I would like to follow up Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez’s excellent post on the troubling state of democracy in Venezuela with a few observations placing the events in that nation in a broader context. One could argue that Venezuela is simply reverting to what has long been in the mean in Latin America which is that strong presidents sweep aside institutions to favor cronies and, in some cases, articulate a broader vision for the nation. Chávez is somewhat unusual in that he is a populist dictator on the left but there have been others (the Peruvian military dictatorship of late 60s and early 70s provides an example).
That said, the situation in Latin America is clearly very different in the twenty-first century than it had been in the twentieth century. If Chávez had sought to impose his populist solutions in the twentieth century, conservative forces with American formal or informal support would, in all likelihood, have overthrown him by now. The right would then have imposed a statist, crony capitalism, which, in turn, would have fueled a left-wing reaction. The politics of the region throughout much of the twentieth century (with some notable exceptions) was both bloody and ineffectual in solving collective action problems. Politics became, to borrow a phrase from the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell, the impossible game.
In a region where income inequality is stark, the left is the natural ruling party. Historically, there have been at least two major problems with left-wing solutions to the region’s endemic problems, neither of which are fully present today. The first is that the left was long enamored of overly statist economic policies. Statist policies, both on the left and the right, facilitated the centralization of power, which, in turn, undermined formal constitutional provisions regarding checks and balances. This is no longer the case. The majority of the region’s leftist presidents and political parties understand that a different balance needs to be struck between government regulation and private markets.
The second (and this relates directly to what is occurring today in Venezuela) is that conservatives throughout Latin America with American support long undermined the possibility of political learning. Left wing programs have long been anathema to the right (the current criticisms of the tea party movement in the U.S. of President Obama’s policies pale in comparison), which successfully undermined democracy to prevent the left from taking power. This, in turn, turned the left to ever more radical solutions. Whatever else one might say about Fidel Castro, he took what he thought were the correct lessons from the C.I.A.’s involvement in the violent overthrow of a democratically elected leftist president in Guatemala in 1954. The point is that with the end of the cold war, American adventurism in the region is less likely and this opens the door to political learning. Chávez’s policies are a mistake but that is a lesson that the people of Venezuela may learn over time. It is not only the left that has to learn the lessons of the democratic game. The right, if it wishes to retake power, will need to articulate policies that resonate with voters instead of opting for a military putsch. While I am not sanguine about Venezuela in the short-term, I am cautiously optimistic about the long-term prospects for democracy and a commitment to constitutionalism both in that nation and in the region as a whole.