Un “Hail Mary” criollo

512px-University_of_Notre_Dame's_Hesburgh_Library

On Monday, the head of the Consejo Nacional Electoral in Venezuela, Tibisay Lucena, finally announced that December 6th as the date for this year’s parliamentary election after months of delays. While the CNE delayed its announcement over the past few months, many of the rumors that sprung up had implied that the election would occur much earlier than that–September of October being the most commonly speculated–and as such, the later date has inspired a new round of speculation. Most obviously, December 6th is the same date that Hugo Chávez was elected way back in 1998. This will certainly be a point of emphasis in the chavista campaign as it tries to overcome what is likely to still be an economy in crisis (a music video campaign ad for PSUV released this week prominently features Daniela Cabello–the daughter of Diosdado–and mentions Chávez repeatedly without a single reference of any sort to Nicolás Maduro).

While I think the symbolism of the date is important, and definitely not a coincidence, the more important factor is that the date is about as far back as they could reasonably push it back while still promising an election this year and this illustrates an important tension for the government. On the one hand, barring some sort of miracle, PSUV seems bound to lose any passably fair election by a landslide, thereby losing control of the National Assembly, which could actually become a real check on executive power. So the government has every incentive to not risk an election. On the other hand, chavismo, for all its obviously authoritarian behaviors, still tries to maintain the veneer of being a democracy. This has allowed the region’s leaders to ignore many of the worst abuses in the country (and even to make excuses for them). When the government won every election, this wasn’t an issue. Chavez could always claim electoral legitimacy, even as he decimated the country’s democratic institutions, and that was sufficient for a region that’s never been big on institutions anyway. Skipping an election altogether is something brazen enough that countries like Brazil and Chile would no longer be able to turn a blind eye to the democratic breakdown, yet winning an election is nearly impossible without the kind of massive fraud that would bring a similar opprobrium on the government.

Pushing the elections back is essentially a Hail Mary play for the government. They know they have to have an election this year, or they might start facing external pressure from governments they can’t easily label as fascist. But they also know they can’t win an election this year the way things are going. So the fallback plan is to push the elections as far into the future as possible and hope to raise enough money to inject into the economy to at least slow the economy’s contraction, all while hoping that oil prices recover. This, combined with what will likely be more blatant violations of election laws and quite a bit of voter intimidation as well as outright fraud might be enough to keep the election close enough that the gerrymandering that gives chavista areas more representation will keep the election close enough to maintain a majority.

Is this likely to work? Probably not.

Venezuela’s options for raising money at this point are very limited. While the Chinese did recently sign an agreement for $5 billion in new investments in Venezuela, it appears that there are restrictions on how that money can be used. Moreover, the headline figures announced compared the actual investments often differ dramatically. Beyond that, the government is limited to selling off some refineries and allowing PetroCaibe countries to pay off debts at a discount, but these are all one-off injections that are relatively small compared to the money being hemorrhaged as a consequence the economy’s cornucopia of economic distortions and will make the country’s finances even more dire afterward than they are now. Oil prices could recover, of course. But the general consensus is that prices will remain in the $60-80 range for the next year at least, so it would likely require some sort of supply shock like a war to really push prices up in the next 6 months.

The one saving grace for the government, is that the only body that will be allowed to monitor the elections in any way will be Unasur, which has hardly shown itself willing to criticize even the government’s most blatant democratic violations. This is further buoyed by the fact that they will not be doing a formal election observation mission, but rather an accompaniment, which is confined to the day of the elections and is largely ceremonial. Safe to say, there will be a lot of room for electoral jiggery-pockery. The question is how much will be necessary to tip the scales of the election compared to the amount that will be too much even for Unasur (and especially Brazil).

