, given that the arguments and explanations provided therein complement one another. Levine offers a concise but encompassing structural examination of the system from 1958–98, including processes and the roles of the main actors, and counterproductive dynamics contributing to the erosion of its legitimacy (item #bi2004000284#). Hidalgo Trenado's scholarly essay deals with difficult economic choices and unexpected negative economic events during the governments of Pérez and Caldera that either directly or indirectly improved Chávez's potential for success (item #bi2004000477#). Finally, Romero offers a thorough discussion of some troublesome economic decisions by the Pérez and Caldera governments, and also provides a sound and devastating critique of Caldera's political blunders: his rationalization of Chávez's attempted coup in 1992, the ensuing presidential pardon, and other populist decisions (item #bi2004000276#).

Coppege provides a most insightful and succinct discussion of the structural characteristics of the system formally inaugurated in 1999 (item #bi2004000292#). This work cogently discusses the enhancement of presidential power at the expense of other state institutions and the resulting reduction in horizontal accountability. Brewer-Carias reaches similar conclusions by examining the formal and legal arrangements of Chávez's regime and labeling them "constitutional authoritarianism" (item #bi2004000476#). Blanco's work is similar when discussing the tenets and principles of the 1999 Constitution and contrasting them with those of the 1959 Constitution (item #bi2004000290#).

More than half a dozen electoral campaigns and referendums between 1998–2004 kept international and local public-opinion and voting-behavior analysts quite busy, but there are significant differences in the scope of their work. Scholarly essays by Molina and Pérez examine the widespread electoral abstention in the1998 elections (item #bi2001003872#) and the dynamics and outcomes of multiple electoral contests in 2000 (item #bi2004000292#). The study by Kornblith, among other things, discusses improvements in voting procedures introduced by the 1997 Electoral Law, despite casting doubt on the transparency of the 2000 elections (item #bi2004000284#). Item #bi2004000289# offers a collection of essays by public-opinion professionals focusing on the 1998 elections, including media messages and press coverage. Finally, two reports by the International Republican Institute assess national electoral processes and outcomes, as well as voting procedures, in the 1998 general elections (items #bi2004000463# and #bi2004000464#).

In addition to elections, other sociopolitical events were on the rise after 1998, notably demonstrations and social protests. During the first 18 months of Chávez's administration, most actions targeted those perceived as the president's enemies, i.e., traditional parties, antigovernment organizations, the private sector, etc. Subsequently, however, the opposition also decided to take to the streets, particularly in Caracas. Item #bi2004000458# shows that starting with the "Caracazo"—as the demonstrations of February 1, 1989, against Pérez's adjustment policy are known—the volume and confrontational nature of demonstrations experienced a remarkable boost, particularly in 1993, 1994, and 1999. The book, which focuses mainly on those events taking place in 1999, discusses their nature, type of participants, and main characteristics.

The increase in spontaneous collective events that marked the end of the rather orderly 1970s–80s is to some extent an unexpected outcome of the weakening and subsequent vanishing of the two largest mass parties, which in turn has led to the absence of studies with a party focus. One exception is Martínez Barahona's work exploring the structure, main actors, and processes of Chávez's Movimiento Quinta República (MVR) (item #bi2004000477#). On the basis of secondary sources and interview data, her essay shows the MVR as a cadre party dominated by the president. Meanwhile, without a mass party to mediate and aggregate population's demands, the chief executive appears to have increasingly resorted to the utilization of the army—not only for political, but also for policy-implementation purposes. This approach has been the subject of criticism by a number of active or retired military officers and is reflected in the essays by retired Generals Yépez-Daza and Ochoa-Antich (item #bi2004000466#). It is also the case of Francisco Arias Cárdenas, who along with Chávez led the failed 1992 coup attempt but later opposed him in the 2000 elections. In a lengthy interview, Arias Cárdenas criticizes the top-down pyramid approach (leader—armed forces—people) that seems to attract Chávez and Arias attributes to the influence of Norberto Ceresole, an Argentine advisor (item #bi2004000474#).

One most interesting book looks into counterproductive Chávez policies (item #bi2004000293#). The scholarly essay by Machado-Allison provides particular insight on the negative political impact of the Agrarian Law of December 2001 that attempted to enhance the role of the state in agricultural production—one subsequently revised as a result of widespread protest and civil unrest. Other policy studies point out blatant contradictions between the written letter of the law (including policy documents) and the actions (often rather spontaneous) taken by the president. Calcaño and Arenas' essay highlights the contradictions between the neoliberal economic tenets proclaimed in CORDIPLAN documents and Chávez's populist discourse (item #bi2004000292#). Kelly's work notes the contradiction between Chávez's populist image and the open economic tenets of the 1999 Constitution (item #bi2004000284#).

Works on the relations between Chávez and the media concur that they were generally respectful between 1998–2000 but became soured when journalists started to openly criticize the government. The problematic relationship deteriorated when a frustrated president systematically resorted to indiscriminate insults against the media and journalists. These, in turn, incited all types of aggressive actions against media personnel and installations from Chávez followers. The essays by Zago (item #bi2004000282#) and Petkoff (item #bi2004000293#) offer insightful analyses of these difficult relationships.

All of the works on Chávez himself offer accounts that are very favorable to the president. Two were published during the early years of his administration (items #bi2004000291# and #bi2004000270#). The first one, by a Venezuelan journalist, is mostly a transcription of a lengthy interview with the president. The second, written by a Colombian scholar, is based on press information and other secondary sources. Two other hagiographies were published during Chávez's third year in power and are also based on interviews, one by a Venezuelan journalist (item #bi2004000470#) and the other by a Cuban-Chilean writer (item #bi2004000267#). All four books generally provide details about the president's humble origins and early socialization processes, his years in the military academy, his passion for baseball, and his relationships with leftist figures during his military service. The last two books also provide information on the president's perceptions about his policy goals, the failed coup attempt of 2002, and his views about the opposition.

Decentralization and community participation are also addressed in the recent literature (items #bi2004000457#, #bi2004000266#, and #bi2004000264#). These works demonstrate the existence of an important trend in Venezuelan society before Chávez. It remains to be seen if these experiences will survive the growing centralization of his administration.

Finally, women in politics and society is another theme explored in the recent literature. One work praises the 1999 Constitution for its fostering of gender equality (item #bi2004000287#). Another work offers a sound, empirically based analysis of women in politics and policy-making between 1959–98 (item #bi2004000455#).

Following the recall referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans voted to allow Chávez to complete his term, there are several puzzling questions regarding his continued political survival despite serious conflicts between his government and such important sectors of Venezuelan society as the mass media, the Catholic Church, labor and business organizations. What factors explain his political victory? Is it the president's charisma among the underprivileged? Or is it their resentment of or desire for revenge against the old elites? Or, rather, is it because of social policies that are benefiting the most disadvantaged? These and other questions will certainly be part of the future research agenda in a country whose politics appear to have become increasingly paradoxical.


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