Venezuela

The end of autocracy in Venezuela?

After living in an electoral autocracy for 18 years, Venezuela is now ready to revolt for democracy.

Protesters confront the police during opposition protests in Caracas, Venezuela on April 26, 2017 [ Miguel Gutierrez/EPA]

On the April 19, 1810, a revolution began that would lead towards Venezuela's declaration of independence on July 5 of the following year. Back then, most towns and cities joined in the euphoria of breaking the ties to the Spanish crown.

Last month, exactly 207 years after the start of the Venezuelan revolution, the country experienced yet another revolt. The main difference is that this time, dissatisfied Venezuelans - making up over 75 percent of the population - did not start an armed revolution to remove a foreign ruler from power, but rather set the stage for a new wave of mass protests seeking liberation from a regime that promised prosperity and welfare anew, but instead delivered the country's worst crisis since independence.

Why the protests?

It is impossible to summarise the catastrophic downturn that Venezuelans have suffered over the past decades. Today, the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world has 82 percent of its citizens living in poverty, suffering from chronic shortages of food, medicines and basic supplies. In fact, 80 percent of the population says they do not always have the money to buy food, and three out of four Venezuelans are dissatisfied with the healthcare system.

Almost the entire country believes that the economy is getting worse, while the IMF is predicting Venezuela's inflation to top the 2,000 percent mark next year. On top of that, Caracas is classified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. In 2015, it was declared the city with the highest homicide rates outside a declared warzone, with over 28,000 murders a year.

READ MORE: Venezuela's crisis explained

Some argue that it is hard to understand how Venezuela got to this point. Yet, the answer is quite simple. It is a regime question. A Churchillian view of politics reminds us that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others". Democracy is not a necessary condition for economic prosperity or even for political stability. Evidence from contemporary China, Singapore, Malaysia or some countries in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, shows that non-democratic regimes can be quite efficient in delivering public goods, economic progress or political stability. True though that may be, it is also true that these positive developments almost always come at the expense of check and balances, accountability, separation of powers, respect for human rights or opposition forces. Thus, was Churchill right? This is no easy question, but the Venezuelan case certainly demonstrates the risk of disregarding democratic processes. The transition from a democracy, to an electoral autocracy, to a regime that suspends all elections as of today, represents the origin of the country's current political, economic and social crisis.

Dismantling of democracy as a source of conflict

Over the past 18 years, Chavismo (Chavism) transformed Venezuela's political system by dismantling democratic institutions, pushing Venezuela towards electoral authoritarianism. This type of government combines elements of democracy and autocracy, which means that, while democratic institutions still exist, those institutions are entirely controlled by incumbents. The cooptation of parliament, the electoral body (CNE), the comptroller's office and the supreme court, just to name a few, has triggered an enduring political crisis by closing down any opportunities to challenge the government's failing policies and disastrous mismanagement of the economy. Government seizure of these institutions has all but closed off the chance to rectify the situation through democratic procedures, leaving Venezuelans' suffering with no clear end in sight.

After living in an electoral autocracy for 18 years, the nation has come to understand that while democracy might have many flaws, there are other types of government that are far worse.

Between 2000-2015, when Chavismo controlled parliament, this body turned into an authoritarian space. During this time, a number of authoritarian laws (PDF) were passed, including the 2004 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television, and Electronic Media, which curtailed freedom of expression; or the 2010 Law for the Defence of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination, which impeded Venezuelan NGOs and parties from receiving international assistance.

The National Electoral Council (CNE) has favoured incumbents countless times in electoral events. It has changed electoral rules arbitrarily, tolerated harassment of opponents, accepted unbalanced media coverage and financing.

The supreme court, in a dramatic display of judicial compromise, has not once ruled against the government in the 45,474 judgements it issued between 2005 and 2014. On March 30, it further advertised its authoritarian nature by dissolving parliament and assuming its duties. The comptroller's office has disqualified several high-profile opposition politicians from running for office, including Leopoldo Lopez, and most recently Henrique Capriles, making political competition practically impossible.

Lastly, Chavismo has coopted the state institution most key to securing its survival: the military. In recent years, Chavez and Maduro increased the military's share of power to contain threats from the opposition, which appears to be paying off. So far, the military has not turned against the regime, despite increasing popular discontent and pressure. Rather, it has increased its repressive tactics against protesting citizens over the past weeks. According to official figures, over the past 10 days alone, 1,289 citizens have been detained, 437 injured and 26 killed.

New spaces of contention

Chavismo has closed all national institutional spaces for dissidents, leaving them without any electoral mechanisms to pursue political change. It is also further closing down international spaces that could help in mitigating the crisis, as the recent withdrawal from the OAS indicates. Yet, the continuing mass protests suggest that dissatisfied citizens are creating new spaces of contention.

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This year, on April 19, the country entered into a new phase in the struggle for democracy. For the first time, opposition elites are truly united, despite their ideological differences. For the first time, over six million dissatisfied Venezuelans began to jointly call for very basic and very specific rights: their right to elect a new government, their right to have an independent supreme court, and their right to food and medicines.

Two hundred seven years after heroes such as Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Miranda initiated a revolution that would set the path towards unprecedented political change, the people of Venezuela are now fighting for their right to democratic governance. After living in an electoral autocracy for 18 years, the nation has come to understand that while democracy might have many flaws, there are other types of government that are far worse. 

Maryhen Jimenez Morales is a PhD candidate in politics at University of Oxford. Her works look at opposition parties in authoritarian regimes  in Latin America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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