Like most Hail Mary attempts, this one seems very likely to fail. But when they succeed:

Of course, I’ve heard that October and November are prime impossibly stupid and unrealistic coup plot-discovering season…

Venezuela, the OAS and the planned obsolescence of democracy promotion

As the democratic situation in Venezuela has deteriorated over the past decade and a half, the Organization of American States (OAS), as the premier multilateral organization in the region, has been harshly criticized by many for not doing more to combat chavismo’s assault on the country’s institutions. No doubt, the OAS has failed to play much of a role since the stillborn mesa de diálogo following the 2002 coup that briefly removed Hugo Chávez from power. Critics question why the OAS hasn’t invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter in response to the clear democratic breakdown that has occurred. The answer is less fecklessness or a tacit approval of chavismo by many in the OAS, rather it is a consequence of the two fundamental flaws that were built into the OAS and the Inter-American system; that the OAS is a multilateral organization that won’t infringe on its member states’ sovereignty, and that the Inter-American democratic system is accessible only by the executive branch.

Fundamentally, multilateral organizations function by member states agreeing to mutually cede a degree of sovereignty in order to facilitate action on a given topic. For various historical reasons, Latin American states are uniquely jealous of their sovereignty, and as such, the institutions that make up the OAS lack any sort of mechanisms to oblige member states to abide by the agreements reached. As long as every member state participates, this isn’t a problem, but it makes the OAS very ineffective in dealing with any situation where there isn’t unanimous agreement by its members. Member states can refuse to live up to its obligations as defined by the treaties that compromise the OAS, without experiencing any major consequences.

This combines with the executive-centric nature of all of the institutions in the Inter-American system save for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Partially as a legacy of the traditional executive-led nature of diplomacy, and partially by design, the OAS permanent council and the Inter-American Democratic Charter are all the exclusive domain of the executive. That means, for example, that the Venezuelan congress has no authority petition for a meeting of the Permanent Council over undemocratic actions by Nicolás Maduro and his goverment. Originally, this didn’t matter much, since the democratic breakdowns of the 50s, 60s and 70s almost always started with the overthrow of the executive–usually by the military–before the other democratic institutions were dismantled by the de facto government. In essence, protecting the executive was effectively the same as protecting democracy.

Looking at the successes the OAS has had in dealing with democratic breakdowns, one can clearly see the way these institutions are effective at dealing with threats to democratically-elected executives. When presidents were overthrown, or there were legitimate threats to sitting presidents, the system was reasonably effective. However, when the presdient has been responsible for the breakdown in the democratic system, the OAS has been very slow to respond, if at all. For instance, Alberto Fujimori was able to launch an autogolpe in which he dissolved the congress and judiciary, yet remained a member in good standing of the OAS. It wasn’t until Fujimori was credibly accused of rigging an election that the OAS’ member states forcefully moved to address the situation.

A similar thing is occurring now in Venezuela. The executive branch, first with Chávez and now Maduro, has totally dismembered the democratic institutions, yet the OAS has done virutually nothing. Some member states have made noises expressing concern, but not enough to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter and since only the executive can petition, no one representing Venezuela has been able to force the issue. Because of the premium placed on respecting state sovereignty, the General Secretariat has no authority to punish Venezuela and, for a variety of reasons, no majority of member states exists willing to push the issue.

Alberto Lleras Camargo, the first secretary general is supposed to have remarked that the OAS would be whatever its member states wanted it to be. While each milestone that accompanied the development of the Inter-American democratic system since 1989 featured lofty talk of protecting and nurturing democratic ideals, there was never any impetus to do more than protect sitting presidents while protecting state sovereignty. Chavismo’s descent into outright authoritarianism, in that sense, is not a failure of those entrusted with protect Latin America’s democracy. Instead it is the embodiment of the type of democratic breakdown that the Inter-American was explicitly designed not to prevent. Lleras Camargo had a point, unfortunately.

