Political Science The Path Toward Authoritarianism in Venezuela
by
Adriana Boersner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0286

Introduction

Venezuela formally democratized in 1958 after several political and social forces fought together against the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The evolution of this democracy was fast, partly due to the rapid economic growth and social mobility that prevailed as a result of oil wealth. In October 1958, three political parties, Acción Democrática, Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, and Unión Republicana Democrática, signed a political pact, commonly known as Punto Fijo. In this document, all political parties committed themselves to respect the results of the elections and establish a government of national unity with equitable representation of the political forces. In 1961 a new constitution consolidated the principles of the nascent representative democracy. However, over time, economic inequality, power centralism, and patronage relationships led the country to fall into an institutional crisis. After a strong devaluation of the national currency in 1983, a critical event known as Viernes Negro, and fiscal adjustments, the government proposed macroeconomic adjustments in 1989, including cuts in subsidies on domestic gasoline. This resulted in massive riots across the country. This episode is historically known as El Caracazo or El Sacudón. Amid the economic and social turmoil, a lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez and other military leaders launched a military coup in 1992. Although the coup was unsuccessful in removing the president from power, Chávez became known at the national level. After two years in prison and launching a political party, Hugo Chávez won the presidential election in 1998. The contemporary literature on Venezuelan politics is periodized, emphasizing the division between the pre- and post-Chávez periods. Much of the work analyzing Venezuela prior to 1998 focuses on specific issues such as the economy and oil rentierism, El Caracazo, and the characteristics of the party system. Contrary, initial accounts of Chávez’s government mostly highlight his charismatic leadership. Later works, especially after the year 2002, focus much more on the authoritarian features of Chávez regime related to, for example, autocratic legalism, the supremacy of one-party regime, the connections between the government of Venezuela and other nondemocratic leaders in the world, and attacks against media and the press. Although experts do not agree about what type of authoritarianism exists is Venezuela, or even if one can characterize the first years of Chávez’s rule as an authoritarian one, since 2013, with Nicolás Maduro as president, the authoritarian features of the Venezuelan political regime are more manifest than ever.

General Overview

Ever since Hugo Chávez came to power, scholars and policy experts have debated about whether the regime in Venezuela should be characterized as an authoritarian one. Some contend that the difficulty in defining Venezuela’s regime as an autocracy has more to do with the fact that, under Chávez’s rule, Venezuela had more elections than other countries in the region. Others question this argument because of the concentration of power in the hands of the president. Marcano and Barrera Tyszka 2007 demonstrates how Chávez simply centralized power and established absolute control over power. Ellner 2010 contends that during the first decade Hugo Chávez was in office, he made advances to embrace radical democracy rather than liberal democracy. However, other authors have reflected on the idea that the regime established patterns of actions that sabotage accountability to people (e.g., Glasius 2018). Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018 also attest that it was not until 2003 that Chávez started to show clear signs of authoritarianism, and that he consolidated his repressive regime in 2006. As a result, over time, political scientists have classified Venezuela as a competitive authoritarian regime (Levitsky and Loxton 2013), a personalized dictatorship (Geddes, et al. 2014), or a presidential democracy—at least until 2008 (Cheibub, et al. 2010). Martin 2017 addresses a series of strategies that allowed Hugo Chávez to remain in office for almost fourteen years. De la Torre 2017 discusses the regional dimension of Chávez’s leadership and the spread of competitive authoritarian rule. Mainwaring 2012 provides a general review of how Venezuela went from a representative democracy to a competitive authoritarian regime.

  • Cheibub, José Antonio, Jennifer Gandhi, and James Raymond Vreeland. “Democracy and Dictatorship Revisited.” Public Choice 143.1–2 (2010): 67–101.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11127-009-9491-2E-mail Citation »

    This piece addresses the measures of political regimes. Democracies are classified into parliamentary, semi-presidential, and presidential. Dictatorships are classified as military, civilian, and royal. Venezuela between 1999 and 2008 is considered a presidential democracy.

