As a student of Latin American history, I vividly recall debating why the region’s governments collapsed into dictatorship time and time again. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay…yet Venezuela was largely absent from the conversation.
Maybe it was because the country seemed to have settled on a democratic system in 1958 after the people overthrew their “final” dictatorship, and avoided the mid-century military massacres their neighbors faced.
Or maybe it was the controversy surrounding President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution, loved by the Left and hated by the Right. And despite his clashes with the U.S., his approval rating remained high at home, due in part to a booming economy, which made him an unlikely harbinger for military rule.
The End of Venezuelan Democracy?
Flash forward to today, and Venezuela is a very different place. Plagued by record-high inflation, shortages of food and medical supplies, and violent protests, human rights have been suspended in favor of law and order. And although President Nicolás Maduro has slowly continued to erode democratic institutions since he took office in 2013, the once promising nation may officially revert back to authoritarian rule in 2017.
Exhibit A:In October 2016, Maduro cancelled a presidential recall referendum and postponed regional elections indefinitely. The country had already been declared under a state of emergency since January.
Exhibit B: On March 29, 2017, the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which is controlled by the executive branch, took over the National Assembly. While the ruling was reversed just days later, the separation of powers remains murky.
Exhibit C: On April 26, 2017, Venezuela announced it will leave the Organization of American States due to its criticism of Maduro’s expanding executive powers, which clash with its mission to promote democratic rule.
Exhibit D: On May 4, 2017, Maduro announced a decree to re-write the nation’s constitution, amid anti-government demonstrations. If his previous decrees are any indication, the re-writes will only serve to further cement his power.
Why Venezuela Matters
Democracies remain fragile throughout the region. Over the past two decades, elected leaders such as Evo Morales in Boliva, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and of course, Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have passed constitutional amendments to stay in power indefinitely.
Inspired by Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, leftist presidents have turned away from the U.S. and toward dictatorships such as Cuba. Now Venezuela is strengthening its ties to authoritarian regimes in Russia and China. Will Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua do the same?
What’s more alarming is that Venezuela has faced few consequences from the international community for its actions at home and abroad. A suspension from the regional trade bloc MERCOSUR has been demoted to a “cessation”, and Venezuela’s decision to leave the OAS has been met with support from Russia.
Yet a soft dictatorship is much more difficult to identify. A move against a democratically elected government could be viewed as a violation of sovereignty, leaving the international community in a tough position: facing criticism for intervening or for not intervening until it’s too late.
The Future of Venezuela
For now, the Maduro administration and the pro-democracy opposition party, Mesa de La Unidad (MUD), are locked in a cycle of protests, violence, and repression. MUD’s peaceful demonstrations continue to be met with military force, which only increases support for MUD and ignites more protests.
The future of Venezuela’s government remains uncertain. However, if the opposition can pressure the current administration into conceding to some of its demands, the country may begin to turn back toward a true democracy. And it may also serve as a warning for Latin American leaders who are following an authoritarian path.