El Niño maldito

In the past two days, I have seen two interesting pieces about the possibility of an El Niño event occurring later this year. The first, from Vox, is about how the consensus is moving toward the likelihood that it may prove to be the strongest El Niño since 1997-98. The other is a short article about how Colombia is preemptively reducing its natural gas sales to Venezuela to ensure sufficient domestic availability in the event that hydro generation falls due to dryer weather. For Venezuelans, these are inauspicious pieces of news considering the near catastrophic effect the most recent El Niño had on the country’s energy production and the even more fragile state the entire country finds itself this year.

source: Wikipidea

source: Wikipidea

Though the last El Niño event in 2009-10 was fairly strong, it was weaker than the one predicted this year. Nevertheless, it led to a major drought in the northern Andes, especially in Venezuela. Water levels at the Guri Dam, which accounts for as much as a third of Venezuela’s domestic energy production fell within a few feet of the minimum threshold for generation. The near collapse of the energy generation matrix forced the government to take emergency actions. Some of these were standard, if drastic, such as instituting rolling brown and blackouts. Others were more outlandish, including exhorting the values of a three minute “communist shower” and bombing clouds to stimulate rain. This all coincided with the first time during his post-coup presidency that Chávez’s approval rating fell below 50 percent.

Although Chávez liked to claim that the crisis was solely reflective of the El Niño-affected drought, the effects in 2010 were so severe in Venezuela compared to other, similarly affected nations due to a lack of investment in the country’s generation capacity. The government had promised significant investments but little of the money ever actually was spent and capacity grew far more slowly than consumption. During the crisis, the government set a goal of installing 6GW of new capacity—more than had been installed in the entire chavista era until that point. It installed enough capacity to keep the energy matrix from collapsing, but does not appear to have met that goal. The crisis did serve as a catalyst for thawing Venezuelan-Colombian relations as Venezuela had to negotiate with Colombia to buy natural gas to power the new capacity, something that will apparently be more difficult this year.

chartIn the time since, blackouts have become common all across the country, even as the acute crisis has faded into the distance. Moreover, the government has proven, if anything, to be even less competent at coordinating mass investments than it was four years ago, even before a now-two month-old wave of protests put the government on the defensive. This makes the threat of a severe El Niño particularly salient, since they are usually associated with warmer and dryer than normal weather. The government is weak and widely viewed as incapable of handling the myriad of problems already affecting the country. A comparatively mild El Niño-driven dry spell could have the same type of effect on electricity generation that happened in 2010.

The question for Nicolás Maduro is if he can withstand yet another force pushing down the quality of life of the average Venezuelan.

Too poor to dissent, but not poor enough to revolt

A shocking, but not really all that shocking revelation yesterday from Venezuelan education minister Hector Rodríguez that chavismo does not want its supporters to become too wealthy because then they might turn into escuálidos—a common pejorative term used by chavistas to describe its middle- and upper-class opponents. Over at Caracas Chronicles Gustavo Hernández Acevedo has a good post exploring it from the perspective of the fundamental dissonance between preaching socialism while giving away free washing machines and how the movement now lacks the same charisma as Chávez to rhetorically paper over that problem. Hernández Acevedo is certainly correct but I think he gives chavismo too much credit for its actual devotion to socialism and misses how important the power dynamic Rodríguez is describing is, and the challenge that dynamic poses to chavismo going forward.

However devoted to the socialist cause Hugo Chávez may have been at some point in his life, he and his movement long abandoned any real pretense of building socialism in Venezuela in favor of more traditional Latin American-style corporatist populism. This populism is built on the premise of power and whatever rhetorical justifications it gives itself are little more than window dressings. Populism’s power is built and maintained through cooptation of certain groups—typically large but economically and politically marginalized groups—through policies designed essentially to buy that group’s loyalty. In Venezuela it started in a defensible fashion, with the early misiones at least ostensibly providing services that would improve the long-term productivity of the country, like improving healthcare access and eliminating illiteracy. Over time these morphed into crude giveaways like the washing machines Hernández Acevdo alludes to, but the basic principle behind them was always the same; buy loyalty through small, material improvements to people’s lives, all draped in the rhetoric of socialism.

What Rodríguez’s comments show, beyond a clear contempt for both free choice and the people his movement claims to be helping, is that chavismo is running up against the limit of its own sustainability. From a power perspective, Rodríguez is probably right. Corporatist structures tend to break down as societies become more middle class because middle class interests become more diverse and because middle class citizens tend to care more about transparency and accountability of government rather than just results in their own lives alone. At the same time, however, corporatist structures also tend to break down once the populist government loses its ability to continue improving the lives of its support base.

