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Democratization in Venezuela and Brazil


International politics have significantly influenced the evolution of different political systems in individual countries. At the dawn of the 20th century, nations across the globe have adopted the democratic system which has been seen as the most viable governance system. This is because democracy facilitates the participation of the common citizens in the decision-making process. In the contemporary political worlds, democracy has been viewed as a symbol of modernization. It is worth mentioning that democratization is more than just a transition to democracy; it also involves the consolidation of democratic principles. In Latin America, the transition to democracy provides unique scenarios. This is because the democratization process has two transitions; the first being the ejection of the previous dictatorial regime and the implementation of democracy and the second being the consolidation of democracy. Focusing on Brazil and Venezuela, the democratization process in Latin America will be outlined.

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Democratization in Brazil

Democratization in Brazil has been quite an arduous process. In the 19th century, Brazil gained independence and was under a monarchy that created political stability in the country for some time before the 20th century when democratic and industrial revolutions became widespread. In 1930, the first democratization attempt in Brazil was made whereby electoral democracy was practiced (Francisco Vida Luna and Herbert S. Klein, Brazil Since 1980: The World Since 1980, p. 9). Getulio Dornelles Vargas became the first elected president of the country, but soon after ascending into power, he established a dictatorial government with the claim that he was protecting the country from external invasion (Francisco and Herbert, p. 9). What followed after Vargas left office was an alternating political system between democracy and dictatorship. However, in 1946, a new democratic constitution was implemented although it did not do away with the centralized form of governance that was used during Vargas’ term (Francisco and Herbert, p. 11).

The second phase of democratization in Brazil was between 1950s and 1970s, which like the first phase, was characterized by a struggle among oligarchy, powerful political leaders and the military. The United States through its military and navy played a crucial role in this period. It provided both military and naval aid to the oligarchy and the military in the fight against influential political leaders who were advocating for communist regimes. The United States was only interested in preventing a communist regime in Brazil for both political and economic reasons. Politically, the U.S. was preventing the influence of Germany in Latin America. Economically, it wanted to develop a capitalist economy in the region.

Democratization entered its third phase in Brazil between 1964 and 1985, a period which saw the longest dictatorial governance after the U.S assisted military coup of 1964 that put Jao Goulart in power (Francisco and Herbert, p.19). Efforts of democratization were witnessed when urban terrorist movements and rural guerrilla groups were formed with the aim of fighting the oppressive regime especially during the Arthur Costa e Silva’s military government (Francisco and Herbert, p. 19). Generally, the first three phases of democratization (between 1889 and 1970s) in Brazil were characterized by authoritarian rule where democracy was limited; fragmented political party system; and military coups and interventions.

Re-democratization efforts in Brazil emerged during the global ‘Third Wave’ of democracy when third World countries were fighting for democracy. The role of civil societies during this fourth phase of Brazil’s democratization process was and still is quite remarkable. Apart from assisting in development projects, civil society in Brazil has profoundly influenced the implementation of democratic norms and practices across the country (Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Patrick Heller and Marcelo Kunrath Silva, “Making Space for Civil Society: Institutional Reforms and Local Democracy in Brazil,” Social Forces 86, no. 3, p. 912).

It is worth noting that the democratization process in Brazil during this period was faced by both domestic and international forces. Relying on Francisco and Herbert (p. 27), conservative military leaders as well as external interference from economic-interested parties such as the U.S. slowed down the democratization process of Brazil. This happened during the regime of General Ernesto Geisel who had embarked on re-democratizing the country.

Through civil society organizations and political parties, the public was engaged in demonstrations demanding political rights as well as the re-institution of the election process. The political party system of Brazil was restored and led to the election of Trancredo Neves as president in 1985 through his Democratic Alliance (Alianca Democratica). After Neves’s death, his vice president, Jose Sarney became the president, who, through constitutional reforms consolidated the democratization process of the country (Francisco and Herbert, p. 27). Moreover, democratization in Brazil led to the rise of the country in the international limelight.