  • De la Torre, Carlos. “Hugo Chávez and the Diffusion of Bolivarianism.” Democratization 24.7 (2017): 1271–1288.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2017.1307825E-mail Citation »

    This piece addresses Chávez’s promotion of his ideals in the region of Latin America, and the strategies the Venezuelan leader implemented to concentrate power. Venezuela sponsored candidates in Latin America and leftist leaders in the region who emulated practices such as creating new constitutions, displacing traditional political parties, and centralizing control over the economy.

  • Ellner, Steve. “Hugo Chávez’s First Decade in Office: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings.” Latin American Perspectives 37.1 (2010): 77–96.

    DOI: 10.1177/0094582X09355429E-mail Citation »

    In this article, the author displays a balance of the first ten years of Chávez’s rule. He shows that two constant criteria in the literature to examine Venezuela under Chávez have been aspects of liberal democracy and radical democracy.

  • Geddes, Barbara, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz. “Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set.” Perspectives on Politics 12.2 (2014): 313–331.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592714000851E-mail Citation »

    Good introduction for undergraduates to understand different types of dictatorships. This article describes how the autocratic breakdown and regime data set addresses questions such as how regimes attain and exit power. According to this study, since 2006 Venezuela is classified as a personal dictatorship.

  • Glasius, Marlies. “What Authoritarianism Is . . . and Is Not: A Practice Perspective.” International Affairs 94.3 (2018): 515–533.

    DOI: 10.1093/ia/iiy060E-mail Citation »

    Glasius contends that measuring and characterizing authoritarian regimes requires more than just assessing the fairness of elections and analyzing what autocrats do once they take power.

  • Levitsky, Steven, and James Loxton. “Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes.” Democratization 20.1 (2013): 107–136.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.738864E-mail Citation »

    This article is a good resource for undergraduates to understand the comparative dimension of populist leaders in Latin America and their relationship with traditional institutions. It is argued that in weak democracies, the attack toward traditional institutions has led populists to establish competitive authoritarianism regimes like in the case of Venezuela.

  • Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown, 2018.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book explores how democratic breakdowns have been caused by elected leaders and not through violence. Authors propose four warning signs to help identify autocrats before they take power: leaders rejecting democratic rules, disproving the legitimacy of their opponents, expressing willingness to restrict civil liberties and press freedom, and encouraging violence. These signs have been seen in cases like Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Peru, and Turkey.

  • Mainwaring, Scott. “From Representative Democracy to Participatory Competitive Authoritarianism: Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 10.4 (2012): 955–967.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592712002629E-mail Citation »

    This review essay addresses three questions related to the path toward competitive authoritarianism in Venezuela. First, what explains the collapse of the classical political parties in Venezuela? Second, how should one categorize the regime led by Hugo Chavez? Third, what explains the erosion of democracy in Venezuela? The author answers these questions by examining the arguments and findings of five books on Venezuela.

  • Marcano, Cristina, and Alberto Barrera Tyszka. Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President. New York: Random House, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides rich details about Hugo Chávez’s public and private persona, his first contacts with Marxists ideas, his path toward power, and his condemnation of the United States, perceived as an imperialist power. The book shows insights taken from Chávez’s diaries and interviews to build a characterization of the Venezuelan leader and his political project. This book was published in English and Spanish.

  • Martin, Heather. “Coup‐Proofing and Beyond: The Regime‐Survival Strategies of Hugo Chávez.” Latin American Policy 8.2 (2017): 249–262.

    DOI: 10.1111/lamp.12130E-mail Citation »

    In this article, the author examines the rise of Hugo Chávez and his progressive authoritarian rule. Chávez’s political endurance in power is the result of a series of regime survival strategies such as developing loyal support, providing incentives, making changes to economic policy and the constitution, and elimination of presidential term limits. Oil revenues funded all these survival strategies.

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