In Argentina, peronismo had the fortune of being removed from power before it fully ran up against that barrier in the 50s and then was out of power during both the hyperinflation crisis of the 80s and the meltdown of the early 2000s, allowing it to cast blame elsewhere. In Venezuela, however, chavismo remains in power and sits stuck between a metaphorical rock and hard place. It doesn’t want to improve people’s lives too much lest it lose their unwavering support as in Rodríguez’s formulation. But it also has to continue improving their lives on the margin to maintain their continued support a difficult. This balancing act has become all the more difficult now that the state is running out of money to shower on its base and the economy grinds to a halt.

Si fuera tan fácil…

Even Maduro knows better.

Even Maduro knows better.

Now that the municipal elections are over and Venezuela faces an unprecedented-during-the-Chavez-era period of at least 18 months without an election, speculation is mounting that Nicolás Maduro will use the relative freedom of action that gives him to make some politically difficult, but economically necessary reforms. On Tuesday of last week, the Hugo Chávez’s former planning minister Felipe Pérez Martí wrote a guest blog post on the Financial Times beyondbrics blog exhorting the need for reforms to avert a crisis and outlining a series of more or less orthodox macroeconomic reforms that Maduro should take. Francisco Toro was very critical of the post, arguing that his reforms essentially amount to suggesting that Maduro could solve the problems afflicting chavismo and save it with just a couple easy steps, with step one being: stop being a chavista. Then Mark Weisbrot responded to some of Pérez Martí’s criticism and bizarrely argued that monetary emission has nothing to do with Venezuela’s inflation—and argues that that type of monetarism is some sort of fringe ideology on the right—meaning that it’s all a result of the exchange rate controls which could easily be fixed.

There’s a lot to dissect in all of this, but Pérez Martí is absolutely right that Maduro will need to address the macroeconomic distortions he identifies if Venezuela is to avoid a severe crisis and that they will likely take a form similar to what he outlines. However, Toro’s critique is salient. Hugo Chávez dedicated a lot of political discourse toward critiquing neoliberalism and establishing his political ideology as being in opposition to neoliberalism. Pérez Martí is ingenuously suggesting that Maduro adopt a set of reforms that would, in essence, amount to a neoliberal adjustment similar to the paquetazo in 1989 that sparked the Caracazo riots and galvanized Hugo Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt.

As Toro points out, and as I’ve argued multiple times on this blog, when you build your entire political economy in opposition to orthodox economic policy, once that political economy stops working, you’re left with very few politically tenable options. That’s how you end up with the mess that is Venezuela’s political economy. The solutions may seem simple—end currency controls, reform the tax code, stop monetizing the deficit—but untangling the mess leads to further economic dislocations that upset the pueblo and requires adopting policies that alienate your ideological base. That’s hardly the type of advice a weak leader staring down an economic crisis wants to take.

That makes Weisbrot’s response to Pérez Martí all the more bizarre. As usual, he tears down the straw man that the whole world has been predicting collapse since day one, because a fringe that has always argued that the government was on the precipice proves that people who look at 50 percent (and rising) inflation, 20 percent scarcity, and an unknown quantity of largely illiquid reserves now are just the same scare-mongers from before. After that, he goes on to say that “the most urgent problems can be fixed with a change in the exchange rate regime.” This is because, in his view, the monetization of the deficit and the accompanying huge increase in the money supply has nothing to do with Venezuela’s inflation problems.* Even accepting his (wrong) assertion about the monetary expansion, his blithe confidence in the efficacy of an exchange rate shift to solve Venezuela’s problems doesn’t stand up to simple scrutiny.