Generally, the constitutional reforms focused on restoring civil and public rights as well as decentralizing the government with the aim of empowering local and state authorities. Democracy consolidation through participatory democracy has also been developed by civil society. In Brazil, participatory democracy has been promoted primarily through participatory budgeting especially at the local government level (Gianpaolo, Patrick and Marcelo, p. 914). Democracy was further developed during President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s regime (1995-2002) which promoted autonomy through participation so as to fit in the international community (Hal Brands, Dilemmas of Brazilian Grand Strategy, p. 8).

However, the democratization process of Brazil since the early 1990s has been faced by both economic and political challenges that have slowed down the efforts of achieving a complete democracy. Economic challenges included inflation, large external debts, decreased industrial production and reduced exports. Politically, political leaders were accused of corruption thus leading to political instability. To counter these challenges, Fernando Collor de Mello’s government implemented the neo-liberal economic model that worked towards reducing inflation (Peter Calvocoressi, World Politics 1945-2000, p. 791).

Democratization in Venezuela

Unlike Brazil, Venezuela’s political system has been characterized by long periods of democratic rule since the establishment of a democratic system in 1958 (Daniel H. Levine, “The Decline and Fall of Democracy in Venezuela: Ten Thesis,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 21, no. 22, p. 248). Scholars observe that Venezuela’s democratic system was surprisingly resilient to enemy attacks from the right (where military coups and interventions were widespread) and the left (especially Cuba where guerrilla movements existed) (Daniel, p. 249). Moreover, scholars offer different opinions regarding the success of this democratic rule; some argue that it was because of the strong political party system that existed in the country whereas others argue that it was because of the development of a democratic public opinion (Daniel, p. 249). The democratic success in Venezuela has also been linked to the establishment of a political culture that supports mobilization and public involvement.

Political parties and civil society played a key role in sustaining the democratic system in Venezuela. These organizations mobilized professional, social and economic groups to participate in key decision making processes (Daniel, p. 249). In fact, civil society and other organizations such as trade unions restructured their internal structures and operations to suit the democratic interests of political parties.

Moreover, the democratic system of Venezuela was highly supported by the constitutional requirements of the country. For example, electoral laws empowered political parties such that influence from other groups including oligarchy was quite difficult. Additionally, civil rights such as the basic freedoms of speech, association and assembly were highly supported in this constitution.
However, the democratic system of Venezuela started to weaken in the early 1980s due to economic challenges. Relying on Daniel (p. 250) economic recession is quite harmful to a society that is reliant on an increasing rate of income and personal and social mobility, as well. In response to this economic crisis, civil society organizations including non-governmental organizations and neighborhood movements were formed. These groups were urging the government to address the existing economic and political challenges.

As the economic crisis escalated, so did the protests from organized groups. Military and civil society coups experienced in 1992 and 1993 and continued mismanagement of public resources further weakened the democratic system of Venezuela (Daniel, p. 251). The public was highly discontented with the performance of the government; corruption was rampant among government officials. Furthermore, political parties became monopolistic; public participation especially in elections declined; the ability of political parties to control their members and the public diminished, and more activist groups emerged to fight against the incompetent government. All of these led to the decline and eventual collapse of the democratic process in Venezuela.

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From the above discussion, it is clear that the democratization processes of Brazil and Venezuela differ to a large extent. Democratization in Brazil underwent four phases, which were slowed down by both political and economic challenges. This process was progressive since the country was transformed from an authoritarian rule to democratic governance. On the contrary, the democratization process of Venezuela is regressive. This is to say that the form of governance is changing from democracy to dictatorship. The above discussion also provides key insights into the democratization process. To begin with, economic recession is a key determining factor in the success of a democracy. In other words, economic crisis negatively affects democracy in a country as it leads to instability which in turn weakens the democratic system. Secondly, political stability also strengthens a democracy; powerful political parties consolidate democracy. Finally, civil society and other movements play a key role in the democratization process. On one hand, they can strengthen democracy if the public opinion is in support of the government while, on the other hand, they can weaken a democracy if the government is mismanaged.

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