The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.



  1. Excellent point. I don’t agree with everything, but you are absolutely correct that those criticizing Hugo Chavez need to split the arguments about democracy from the arguments about economics. When those two issues are forced together, it weakens the legitimate criticisms.

    Just found your blog via TPMCafe. I write one on Latin America.

  2. Hi, Josh, found your comment at tpmcafe and thought I might add something additional you might find interesting. Of course, this stuff about Chavez has been going on for some time now. I had prepared some remarks for a conference at Bergen Community College in Paramus NJ back in 2003 during which I referred to a review of a book by Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, which appeared in The New Republic issue of February 3, 2003. The review was by Naomi Daremblum and was entitled “Democracy’s Pains.” In it, Daremblum reviewed the history of what she called ‘democratic’ Venezuela. She wrote: “In the 1960s and 1970s, while other countries in the reigion languished under dictatorial and repressive military regimes, Venezuela was an oasis of democratic rule. This exceptional political situation was achieved through a pact within the elite, which provided for alternation in government between the left-of-center party and the right-of-center party, and minimized conflict through dialogue with groups in civil society. This political arrangement, known as the pact of Punto Fijo, worked well since its inception in 1958 because it granted electoral participation through the political parties and channeled other political involvement through civic groups. But it was strengthened further and thrived during the 1970s owing to the oil boom and Venezuela’s consequent prosperity. As the price of oil shot up from $3 a barrel to $14 a barrel [sounds quaint now, doesn’t it!], Venezuela’s coffers overflowed, making it one of the richest states in Latin America. Some people called it Saudi Venezuela.” Of course, suspicions are already raised about this history of ‘democratic’ Venezuela. How can ‘rule by the people’ be achieved by reaching a pact between elites for the alternating of the holding of political power, together with ‘dialogue’ with civil society groups, that is, middle class NGOs? Daremblum doesn’t seem to be discussing ‘democracy’ so much as stability–sometimes a worthy goal, but hardly a necessarily democratic one.
    Let’s follow the argument further. She continues: “But the Pact of Punto Fijo had its flaws. What was initially a managed but productive political dialogue ossified into a sclerotic system that stifled dissent and prevented political alternatives from emerging. The parties’ vertical integration with civil society facilitated corruption, which, given the oil wealth, was tremendous in scope. And when oil prices collapsed in the 1980s, the country’s revenues plummeted. Venezuela rudely learned that it did not have the resources to repay the huge loans that had been taken out during the fat years. With a shrinking GDP per capita and rising inflation, Venezuelans discovered that their high standard of living had been a subsidized mirage of profligate government spending.”
    Again, ossification is what you would expect not from democracy, but from a system in which power is divided up among elites who then try to hang onto their power without promoting genuine democratic transformation. And even this compromise was really based upon oil-generated wealth which, when drastically curtailed, unravels the deal. Daremblum writes about what happens next: “In 1989, when an austerity package suddenly doubled the price of transportation, the poorest Venezuelans descended from their shantytowns surrounding Caracas to protest, to riot, and to burn. The destructive rage of the poor was such that President Carlos Andres Perez declared a state of emergency and called on the army to get the situation under ocntrol. After three days of violence and repression, all memory of Saudi Venezuela was gone. To this day it is unknown how many people died during the Caracas riots: the official figure is around three hundred, while other sources cite numbers in the thousands. What is clear is that if the riots revealed the depth of dissatisfaction and political alienation in the lowest classes of society, the government’s repressive reaction displayed its unwillingness to deal respectfully and inclusively with the dissafected.”
    Well, what would you expect from a ‘democratic’ form of government? It is, of course, when things reach a crisis that the truly anti-democratic nature of the regime shows itself. Presumably, the ‘poorest Venezuelans descending from their shantytowns’ weren’t a party to the original ‘oasis of democratic rule’.
