Democracy is a national political system characterized by free and open elections with relatively low barriers to participation, genuine competition and protection of civil liberties. In order to maintain democracy, several phases are involved including inauguration, consolidation and transformation to maturity. For democratization to take place there has to be creation, nurturance and spread of more social relationships, norms of authority and leadership (Levine and Crisp 369). An authoritarian regime is where the state introduces autocratic practices while elections are being held. Due to the informal practices and rules that are stacked against the opposition, winning is hard in competitive authoritarian regimes. (Javier 122). Although many experts would not accept that Venezuela has become an autocracy, since Hugo Chavez became the president in December 1998, he has concentrated power, punished reporters and increased the state of control of the economy (Javier 33). This essay evaluates whether Chavez's efforts are strengthening or weakening the quality and nature of democracy in Venezuela.
Elections and Referendum
The electoral decline of Chavez's ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) in Venezuela is one of the most noticeable political trends. December 2006 was the peak when Chavez returned to office with nearly sixty three per cent of the vote. Since then, PSUV almost lost the December 2007 constitutional referendum and the opposition has installed five governors and high profile mayors as a result of voting in November 2008. There has also been a well-coordinated opposition coalition (the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática) and a small opposition party (Fatherland for All) that won the popular majority in the September 2010 elections for the National Assembly. There has been strong opposition despite PSUV retaining control over Venezuela's unicameral legislature with ninety eight out of one sixty five seats through mal-apportionment and a reduction in the number of seats by proportional representation (Javier 122).
PSUV has also been outvoted in eight states and the Capital District of Caracas in 2010 elections making it less competitive. The electoral coalition has both changed and shrunk making it more rural. In 2008, PSUV also lost ground in ten of the twelve states that had the highest population density. Therefore, the opposition is stronger in the industrialized and densely populated states. Due to poor economic management, PSUV has become less electorally competitive (Javier 125).
Mismanagement of the 2003-2008 oil booms by the government made the economy to deteriorate. Although the state has intervened in order to stabilize the prices, it is mostly about politics. The government has also put restrictions on businesses that are too high by world standards. According to the Worlds Bank domestic investment climate, Venezuela is near the bottom. This has created a lag in the private-sector employment and massive capital flight (Javier 125).
One of the economic policies involve the exchange rates where Chavez has imposed a complicated multiple exchange-rate system in order to contain inflation and capital flight. In early 2010, the Venezuelan currency was devalued and distorted leading to a more convoluted system due to the multiple exchange rates. A good example is when the ability to import food for thirty per cent of the real market price in combination with price controls destroyed incentives to produce food locally leading severe food shortages (Javier 126).
The actors that were speculating through the exchange regime found ways to shuffle goods back and forth. For example, in 2008, economic agents placed import orders for goods at one rate, imported the good at a different rate and sold them at a third rate. The profits were so high that the importers could not sell the imports locally. Due to the multiple exchange rate system, there were warehouses full of abandoned food and electricity generating gear when Venezuela had severe shortages and blackouts (Javier 126).
However, from 2004 - 2008, the rate of unemployment reduced and salaries increased therefore reducing the number of poor citizens. The earnings from oil exports financed the wage hikes, nationalization schemes and extension of credit to marginalized sectors. Social welfare programs in the areas of education, housing, health and nutrition have also been created (Hidalgo 81).Chavez has repeated old economic policies and introduced new economic ailments such as speeding up the takeovers by government and increasing them to a two hundred in 2010 from one hundred and thirty one in 2009. Some business elites locally known as boliburgueses have benefited largely from credits, state contracts and protections making them to support Chávez's coalition. This, in combination with the support from the rural area has allowed the ruling party to hang on to power (Javier 127).
Even though competitiveness in PSUV has declined, the Venezuelan government has not fully made the regime an authoritarian one due to unwanted international condemnation. Some democratic features have been maintained but on the many days that are not election days, the regime uses both legal and illegal measures to discriminate against the opposition. For example, President Chavez continues to spend money without accountability and using state resources to PSUV's advantage in violation of constitutional rules.
Chávez's government also produced corrupt citizens to run for office therefore contravening the law. The elected mayor of Greater Caracas was stripped off his administrative responsibilities by the National assembly in 2009 thus a blunt assault against democratic governance at the subnational level. The autonomy of the judges has also been undermined. For instance, in 2009, Judge María Lourdes Afiuni was arrested and imprisoned for three years for challenging the government's decision. This sent a signal to the Venezuelan judges that it is dangerous to cross the executive branch (Javier 127).
The existing laws have been applied unevenly and new laws have been enacted in a biased manner. An example is when Manuel Rosales, a former opposition presidential candidate and governor was accused of corruption forcing him to go to exile. Other opposition governors were also threatened of similar charges publicly. The six new pieces of legislation have been enacted since 2008 limit the freedom of association and gives powers to Chavista citizens' groups. In June 2010, Chavez passed a decree which created a Center for Situational Studies of the Nation that limits dissemination of information leading to public condemnation by the Human rights watch dog (Javier 129).