Put simply, if all it would take for Maduro to control Venezuela’s accelerating inflation was a simple tweak to the exchange rate regime, the government would already have done it. The idea that the government would tolerate 50 percent inflation in the lead up to an important election and then adopt radical price control measures when all it has to do is adjust the exchange rate regime is ludicrous. The only way Weisbrot can mean this that makes any sense is if he literally means the process of adjusting the exchange rate system would be something the government could just do—that would just require publishing a decree in the Gaceta declaring an end to the currency controls. The actual adjustment, however, would be hugely disruptive. The gap between the official rate and the black market rate is running near 1,000 percent, and even assuming there is a significant transaction cost premium in the black market price, that’s still a potentially catastrophic adjustment that would almost surely trigger a spike in inflation and a collapse in real incomes. Venezuela could try (as it certainly appears to be) to ease down the gap through a series of microdevaluations, but that runs a severe risk of depleting the reserves, triggering a sudden adjustment once the government is forced to abandon the crawling peg (think Argentina in 2002).

Venezuela is going to go through a painful adjustment eventually. The economy is simply too distorted in too many different ways to gently untangle the mess without causing a lot of short term pain. While the reforms are simple to describe, they will not be simple to implement and that fact explains why Madurocontinues to address the problems by creating more controls rather than just making the needed reforms—though there is some evidence that he really believes the crazy things he says.

* Weisbrot’s dismissal of the effect of monetary policy on inflation reads like someone who is completely unaware the 70s happened in the West or the 80s and early 90s in Latin America. Most mainstream economists, not just Republicans and Libertarians, have incorporated the importance of the money supply to inflation into their models (unless Paul Krugman counts as a right-leaning economist now). Moreover, his argument that since quantitative easing hasn’t caused inflation in the US that monetary emission can’t be causing inflation in Venezuela completely misses the fact that in the US is in a liquidity trap; a situation that most certainly doesn’t describe Venezuela.

Deep Scars: Bolivia, Venezuela and the Effect of Crisis

After an embarrassingly long time, I finally finished reading Globalization and Austerity Politics in Latin America by Stephen B Kaplan, who was one of my favorite professors in grad school and also my boss for a year. This happened to (roughly) coincide with a fantastic blog post by Omar Zambrano comparing a similar “País X” with Venezuela. The two countries share a number of common characteristics. For instance, both depend heavily on natural resources for export earnings and government funding. Both countries also have heavy state involvement in the economy and both have benefitted enormously from the period of high commodity prices since 2002. However País X runs fiscal surpluses, has stable inflation, consistent high growth, no shortages and no capital controls. The big reveal is that País X is Bolivia, the ideological compatriot of Venezuela and one of the “bad children” of Latin America of the 21st Century.

I mention Zambrano’s post because he hypothesizes that a way to explain the divergence between Venezuela and Bolivia is that Bolivia experienced a severe economic crisis in the 1980s that resulted in hyperinflation and a massive economic dislocation. Essentially, he hypothesizes that Bolivia follows more conventional macro policies because even revolutionaries in Bolivia understand the consequences of bad macro policies. Venezuela, by contrast, has never had an economic crisis on the level of many Latin American countries, and therefore lacks the institutional checks that restrain even Evo Morales.

It turns out that Zambrano’s speculation happens to be the topic of Kaplan’s book and appears to be borne out by the statistical evidence. Kaplan argues that severe economic crises, particularly inflationary episodes (defined as 100% annual inflation) leave a lasting influence on how policy makers behave. Whereas traditional political economic theory postulates that politicians will attempt to use looser fiscal and monetary policy to encourage employment growth in the run up to an election, Kaplan hypothesizes politicians in countries that have experience inflation crises will actually behave in the opposite way; enacting policies designed to rein in inflation, even at the expense of jobs and growth. Furthermore, countries with high bond market exposure will behave even more conservatively, fearing that bondholders might become skittish at any sign of reckless fiscal behavior and begin selling off, triggering a sudden stop crisis.

