Venezuela does not need another charismatic strongman

It needs strong institutions and the rule of law.

by
    National Assembly President Juan Guaido holds a copy of the Venezuelan constitution during a rally against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas on January 23, 2019 [Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins]
    National Assembly President Juan Guaido holds a copy of the Venezuelan constitution during a rally against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas on January 23, 2019 [Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins]

    Venezuela has had a long and mostly tragic history of suffering under strongman rule."Caudillismo", the system of personalised power and governance which the country has experienced for decades did not begin with Hugo Chavez. Its origin goes way back to the very moment the nation was born.

    The charismatic aristocrat Simon Bolivar, who fought the Spanish crown to get Venezuela its independence in 1821 and became its first president, set up the foundations of caudillismo in the country (and the other four nations he liberated - Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru). He was a man in search of glory and a military officer who believed in top-down decision-making. He did not tolerate being criticised or challenged.

    The caudillo rule did not disappear with Bolivar's death. His successors, including Jose Antonio Paez, Antonio Guzman Blanco, or Juan Vincente Gomez followed in his footsteps towards personalised power. Obsessed with being as glorious as Bolivar, they were more preoccupied with personal aggrandisement than building strong institutions in the the nascent Venezuelan state.

    Personalised power, elitism and authoritarianism continued to dominate the Venezuelan political arena well into the 1950s under Marcos Perez Jimenez, who staged a coup against the first democratically elected President Romulo Gallegos. Perez Jimenez's abuse of power and ruthless repression suffocated the Venezuelan society to the point that public anger boiled over into a popular uprising. A subsequent rebellion of junior officers deposed him in 1958 and paved the way for a new political beginning.

    Venezuela's main political powers signed the so-called Punto Fijo pact, which marked the beginning of the transition to democracy. While for at least three decades the pact gave the country political stability and socioeconomic progress, the culture of personalistic leadership did not disappear.

    Carlos Andres Perez, who led the country 1974-79 and 1989-93, also used his charisma for political mobilisation and personalisation of power. Relying on growing revenue from petrodollars in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, he established vast client networks and governed with the help of a small clique exclusively loyal to him.

    All these attempts by charismatic strongmen to usurp power over the past two centuries have cost Venezuela dearly: They have systematically undermined the building of institutions and weakened state mechanisms of accountability, transparency and separation of powers.

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    Chavez was no different. People found him funny and entertaining, easy to connect with, as he spoke like an ordinary Venezuelan. His popularity went beyond the borders of the country and with his populistic discourse, he captured the attention of many people across the world. His foreign sympathisers bought into the idea that participatory democracy was being applied in Venezuela and that it was going to wipe out corruption and inefficiency. But it didn't.  

    Meanwhile Chavez, and later his handpicked successor Nicolas Maduro, systematically destroyed democracy by dismantling all mechanisms of separation of powers and undermined all state institutions - a deliberate move aimed at leaving the population and the opposition with absolutely no one to appeal to.

    As a result, he gained complete control over the state apparatus and nothing could happen in the country without his personal approval. While the situation is a bit different for Maduro, as he has to negotiate with partners in the ruling coalition, the fact remains that Venezuela's institutions have been severely damaged and disempowered and there are no functioning checks and balances on executive power at the moment.

    This idea that a leader has the right to take up "superpowers" needs to go down with Chavismo. If Venezuelans want to build a democratic society, the first principle they have to restore is horizontal decision-making: No president should have full power to rule as he or she pleases.

    Democracy means not just holding elections but also having a balance and separation of powers, where the parliament, the judiciary and society as a whole are able to monitor the decision-making of the executive.

    We need to get used to the idea that in democratic systems changes to the status quo or policymaking cannot happen overnight; there cannot be rule by executive decrees, top-down populist mobilisation and no opposition or public debate.

    And in order for Venezuela to get out of the caudillismo's grip, it needs a leader that does not believe charisma is a source of legitimacy - someone rather dull such as Guaido, who can invest in building institutions, not his public image. 

    Nobody, including Guaido himself, expected he was going to emerge as the leader of the opposition. He is not the typical Caracas-born-and-raised upper-middle class Venezuelan politician; he is a fresh face, who until a few weeks ago was relatively unknown to the public and the international community.

    Yet crucially he appears to have an institutional flair like no other opposition figure. He talks about human rights, rule of law, restoring institutional powers in a peaceful manner and stirs away from messianic promises, self-promotion or party politics. Guaido has also made sure to reach out to various political groups and stakeholders, including government supporters and the military, reassuring them that a transition does not mean a witch-hunt and it will be a fair institutional process. In his public appearances, he has emphasised unity and has made sure he is surrounded by a cross-partisan group of politicians.

    And this is what Venezuela needs right now: someone talking about and committing to democratic principles and institutions, and not another media darling who knows how to sing, dance, and tell funny stories on live TV. The country does not need a saviour, but a leader who has a clear vision and a plan for how to restore its democratic institutions, restart the economy and rebuild the welfare system so it works for everybody. Guaido will probably get better at public speaking eventually, but this should not be his priority right now.

    His only focus should be on building alliances and public consensus around the idea of restoring broad-based institutional democracy in Venezuela.

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


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