Deciphering Venezuela

by | Jul 8, 2002

Venezuela, often described as the region’s most stable and successful democracy, is now in a political quagmire testing the endurance and stability of its system. What have been the forces pushing the country into crisis? How democratic is Venezuela today?

Venezuela’s elected president, Hugo Chávez, won free democratic elections with 56 percent of the votes in December 1998 and was reelected with 60 percent of the votes in December 2000. In spite of these unquestionable electoral results, his popularity has been collapsing since July 2001, driving opposition to the streets in protest against a government they consider illegitimate. Last April 11, thousands marched to the presidential palace demanding his resignation in a climactic development after a series of civic protests. Late that evening, after a bloody afternoon, President Chávez’s resignation was announced by his highest ranking general. A transitional government was formed but was immediately rejected by the same people who had marched the day before. They, together with Chávez followers, considered it unconstitutional. After 48 hours, President Chávez was back in office. And yet the crisis continues, political unrest increases, and polarization deepens. Venezuela’s democracy confronts one of its greatest challenges in history.

There are two basic paradigms to analyze the current political situation in Venezuela:

Paradigm 1: the Chávez government is just another chapter in Latin American history in which a leftist, popular president is confronted by a selfish elite unwilling to give up its historic privileges for the benefit of the majority.

Paradigm 2: Chávez is an authoritarian revolutionary who is being constrained by a traditionally democratic civil society.

In other words, is the conflict being triggered by self-interested groups cornering a popular president or is there a majority fighting to save democracy from President Chávez’s authoritarian desires? As often happens, reality has more nuances than any particular form of interpreting facts. Though I think that paradigm two is a better description of what is happening in Venezuela today, it falls short of explaining what caused Chávez’s initial popularity and his electoral success. Therefore, if there is truth to both positions, what happened in the process to change so dramatically the country’s mood?



Here is where the nuances begin. In 1998, angry and frustrated with traditional political parties, citizens rejected everything that looked, sounded or smelled like an old politician. Venezuelans in a revolutionary mood knew what they didn’t want so Chávez based his campaign on their anger and hate. The angrier he sounded, the higher he went in the polls. In fact, Chávez got a negative mandate. He was elected to eliminate traditional political parties, to eradicate a corrupted leadership and to destroy the ancien regime. Unfortunately, not too many people worried about what would come next.

Another less obvious cause for this revolutionary mood could be the country’s economic performance and its political interpretation. From 1977–1998, per capita income in Venezuela fell to 1950 levels. Corruption was seen as the underlying cause of the economic mess, hence the attack on the political class.

Chávez postponed the economic agenda and barged ahead with a radical political reform. He destroyed the old leadership and changed the constitution. The idea of electing a Constituent Assembly to give birth to a new leadership was attractive and popular at the time. Also, since the writing of the constitution promised to be open and participatory, transparency was not an issue then.

Through these constitutional changes, Chávez accumulated more power than any other democratic president in the history of the country. But Venezuelans were still in their revolutionary mood, so they did not worry about the creeping dangers of the emerging authoritarianism and the lack of checks and balances which emerged in the process.

The atmosphere began to change when President Chavez reoriented his confrontational and autocratic attacks onto social institutions such as the Church, the business community, the trade union movement, and the press. In addition, his praise for socialism and Castro’s Cuba as a model for Venezuela and his attempts to restrict private property rights left many Venezuelans with doubts about the new regime. In other words, Chávez’s downfall began when he decided to use the blank check given to him by voters in a revolutionary mood to lead a leftist revolution for which he does not have the political support. Before going into the details of this change, let’s take a brief look into the past.



Venezuelan society is democratic to its bones. Among the rights Venezuelans treasure most is the freedom to say what they please, to do what they want, to choose their leaders, to protest against them and to vote when the time comes. Venezuelans have enjoyed a democratic system since 1959 after the fall of Perez Jimenez’s dictatorship. They have learned the advantages of democracy through decades of actual practice. When President Chávez offered Venezuelans a revolution similar to the Cuban “Sea of Happiness,” opinion polls showed a decrease in popularity resulting from his close relationship with Castro. Instinctively Venezuelans know the trade-offs between equality and freedom, and they cherish the latter. In different surveys in 1963, 1980, 1990 and 1999, 70 to 77 percent favor a democracy over any other system. Venezuelans also enjoy voting. Although abstention levels have been increasing in recent presidential elections, only between 7 percent and 18 percent of eligible voters stayed away from the polls from 1958 to 1988. Venezuelans enjoyed more than twenty years of stable and effective democracy, with the biggest political parties in Latin America and the largest electoral participation. Between 1958 and 1981 important social reforms were made while the economy grew about six percent yearly.