Kaplan divides countries into four quadrants: those who have had inflationary episodes and those that haven’t and then those who have high exposure to bond markets and those who don’t. He hypothesizes that those who have both an inflation crisis and high bond exposure will behave most conservatively, while those without either will be the most spendthrift and those with an inflation crisis will be more conservative even without the pressure of bondholders. He runs a series of regressions that largely confirm the hypothesis, though with the slightly unexpected finding that left-leaning politicians in inflation-scarred countries are actually slightly more conservative in handling macroeconomic policy than right-leaning ones. He also includes several case studies to compare the empirical results with the specific motivations of the actors involved. His interviews with relevant policy makers essentially confirms that politicians are sensitive to the collective memory of inflation and perceive that voters prefer economic stability to rapid growth, as rapid growth is associated with eventual chaos and crisis.

This comes back to Zambrano’s post from before. When one looks back at Venezuela’s economic history there are plenty of missed opportunities and also some crises, but nothing of the magnitude of a country like Argentina or Brazil in the late 1980s or early 1990s, to say nothing of the catastrophe that struck Bolivia in the mid-1980s. If anything, Venezuela’s recent history of stagnant growth without any real shocks has made its citizenry willing to embrace an iconoclast willing to aggressively pursue growth the way that Hugo Chávez did. Bolivia experienced a similar period of economic stagnation that resulted in the election of a president who vociferously opposed neoliberal policy reforms. Bolivia, however, also experienced an inflationary episode in the mid-80s that ranks among the worst since the end of World War I. Consumer prices rose by 124% in 1982, 276% in 1983, 1,281% in 1984 and an incredible 11,750% in 1985. Since 1986, when inflation was *only* 276%, inflation has only topped 20% one time and has typically been below 10%, even in the years since Morales came to power and moved strongly away from the neoliberal camp.

Kaplan even quotes members of Morales’ economic team touting their sound macro management, something unimaginable in Venezuela, where inflation is treated (apparently seriously) as the result of speculation by greedy capitalists and not the natural byproduct of poor economic management that history and economic theory have shown it to be. Clearly, the episode in the 1980s was sufficient to temper even the most radical revolutionaries in Bolivia, much as similar—though smaller, if not necessarily less catastrophic—crises did in Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

Does this mean that Venezuelan politicians 20 years from now will be inflation hawks obsessed with sound fiscal and monetary management of their economies, perhaps even to the point of sacrificing safely obtainable economic growth? It’s obviously impossible to know, though there is plenty of reason to believe the current crisis will have a lasting effect on how Venezuelans perceive the political economy of their country. That said, inflation right now is *only* 50% (only half the rate Kaplan defines as an inflationary crisis), and while this clearly misstates the level of economic dislocation since it’s impossible to quantify the inflationary effect of scarcity, it’s also nowhere near the magnitude of the four crises I mentioned earlier. Nicolás Maduro could still implement some drastic measures to try to bring the economy out of its nosedive—or China and Japan could go to war over those stupid little islands the Senkakus and cause oil prices to spike—and forestall a truly horrific crisis that would have the kind of effect on the public and political class that Zambrano and Kaplan describe.

As of yet, there is little reason to believe, unfortunately, that things won’t get much worse in Venezuela before they begin to get better. Maduro truly seems to believe that sabotage, speculation and economic war against him, rather than the disastrous economic management of the past 14 years, are responsible for the current problems. However it plays out, I think the comparison between Bolivia and Venezuela and the factors affecting their behavior that Zambrano and Kaplan highlight are very important; crises have a prolonged effect on how politicians behave and what publics expect from them. I also think that Venezuela’s experience in the 1980s and 1990s is important to understanding the past 14 years as well. Perhaps if Venezuela’s decade and a half of economic malaise had been accompanied by a severe crisis chavismo would have governed with more restraint. However, the fact that Venezuela spent a decade and a half muddling through with declining real incomes and growing inequality is equally important because without that Hugo Chávez would never have been elected.

Decades of mediocre to bad economic management in Venezuela begot chavismo just as it did in Bolivia with Evo Morales. That even worse economic management before means that Morales governs better than the chavistas is an indictment of Latin American politicians in general, who have almost uniformly failed to deliver economic growth to their countries and have created openings for reckless—as opposed to just bad—governments to emerge.

When in Caracas, don’t act like those in charge

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.