Yesterday I attended an event at the Inter-American Dialogue entitled “What’s in Store for Venezuela?” that happened to coincide rather closely with the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) in Venezuela throwing out Henrique Carpiles’ lawsuits alleging fraud in the April 14th elections and then fining him for having the temerity file them in the first place. That the court threw out the lawsuits is hardly surprising, though the ferocity with which they did so perhaps is. I highlight this because both speakers, Javier Corrales of Amherst University and Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress, felt it was a positive sign that the opposition in Venezuela has not abandoned democratic politics, while fretting that other governments in the region were not committed to supporting democratic politics in the region. Meanwhile, Francisco Toro argues that the TSJ ruling marks the effective end to democratic politics under chavismo and that the future of the opposition depends on its ability to function in a non-democratic world. I actually agree with all three of them. The abject failure of the Inter-American system to stand up to the democratic erosion in Venezuela over the last decade and a half has left Venezuela’s democratic opposition totally isolated and empowered chavismo to become ever more openly autocratic.
As in any situation like this, the eventual solution will have to be domestic; no one can impose its will on Venezuela to force it to become more democratic. That said, Latin American governments have largely either tacitly approved of Venezuela’s democratic backsliding or actively encouraged or rewarded it. For example, Venezuela has been accepted into Mercosur thanks to Paraguay’s suspension as a result of impeaching its president in a hasty, but legal process. All of this happened during the middle of a presidential campaign in which the opposition was practically barred from the airwaves while Hugo Chávez abused his power to invoke cadenas to take over the airwaves for hours at a time to campaign. More tacit approval can be seen in the non-reaction of Latin American governments this January when the TSJ ruled that the legally mandated presidential inauguration could be postponed while Chávez was in Cuba receiving treatment for the cancer that eventually killed him. Similarly, when Chávez died and Nicolás Maduro inherited the presidency before the April 14th special elections, despite a clear constitutional mandate (article 233) that the temporary presidency pass to the head of the National Assembly, governments around the region said nothing. And these are just a few examples from the past year I could mention, notwithstanding the dozens of other instances.
Any criticism of how the Inter-American community has reacted to the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy must be tempered by acknowledging that the existing democracy promotion framework is overwhelmingly biased toward incumbent executives. Part of this is due to the fact that the impetus for developing the framework was the return to democracy of most of Latin America in the 1980s following two decades of near constant military intervention in countries across the region, mainly in the form of coups. Moreover, both within the Organization of American States (OAS) and in nearly every other regional grouping with a democratic mandate, it was executives who designed the mechanisms designed to protect democracy, and unsurprisingly, they designed mechanism that help protect incumbent executives much more than democratic systems of government as a whole. This means, for instance, that only the executive has authority to summon the OAS in the event of a constitutional breakdown. Hardly much of a safeguard against an over wielding executive.
It is therefore hardly surprising that leaders from around the region have been reluctant to embrace Venezuelan opposition forces, both National Assembly members and Capriles. Many presidents, both from the right, and more commonly in recent times, from the left, have looked to amass as much power as possible, often blurring the lines between the different branches of power in a way similar to what chavismo has done in Venezuela. The current status quo suits all current presidents quite nicely whereas embracing the Venezuelan opposition’s cause necessarily means upsetting that system and, potentially, exposing oneself to the risk that democracy promotion will mean protecting separation of powers and rule of law rather than incumbent presidents. Combined with the fact that a number of presidents in the region openly sympathize with the chavista government, or have significant constituencies within their governing (or, in Michelle Bachelet’s case, her campaign coalition) who do and the lack of response makes sense.
This leaves the opposition in Venezuela in a terrible place. On the one hand, they face a government that controls all the levers of power and is increasingly less restrained—either by arrogance, or more likely desperation—by any need to conceal its authoritarian tendencies, and therefore impervious to legal challenges. On the other hand, it receives minimal support from the region’s other governments, despite their professed commitment to democracy, leaving it with no means of legally coercing a change out of the chavista government via outside pressure. However, elevating a leadership more comfortable operating outside a democratic, legal framework, as Toro seems to suggest, risks winning the battle against chavismo at the expense of losing the war to save Venezuelan democracy. Those types of leaders might be effective at bringing down the chavista state, but are also the types of leaders disposed to becoming authoritarian once in power.
During the Q&A at the event yesterday, Javier Corrales was accused of being too optimistic by one of the attendees. I will confess, despite everything I have just written, I remain optimistic that the strategy Toro seems to have become resigned to will not be necessary. I am deeply pessimistic about the state of the Venezuelan economy, and bullish on the idea that oil prices are likely to stagnate over the next few years, which will, as Corrales mentioned, force the chavista government, which has heretofore relied on ever rising prices, to deal for the first time with the politics of economic adjustment. I do not believe that Maduro possesses the political talent to navigate that type of challenge, nor do I believe that Venezuela has the institutional capacity to do so. In short, despite lacking a legal avenue to challenge chavismo, the opposition may still be best suited to maintaining its current strategy because the chavista state is so fragile that it’s likely to collapse on itself in the face of any serious economic challenge. It’s a cynical type of optimism, but surely better than the alternative.