In 1958, Venezuelan elites and political parties first banded together to consolidate democratic institutions and avoid further military intervention. For the sake of democracy, political parties developed pacts and agreements to respect each other’s differences, adhere to the will of the voters and ensure inter-party consultation on relevant matters.

However, the left was shut out of these pacts and agreements. Some have argued that party leaders excluded the left in order to reassure elements in business, the church, and the military who feared communist uprisings in Venezuela. The core agreements—all political in nature—supported channeling citizen participation through democratic means. The left and President Rómulo Betancourt’s government often clashed over what constituted “legitimate political means” in democracy. By excluding the communists, the two mainstream political parties—the social democrats (AD) and the Christian democrats (COPEI)—were also making a statement about what they considered valid democratic ideals. Betancourt’s foreign policy also emphasized the collective defense of democracy, while the Venezuelan left was less open to negotiation, believing that a Cuban-style revolution was possible in Venezuela. After 1960, the left moved towards violent insurrection.

In the 1970s President Rafael Caldera reopened channels of institutional participation for leftist parties and encouraged a national dialogue, dubbed the movimiento de pacificación (pacifying movement) oriented towards incorporating guerrillas into the democratic game. While in the rest of Latin America, the left was crushed by right wing dictators, the democratized Venezuelan left began to widen its influence inside the country, especially in the universities and military academies. In the early 1980s, Hugo Chávez was one of those attending military training. By the same time, Venezuelan democracy started to show signs of fatigue.

In the 1980s, traditional political parties failed to renew their leadership (the constitutional rule of allowing reelection only after five years has been blamed). Younger generations also felt shut out of the political game. The winding down of the oil boom left frustrated Venezuelans with unfulfilled social demands. After all, in 1981 oil tax revenues were US$2,000 per capita (in 2002 dollars) while during the last decade it has oscillated between US$250 and US$600. Venezuelan democracy weakened as a result of a lack of political leadership and vision in a process of irreversibly declining oil revenues and increasing impoverishment.

In 1992, Chávez, a paratrooper, orchestrated two military coup attempts against democratically elected President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The consequences of these political events signaled the end of the democratic system created in 1959 but fortunately Venezuelans found a way out without breaking the constitutional thread. Chávez was incarcerated only to be offered a generous 1994 presidential pardon during the Caldera government. In spite of having plotted against the constitutional order twice, he was freed without any political restriction that would disqualify him from running for office.

In 1993, the two parties together could not persuade 46 percent of the electorate while only five years before they had attracted 92 percent of the votes. Rafael Caldera won the presidential elections with only 32 percent of the votes provided by el chiripero (small cockroaches), an alliance of small political organizations and civil society groups. For many, the 1993 elections signaled the end of the two-party system. In 1994, the year Chávez left jail, more than 62 percent of Venezuelans believed that existing political parties “were good for nothing;” 64 percent believed that “political parties were essential,” but 80 percent confessed “no interest in politics.” The message was clear for whoever wanted to hear it. Venezuelans wanted democracy, but were disenchanted with traditional political parties and their leadership.

Riding on the country’s revolutionary mood in 1998, with a highly antagonistic style and a confrontational discourse, a relatively unknown Chávez got elected with 56.2 percent of the vote, with 36 percent abstention. His main mandate was to provide a radical political reform including the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution for the country. According to constitutional specialists, the former 1961 constitution needed only minor amendments to allow the needed changes, but the constituent assembly became an end in itself. During his inauguration, Chávez swore on what he called a “moribund” constitution. The old constitution, symbol of the ancien regime, had to go, and so it did.



While almost everybody wanted a new constitution, not too many thought in the destabilizing effects of a whole new set of rules and regulations. While almost everybody wanted more political participation, not too many thought about the problems of minority representation, electoral fatigue or illegitimacy. Venezuelans wanted to participate and so they did. Between 1998 and 2000, they went to the polls at least six times, four elections and two referendums. Unfortunately, elections and referendums don’t guarantee a better democracy; in the Venezuelan case this soon became obvious.