The government has also undermined democratic rights by penalizing citizens who criticize public officials. For instance, a former governor, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz was arrested for publicizing the ties between the government and guerrilla groups in Colombia. Autocratic legalism has also limited press freedom making RCTV to stop broadcasting and making Globovisión to be the only station that broadcasts news outside government control (Javier 130).
Recent presidential and constitutional referendum show that Venezuela is moving toward competitive authoritarianism with democratic rights being violated widely and systematically so that the opposition does not win the elections. Most of the failure by the opposition has been due to their own mistakes and failure such as the last minute decision to boycott the 2005 parliamentary elections. The opposition united and strongly committed to voting in the 2008 regional elections therefore boosting the citizen's confidence in the elections. The opposition had significant victories such as the mayoralty of the Caracas metropolitan area which had been in Chavista hands and Maracaibo which is the second largest city after Caracas. Three of chavista politicians, Jesse Chacón, Aristóbulo Istúriz and Diosdado Cabello were also defeated (Hidalgo 80 ).
System of political parties
Authoritarianism rose in a consistent pattern from 1999 to 2003 in Venezuela with the government targeting institutions and stripping them power one at a time. When the opposition would protest, the government responded by being more hard-line and exclusionary (Javier and Michael 100). The first conquest of Chávez since he took power in 1999 was to ensure that he has overwhelming control of the constituent Assembly. The basic law was rewritten and presidential term extended from five to six years with a possibility of re-election. The senate was eliminated and military promotions can be done by the president without legislative approval (Javier and Michael 101). The National Electoral Council (CNE) was being controlled by the executive branch therefore creating doubts on the fairness of electoral rule (Javier and Michael 102).
In 2001, Chávez wanted to take control of public education making the civil society organizations, labor groups and political parties to stage national protests including a two-day stoppage in December. In 2002, Pedro Carmona, a business leader staged a coup that removed power from Chávez briefly. When international mediation failed and Chávez refused to negotiate, the opposition organized a two month strike by the workers and managers from the oil state company. Chávez fired almost sixty per cent of the staff and ordered the military to take over the hydro-carbon industry (Javier and Michael 103).
In January 2003, Jimmy Carter, the former president of United States proposed an end to the national oil strike and an agreement between the opposition and administration on how to carry out a recall referendum constitutionally. This included a voting date as well as commitments by the concerned parties to accept international electoral supervision and human rights safeguards. Due to international pressure, an accord that merely acknowledged the right to petition for a recall referendum was finally reached in May, 2003. The accord mentioned Venezuela's commitment to nonviolence as well as accepting an offer from the Organization of American States (OAS) and United Nations Development Programme to furnish technical help (Jennifer 114).
However, a yes-or-no referendum is a poor prospect of solving the deeper issues that Venezuela faces. The government consolidated its power and pressed the Bolivian Revolution forward while the opposition had political messages that focused on removing Chávez rather than on grass root organization of winning trust and changing the accountability institutions. CNE purchased new state of the art touch screen voting machines that caused some worry due to the ability of manipulation by the officials. The CNE officials made matters worse by failing to coordinate with one another and solving disputes in public (Jennifer 117).
Hugo Chávez controls the National Electoral Council and PDVSA, the national oil company which provides most of the government revenues thus ensuring that the voting irregularities are overlooked. Spending of money from the state owned company is also done without accountability. There is also a new media law which allows supervision of the media content by the state and imprisonment of any citizen who is disrespectful to the government officials (Javier 34). The state has also publicized the list of voters and their political affiliations therefore creating reverse accountability and punishing citizens for political actions it disapproves. Venezuela is far from achieving democracy since it requires checks on the powers of the incumbent (Javier 35).
Although the opposition managed to collect 3.2 million signatures in February 2003 and 3.4 million in December 2003 for the presidential recall referendum, Chávez won the election because the poor love him. Chavez has addressed the spiritual and material needs of the poor Venezuela citizens which account for sixty per cent of the country's household. Most of the polls however indicate that at least thirty per cent of the poor do not support him. Therefore, Chávez has a competitive autocracy dictatorship that is enough to compete in elections but not overwhelm the opposition (Javier 35). Because the opposition of Chávez is too strong to be repressed and the international consequences would be prohibitive, he maintains a resemblance of democracy that requires him to out-smart the opposition (Javier 36).
Chávez populism does not benefit citizens according to need but rather according to political usefulness because his supporters receive unimaginable favours while detractors are insulted. Since Chávez is one of the most powerful CEOs with the world's most powerful business of selling oil to the U.S, he has plenty of resources from which he can dram from. Most of the expropriated lands will be allocated to the party activists and the military instead of the poor (Javier 37).
In conclusion, the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez has consolidated power within the National Assembly, national oil company, the military and Supreme Court. The government should be less defensive and act on behalf of the Venezuelans. The economy, politics and society of Venezuela has been influenced by oil making Chávez to increasingly become an authoritarian. Therefore, Chávez has no intentions of stepping down unless the opposition join forces and puts forward a strong candidate. President Hugo Chavez is weakening democracy in Venezuela by having a competitive autocratic regime that controls the economy without having any accountability and holding many referendums which he easily controls the results. Venezuelan citizens have also been hindered from participating in elections because their names and the parties to which they are inclined have been listed on internet.