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Volume 65 / Social Sciences


RENÉ SALGADO, Independent Consultant, Gaithersburg, Maryland

IN AN INTERVIEW with the Colombian daily El Tiempo (September 26, 2009), former US President Jimmy Carter expressed disappointment and concern about the performance and increasing authoritarianism of the Chávez government. Carter echoed a perception that many people inside and outside Venezuela share, and which reverberates in the literature on Venezuelan politics. This literature used to spread over a wide range of themes in the past, but during the last few years, Chávez and Chavismo have become the ubiquitous topic in books, essays, and articles, often with undercurrents of criticism and disenchantment.

The current literature adumbrates the distinguishing attributes of a system where electoral means and processes seem to have been used to advance and entrench personalistic politics while undermining institutions and democracy. The result has been an increased power concentration linked to a decline in horizontal accountability—or checks and balances—intertwined with weakened local and state governmental authority—or vertical accountability. Chávez prefers to label his personalistic style "participatory democracy" and, at times, he appears to purposefully undermine middle layers of government by the creation of ad-hoc structures (committees and consejos comunales) to deal with local population needs and demands. Meanwhile, the cult to the leader is reinforced through several means, which include the use and abuse of state TV and radio for Chávez's propaganda campaigns, and the forced broadcasting of a large proportion of his political speeches during electoral periods.

Strong state intervention in the economy is another feature of Chavismo. More money from high oil prices has allowed the chief executive to trumpet nationalism while acquiring all or most assets of several foreign corporations operating in the country. Often, loyal military officers run state enterprises with much less concern with efficiency than with job opportunities for political affiliates. This problem becomes evident in the case of service-delivery companies, such as happens with potable water and electricity: power blackouts and water restrictions, sometimes for more than a day in a row, have become a constant in Caracas and other places.

The government's application of administrative, judiciary, and openly repressive tools to undermine the development of strong opposition, are another hallmark of Venezuela's contemporary politics. These include administrative procedures that prevent a leader from running for formal office; opening of penalty causes that force opposition leaders into exile; incarceration without trial; deployment of lynching mobs; and the enforcement of rules leading to the closing or harassment of radios and TV stations that cover dissenting voices. In addition, the government has also resorted to expropriation of private enterprises suspected of providing support to political rivals, thereby creating and economic uncertainty that impinges negatively on goods supply. This is reflected in an (official) accumulated inflation of around 31 percent in 2008—the highest in Latin America.

With the erosion of political pluralism and tolerance, such themes as parties and electoral behavior, which used to be essential components of Venezuela's politics and policy literature—have virtually disappeared as areas of enquiry. A notable exception is Morgan (item #bi2008001417#) with a retrospective view of party politics and explanations about the weakening of parties and party systems in the late 1990s, which corroborates prevalent views on traditional parties' decay, notably, their inability to channel people's demands and expectations.

The discussion of civil-military relations has gained increased prominence. A most interesting and illuminating discussion is provided by Irwin, Butto, and Lange (item #bi2008002156#). This is a critical overview of civil-military relations theories, accompanied by a longitudinal analysis of such relations in 20th-century Venezuela and a thorough discussion of key features of Chávez political performance. Another piece coauthored by Irwin (item #bi2007000162#) provides a rather unorthodox account about the role of the military in the political system from the 1960s through the late 1990s, and an argument is made in favor of the notion that their influence was larger than suggested in the conventional literature. Meanwhile, the analysis offered by Sepúlveda (item #bi2008003311#) shows how military personnel are currently playing a larger role in policy arenas and organizations previously under the control of civilians.

Another set of writings explore additional facets of Chávez performance, including policy priorities, nature and quality of the regime, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, and the rule of law. On broad features of Chávez policy-making—including foreign policy—the most encompassing account is the book edited by Maihold (item #bi2009000263#), which contains interesting discussions by Boersner, Corrales, Kornblith, Werz and Winkens. The collection of essays under the coordination of Acosta Espinosa (item #bi2008002159#) also touches on different facets of Chávez government. The outstanding article in this compilation is the one by Professor Oscar Reyes, who argues with provocative insight, about the limited usefulness of best-known democratic performance scales in Chávez case where electoral mechanisms are systematically used to undermine institutions and components of liberal democracy. His perception about Venezuela's head of state increasing authoritarianism is shared by McCoy (item #bi2006002219#), Lalander (item #bi2006002344#), and Ramos Jiménez (item #bi2008004087#). These authors also offer expressions of disappointment and frustration with the politics of polarization and exclusion, generally regarded as features of contemporary Venezuelan politics.

The weakening of social movements and organizations' autonomy vis-à-vis the government, and the concomitant undermining of a truly vigorous civic scene, are the subjects of the rather rigorous empirical exploration offered in Hawkins and Hansen (item #bi2006002328#), and also in the study by Arenas (item #bi2008004322#). Their findings are complemented by Penfold-Becerra (item #bi2008003047#) which deals with government control of social organizations, clientelism, and links to corruption. Meanwhile, Valdivieso López (item #bi2008002513#) discusses increasing media polarization resulting from government-opposition dynamics.

Chávez's treatment of political opponents is illustrated in the pieces by Giacalone (item #bi2007004085#) and Lepage (item #bi2009000266#). The first centers on the government's increasing animosity and hostility against dissidents, and the latter on Chávez coarse language and aggressive verbosity, which have become typical ingredients of his public speeches. Some analysts suggest that such attitude and behavior by the head of state contribute to violence, which has become a major problem particularly in large cities, as shown in the book by the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia (item #bi2009003406#).

Finally, Ochoa-Antich (item #bi2009002003#), and Escovar Salom (item #bi2008002159#), the first an ex-minister of defense, and the second an ex-attorney general, share their broad reflections on Venezuela's contemporary evolution. Ochoa-Antich provides a detailed witness account of the violent events of February 4, 1992.

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