Let’s begin with a key element in the process that would help to explain what happened. The Constituent Assembly was elected using a novel system. It mixed characteristics of first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and proportional representation in a new way. As in FPTP, seats were assigned to candidates with the larger number of votes. However, as in proportional representation the number of seats allocated to each state depended on the population of each state, with electors required to vote separately for each seat in the state. This made the voting process very confusing. In Caracas and other populous states, voters had to choose more than twenty delegates from lists in excess of one hundred. Also, the generalized abhorrence for political parties gave way to the total elimination of party symbols and affiliations: any relation between a candidate and a political party was disallowed. This favored well-known candidates or those with ample campaign resources. Government candidates had the advantage of financing from public funds. Moreover, the government party alliance, “Polo Patriótico,” distributed a list with the identifying number of the candidates they favored, so voters did not have to look at names but just check the numbers representing their candidates in each electoral circumscription. These lists were called “Kinos” after a popular lottery game in Venezuela.

Thus, this mechanism led to a big atomization of the opposition. With only half of the votes, the government alliance got more than 93 percent of the seats (119 of 128). Thus, immediate and serious doubts arose about the representative nature and legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. Between July and December 1999, the Constituent Assembly not only wrote the new Constitution, but also assumed legislative responsibilities, dissolving the Congress elected in 1998. Important vacuums were left for the transitional regime. To build a bridge between the two constitutions, the Constituent Assembly decided to self-nominate a commission or Congresillo—to write the terms of the transition. A new Attorney General and ombudsman were elected, as were new members of the Electoral Power. The Congresillo appointed Supreme Court Justices, violating the conditions established in the new Constitution.

In December 1999, the new Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela was approved by 71.23 percent, with 56 percent abstention. The structure of the Venezuelan State was dramatically changed to five powers instead of three. Besides the traditional Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers, the Electoral and Citizen Power were created in order to deepen democracy and make it more participatory. The name of the country was changed to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The presidential term was extended from five to six years with immediate reelection; the names for the Congress and the Supreme Court were changed to National Assembly (NA) and Supreme Tribunal of Justice (STJ) respectively. With new names and also new structures—the NA for example would have only one chamber instead of two—the five powers had to be elected under the new Constitution. Unfortunately, as we have just discussed, this constitutional mandate was violated generating doubts about the whole process.

Paradoxically, the new constitution introduced the concept of civil participation (traditionally called participative democracy). Political participation extended to elections, referenda, popular consultation, open town councils, and recall elections for elected public officials, including the president. The new Constitution even gives the Venezuelan citizens the right to rebel. For this reason, the bias, lack of transparency and participation which characterized the transitional period seen as a mockery to the democratic aspirations of Venezuelans. In spite of all these justifiable doubts about the legitimacy of the process, Chávez’s popularity was still running high, but soon the mood would change.



By March 2002, opinion polls found that Chávez’ popularity had fallen to 30 percent. Accumulating violations of the constitutional order created an increased sense of authoritarian rule and arbitrary power that would generate a growing opposition. Without a system of checks and balances in place, the opposition, mistrusting formal protest channels, decided to taketo the streets. At the same time Chávez followers also went to the streets to show support. With marches and countermarches, civil society had not only become more politically involved, but deeply divided.

Several issues exacerbated this increased polarization: an intrusive educational reform, a perception of rampant corruption, and the creation of the so-called Bolivarian Circles.

The creation of these government-financed “non-government organizations” aroused suspicion among the opposition who believe they are paramilitary organizations intended to defend the Bolívarian Revolution with guns. For others the Bolivarian Circles are grass root organizations created only to help the poor.

Another issue was the 2001 election of new authorities in the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), mandated by the new Constitution. However, the candidate supported by Chávez lost and a traditional leader from Acción Democrática got elected. Chávez, claiming fraud, asked the Electoral Council to disallow the results of the elections while qualifying the new CTV authorities as illegitimate and calling for the creation of a Bolivarian Confederation of Workers. Elected CTV President, Carlos Ortega responded “if the president wants war, he will have it.”

