Economic improvements could leverage a transition to democracy in Venezuela

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Since the assumption of power by Hugo Chávez Frías, after he won the elections in 1998, began in Venezuela a process of political changes framed under a new Constitution approved in the 1999 referendum.

By La Patilla – Pamela Toledo

Sep 12, 2022

With the promise that the country would move towards a “protagonistic and participatory” democracy much closer to the people. The late President Hugo Chávez captivated Venezuelans but what very few noticed was that Venezuela was really heading towards an authoritarian regime. This was revealed over the years.

From the point of view of Political Science, authoritarianism is a system of non-democratic government through which a person, an elite or a political party appropriates power. The characteristic feature of this form of government is that political rights and civil liberties are permanently restricted, which has been more than evident during two decades of the Chavista revolution.

The autocrat or dictator is the one who holds the supreme power of the State, he is the almighty. Sometimes that authoritarian “leader” allows a certain political pluralism, but in a very limited way, because what the autocrat is interested in is that those “supposed opposition actors” play the part that his regime that needs to disguise itself as democracy.

At we spoke with the Venezuelan professor and political scientist John Magdaleno, MSc in Political Science of the Simón Bolívar University, and who has to his credit a detailed and profound investigation on authoritarianism and transitions to democracy.

Could you describe to the audience of “La Patilla” ( what is authoritarianism and what is the main difference with democracy?

The most accepted definition in the international academic community is that of Professor Linz: “Authoritarianism is a regime of limited and non-responsible political pluralism -understood in the sense that it does not regularly attend to social demands-, and which often does not have an elaborate and propulsive ideology -this could be debatable in the Venezuelan case-, which promotes the depoliticization and demobilization of society, and in which a boss or a small group (the ruling elite or the “dominant coalition”) exercises power.

In short, it is a regime that prevents the full exercise of civil liberties and political rights inherent to democracy. Precisely here lies the main difference with the aforementioned political regime: democracy is the government of a limited majority, a political regime in which there are institutional and procedural guarantees for citizens to intervene in public affairs and, above all, for them to be those who define who makes collectively binding decisions. This is mandatory for society.

Do you consider that the Venezuelan regime is authoritarian?

Indeed, Venezuela is, in my opinion, an hegemonic authoritarianism, a type of authoritarianism in which violations of constitutional guarantees are severe.

What difference does authoritarianism have with other currents such as democracy?

In democracy there are institutional devices that guarantee political alternation. Authoritarian regimes are tremendously discretionary and arbitrary in the application or non-application of norms. They do not respect the principle of popular legitimacy typical of democracies. Its nature lies in the violation of this and other guarantees.

Can you give us some examples of authoritarian governments that have left their mark on world history?

So that readers can see it clearly through cases that are familiar  and close to them: Pinochet in Chile; the Videla, Viola, Galtieri and Franco quartet in Argentina; Velasco Alvarado in Perú; Francisco Franco in Spain and Perez Jimenez in Venezuela.

All these regimes are known as dictatorships, but the dictatorship, in truth, is just a subtype of the authoritarian regime. Just as the genus, species and subspecies are used to classify flora and fauna, there are also various “taxonomies” of political regimes.

The study of authoritarianism has become highly specialized in the last 30 years, so that the classifications and denominations have diversified.

Is it possible to make a transition from an authoritarian government to a democratic government and vice versa?

It is possible, of course. But the political transition is a very complex and uncertain process, at least until the “chaining of variables” appears that weakens the non-democratic regime (be it authoritarian or sultanistic, for example). Even when a political transition begins, it is not possible to know in advance what the final result of the conflict will be.

During the 20th century Venezuela experienced two episodes of transit to democracy, one failed and the other was successful. The failure began with the death of General Juan Vicente Gómez and the political succession that brought General López Contreras to the presidency, and unfortunately culminated in the coup against Gallegos in November 1948. The successful episode of transition to democracy began with the departure from power (and from Venezuela) of General Pérez Jiménez in January 1958, that ended in the presidential elections in which Rómulo Betancourt was legitimized. The approval of the Constitution of 1961 can be considered as the culmination point of the transition.

The V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has recorded 383 episodes of democratization between 1900 and 2019 in 164 countries around the world, 145 of which have been successful. The rest have been failures.

Venezuela experienced a transition to authoritarianism since Chavez came to power in 1999. Already in 2002 one could speak of the installation of a competitive authoritarianism in the country. And as of 2016, in my opinion, one can speak of the installation of a hegemonic authoritarianism.

What is the fundamental element or the most important variable to break an authoritarian regime?

Of the 145 successful episodes of democratization that have been recorded in recent history, a team of Venezuelan researchers have been most interested in those that have taken place after World War II: 120 cases.

Of these, we have studied 104 cases to date. In 81% of those cases, the critical variable that facilitated the start of the transition to democracy was the splitting of the dominant coalition, to use the expression of Prof. Leonardo Morlino, a leading Italian researcher, a disciple of Professors Giovanni Sartori and Juan Linz.

The fracture of the dominant coalition takes place when there are growing disagreements between the power factors that support the authoritarian regime until a certain moment. But this requires, of course, a series of internal and external pressures, as well as other factors that I will not detail here so as not to take too long.

How can economic improvements cement Maduro’s government in Venezuela?

Although it may seem counterintuitive, economic improvements tend to be a contributing factor in the medium term for a transition to democracy to take place. This was demonstrated in a 2000 investigation led by Przeworski, Álvarez, Cheibub, and Limongi: Democracy and Development.

The higher the per capita income, the greater the probability that a country will experience a transition to democracy, especially if the per capita income is between 4,000 and 7,000 dollars a year.

An economic improvement that benefits growing social sectors makes it possible to solve problems of collective action and, above all, facilitates the probability that those who oppose authoritarianism can organize, articulate and coordinate better.

I understand the concern underlying the question: an improvement in state income offers the main decision-makers of the Venezuelan authoritarian regime greater room for maneuver. But you have to analyze this carefully. With higher available state revenues, internal pressure could increase, given that the accumulated social demands are many.

The thesis that massive impoverishment and a precariousness of daily life help democratization is not true. Quite on the contrary. The empirical evidence of scientific research in this field – transitions to democracy – has strongly refuted this thesis.

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