    Now enter Hugo Chavez. Daremblum writes: “During the campaign of 1998, while the establishment political candidates struggled to find a language to communicate with the dissatisfied public and the independent politicians talked merely of reform….the cornerstone of Chavez’s campaign was to rally Venezuela’s poor–a staggering two-thirds of the population–into a powerful political force….The one thing that can be said with certainty is that Chavez has delivered on his campaign promises. In the four years since he took office, he has dismantled the state, called a constitutional assembly, ratified a new constitution, created the Fifth Republic, and been re-elected as president under the new legal order….[However] there is a novel aspect of the Chavez phenomenon that is more disturbing, because it is mroe of a piece with his post-totalitarian time: the demoratic-messianic thrust of his ideas. The present Venezuelan conflict should not be viewed as a simple re-framing of the left-right confrontation in Latin America, as another episode of Latin American revolution and reaction, but as a more consequential and remarkable political contest about the meaning of democracy in the twenty-first century. In this context, the clashing alternatives are democracy as a moderate system of government and democracy as a political form of redemption. Chavez preaches an eschatological construction of democracy. He is historically significant because he represents a particular pervision of the great contemporary enterprise of democratization.”
    Well, we’ve already seen that Daremblum’s notion of democracy, now referred to by her as a ‘moderate system of government’ was, in its previous ‘oasis’ manifestation in Venezuela, no democracy at all. So what is this ‘redemptive’ form of democracy that Daremblum characterizes as a ‘perversion’ of democratization? She writes: “Bolivarianism is Chavez’s innovation in political ideology, his personal ideological pastiche. He cobbled it together from the tought of three important figures in Latin American history: Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez, and Ezequiel Zamora….Bolivar held equality to be the foremost right of citizens, and he believed, following Rousseau, that this right could be realized only by means of political participation. But Bolivar also worried that the people who lived in these newly independent countries lacked civic virtue, an essential element for a well-functioning participatory soverign. To address this weakness, Bolivar assigned to an active and paternalistic state the burden of educating ‘the people’ and forming them into ‘citizens’….By establishing instruments of direct democracy such as popular legislative initiatives, consultative and revocatory referendums, and people’s assemblies, the new constitution claims to surpass the flimsiness of representative democracy by supplanting it with what Chavez calls a ‘protagonist’ system, or democracia protagonica. This virtually unmediated connection between leader and nation is further strengthened by the constitution’s streamlining of legislative power (the bicameral system was supplanted by the unicameral National Assembly- and its concentration of presidential power (the presidential term is now six years instead of five, and immediate re-election is permitted)….This constant exercise in street democarcy has turned Venezuela into what can only be described as a hyper-democracy, a state in which political passions rule and neither side seems capable of offering responsible solutions. Venezuela is in a terrible political crisis, but it is not a crisis of democratic shortage, it is a crisis of democratic excess. The country is living out a political experiment in which a messianic conception of democray has been put into effect through the legal order, and in which the popular classes, now convinced that political participation means salvation, rule directly with and through the president, circumventing all other institutions except perhaps the military….So what is to be done? How can anyone convince a people who have ocme to conceive of democracy as nothing less than redemption that there are more moderate conceptions of politics that are genuinely democratic?”
    Of course, Daremblum never specifes what this more moderate version of democratization is. We have already seen that the representative model, the one that produced her ‘oasis of democracy’ wasn’t at all democratic–it left out the poor, who wound up being two-thirds of the whole country, while the elites distributed power and wealth among themselves. If democracy leaves everything as it is, count me out. The truth is that we need democracy to be redemptive because democracy is without value if it leaves everything as it is–the poor remain poor, the many remain ignorant, and stability is always ultimatley followed by crisis.
    I agree that we shouldn’t judge the quality of the regime merely on the basis of its economic policies without regard to human rights and liberties, even if it is following a more egalitarian economic path. But we should also be mindful of how difficult it must be to get the balance right when the goal is effective democracy in what continues to be a hostile international environment dominated by the well-developed forces of capital.

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