In November 2001, tensions were exacerbated when Chávez, using special powers given to him in the transitional period, approved more than 48 laws by decree. Some of the resulting laws generated weakened property and states’ rights. Raising serious concerns about the real possibility of establishing a socialist system, the Confederation of Chambers of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS) immediately called for a national day of stoppage on December 10th. For the first time in democratic history, the trade union movement and the business associations were in agreement to back a national strike. Around 80 percent of business did not open on December 10, 2001. More than the actual text of the practically impossible-to-find texts of the 48 laws, what infuriated Venezuelans was the antidemocratic manner in which they were approved. Regardless of the content, Venezuelans had not changed the bad democracy they had before for this one. Corruption and lack of transparency were precisely the plagues of the past they wanted to get rid of. Now this government was bringing them back with a vigor never seen before.

One after the other Chávez confronted all institutions: the Church, the military, the decentralized governments and their police, increasing opposition. In the international arena, he also developed a controversial position. Chávez has confronted capitalism and challenged U.S. policy, siding with guerrillas, Cuba, and Arab rogue states.



In February, he turned his fury on the oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), one of Venezuela’s dearest symbols of meritocracy and efficiency. He removed its board of directors to appoint more loyal and less capable people. Immediately, PDVSA management complained and threatened with a strike, asserting that these appointments violated an important principle: promotion should be based on performance and not party loyalty. For the first time in the history of the oil industry, workers supported upper management by supporting the threatened strike. In response, the president, on April 7, on national television, fired the protesting upper management. PDVSA retaliated with a strike. Soon, the labor unions, the business community, the media and the civil society decided to support the April 9 strike. The government attempted to restrict television’s ability to transmit news. When the government television station broadcast images conveying the strike’s failure, private channels decided to break the restrictions and show what was really happening. Around 80 percent of the businesses were closed and civil society took the streets to back PDVSA.

The strike was a success and continued until Thursday, April 11, culminating with a march by around one million people asking for the President’s resignation in order to find a constitutional way out of the political crisis. Article 350 of the new constitution grants the Venezuelan people the right to rebel against any government or authority which violates the democratic principles.

The march was fired upon by snipers who coldly aimed at people’s hearts and heads. Eighteen people died and more than a hundred were injured. Chávez ordered tanks to take to the streets. This tipped the top brass of the military to ask the president to resign. Chávez requested a plane to leave for Cuba, but members of the military command wanted him to stand trial for his crimes. Business Association chief Pedro Carmona was appointed as interim president and he dissolved all powers by decree. This led to a negative reaction from opposition leaders and civil society who joined Chávez supporters in their staunch rejection of Carmona’s decree. The military also reacted and the institutionalist forces (those who oppose any violation of the constitution, including Chávez’ 1992 military coup attempts) asked Carmona to withdraw the decree and respect the constitution. In the process, a majority of the Armed Forces opted to bring Chávez back.

It is hard to understand what explains this turn of events. What is clear is that the April 11 seriously questioned Chávez’s legitimacy, and he has been unable to end political instability. The opposition is adamant about his departure and is now able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of protesters.

In an extremely heated environment, the Supreme Justice Tribunal decided in August against considering the military high command in violation of the constitution during April 11th events. This has opened the door to myriad accusations against the president for allegedly ordering the violence against peaceful marchers. Chávez now only has a very precarious simple majority in the National Assembly, with the moderates showing signs that they are willing to negotiate the transition to a post-Chávez rule.



After two decades of frustration with a political leadership unable to reverse the economic downturn and to respond to political demands, Venezuelans—in a revolutionary mood—elected President Hugo Chávez with a mandate to destroy the old political system. Venezuelans went to the polls more than ever in history, but institutions which underpinned democracy weakened. As formal power became concentrated in the hands of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans found informal mechanisms to constrain the government.

Paradoxically, Chávez is now confronting the same revolutionary mood that initially got him into power. He accomplished the negative agenda by kicking the rascals out but has failed to make any dents in the reduction of corruption or in turning the economy around, let alone progress on formalizing democracy. It may very well be that the same revolutionary mood that got Chávez into power would force him to step aside.

Fall 2002


Ana Julia Jatar is a DRCLAS Visiting Scholar from Venezuela, researching the causes for the decline of the Venezuelan political system. She was a Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington where she followed Venezuela and Cuba. Jatar authors a regular column in the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional and hosts a radio show from Boston on Latin American policy issues.

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