Venezuela: A Dictatorship Masquerading as a Democracy

Ahead of a major election, the country is looking more and more like a failed state.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro meets supporters in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters)

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president, recently announced that if the opposition were to gain a majority in the National Assembly in elections this Sunday, “We would not give up the revolution and … we would govern with the people in a civil-military union.” To ensure that no one would accuse him of not being a true democrat, he clarified that “we would do this with the constitution in hand.” The president conveniently ignored the small detail that the constitution does not have any provision for a “civil-military” government, nor does it give the government the option of disregarding the outcome of an election. What Maduro did stress, however, was that if the revolution fails, “there will be a massacre”—a threat he has repeatedly made throughout the campaign. He usually follows such threats with reassurances that this violence will not ensue since it is impossible for opposition candidates to win enough votes for a legislative majority, which Maduro’s party has enjoyed for the past 17 years.

Maduro, in fact, frequently dismisses the very notion of an opposition victory as, in his cryptic words, a “negated and transmuted scenario.” His self-assurance is surprising considering that almost all opinion polls show an overwhelming public rejection of the government in general and the president in particular. So why is Maduro so confident? There are many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with “free and fair elections.” (Disclosure: I served as Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry and director of its Central Bank from 1989 to 1990.)

One of these reasons is that public employees in Venezuela may be inclined to vote for the government’s candidates. Maduro perhaps knows that there are thousands of government managers like Jose Miguel Montañez, who is in charge of customs at the international airport in Maracaibo, the country’s second-largest city. An employee reportedly caught Montañez on tape conducting a town-hall meeting in which he menacingly ordered his personnel to vote for regime candidates and bring in a picture of their ballot the day after the election to prove they voted “correctly.” Maduro also knows he can count on the massive and unaccountable use of public funds and resources to support his candidates. His faith in the impossibility of the “transmuted scenario” is surely bolstered by the aggressive and frequent deployment of dirty tricks to defame opposition leaders, jail them, or prevent them from running for office. The opposition has also had to contend with “armed people’s militias” that violently attack their marches and sometimes even murder their leaders, as recently happened to Luis Manuel Diaz.

And then there’s the government’s grip on the media. Not only has there been a wave of acquisitions of Venezuela’s main television channels, radio stations, and newspapers by “private investors” who, upon gaining control of a given property, convert it into a government propaganda organ, but the few media companies that are still independent are severely limited in terms of what they can broadcast or publish. A recent study by Javier Corrales and Franz Von Bergen of what appears on Venezuelan television (both private and public channels) showed that opposition candidates for the National Assembly were rarely mentioned—unless they were being denounced—while the regime’s candidates were omnipresent and extolled. A revealing indicator of this strict censorship of the media is the fact that there has been no mention on national television of the arrest in Haiti of two of the first lady’s nephews, who are accused of trafficking 800 kilos of cocaine and are currently being processed in a Manhattan court. (High-ranking Venezuelan officials have increasingly been seeking asylum in the United States and making serious allegations about the criminal behavior of their former bosses and colleagues in government.)

All this seems to have awoken the leadership of the 35-country Organization of American States (OAS) from its decade-long slumber with regard to the undemocratic behavior of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. The OAS’s new secretary general, Uruguay’s Luis Almagro, recently sent a 19-page letter to Tibisay Lucena, the director of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (NEC), detailing the irregularities and abuses of the electoral system over which she has presided since 2006. In his letter, Almagro concluded that the upcoming December 6 elections are not sure to operate “at the level of transparency and electoral justice that [the NEC] should guarantee.” He also dared to publicly condemn the murder of an opposition leader at a campaign rally, which led to this thoughtfully worded reaction from the Venezuelan head of state: “to call Almagro a piece of garbage is an insult to garbage itself.”

Almagro’s rebuke is one of many signs of the erosion of the complacency with which the international community and especially other Latin American governments greeted the Venezuelan government’s thuggish behavior for the last 15 years. Cristina Kirchner, Argentina’s outgoing president and a stalwart ally of the Chavez/Maduro regime, no longer wields the power that she and her late husband did earlier this century. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, another loyal supporter of the regime, is ensnared in a major corruption scandal and the subject of congressional impeachment proceedings. Cuba, a major partner of Venezuela’s, is “normalizing” its relations with the United States. Praise of Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” from liberals around the world has grown fainter. The regime has even lost the sympathy and support of Noam Chomsky, an icon of the global left who was once an erstwhile admirer. Maduro has been receiving letters and petitions from foreign governments, multilateral bodies like the European Union, human-rights organizations, politicians, parliamentarians, artists and intellectuals, former presidents and current heads of state like the United Kingdom’s David Cameron and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy, demanding the release of political prisoners and clean elections. U.S. leaders such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton have also repeatedly asked the Maduro administration to respect human rights and ensure free and fair elections.

When Chavez was alive and oil prices were high, his charisma, popularity, and generous checkbook went far in buying the goodwill and tolerance of other governments toward Venezuela’s “revolution.” Maduro is not Chavez, and oil prices have plummeted. Equally important is that the Bolivarian Revolution has become hard to defend. It suffers from the highest inflation on the planet, a deep and prolonged recession, widespread and chronic shortages of basic staples and medicines, crumbling public services, one of the world’s highest murder rates, and rampant and unprecedented levels of corruption. Venezuela is looking more and more like a failed state rather than a prosperous petrostate with the world’s largest oil reserves.

So, given this context, what will happen in Venezuela on Sunday? I see three scenarios (none of them transmuted):

1) The government steals the election by either suspending the race or orchestrating a major fraud.

2) The government reveals itself to be a miracle worker, winning in a clean fight and proving all the polls wrong.

3) The government lets the opposition win—for a while. Maduro concedes victory to his opponents, which legitimizes him before the world and relieves some of the international pressure he’s facing. His allies declare that once more Venezuela has confirmed that it is a democracy, and that there is therefore no need to meddle in its internal politics and governance. Shortly thereafter, the Maduro administration uses its control of the judiciary to water down the powers of the National Assembly.

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Since Maduro has repeatedly stated that the government will do “whatever it takes” to win this election, a combination of the first two scenarios is possible. Yet I believe that the third scenario is more probable. In the event of an opposition victory, for example, Maduro could cut the National Assembly’s operating budget, persuade newly elected opposition deputies to switch sides, or stealthily undermine the effectiveness of the opposition with filibusters and delaying tactics. The Maduro administration’s control of the judiciary and supreme court enables the Bolivarians to pass all kinds of measures that limit the clout of the legislative branch. This wouldn’t be a new trick: In 2008, the opposition politician Antonio Ledezma won a mayoral race in the capital of Caracas; soon after the election, then-President Chavez transferred the budget and the authority of the post to a new entity under his control. Later on, Maduro, as president, had Ledezma arrested and added to the ranks of the regime’s many political prisoners. In short, losing the election but manipulating institutional rules to evade the checks and balances that normally result from such an outcome would be an appealing option for the governing party. Which of these scenarios obtains hinges on what the margin in votes and elected deputies between the opposition and the regime turns out to be. The opposition needs a substantial win for the government to concede that it has lost its legislative majority.

Regardless of the outcome, the Venezuelan case demonstrates that democracy is not defined by what happens on Election Day, but rather by how the government behaves in between elections. A tyranny continues to be a tyranny despite holding elections—even if it allows itself to occasionally lose them.