This is a response to Miguel Schor’s timely and well thought out follow up to my post on the Venezuelan Enabling Act of 2010. Dr. Schor raises some excellent points regarding the way in which local events can be viewed contextually as part of a greater paradigm shift in Latin American politics. For my part, I too am cautiously optimistic that, in a very general sense, Latin American governments (both on the left and the right) are increasingly becoming more institutional and democratic.
However, I find the suggestion that Venezuela’s recent democratic woes be viewed as a return to form problematic. While “strong presidents sweep(ing) aside institutions to favor cronies” may have long been the mean in most of Latin America it was historically not so in Venezuela. From the fall of former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 until the late 1990s, Venezuela was seen as more the exception than the rule.
Perez Jimenez — known as ‘P.J.’ by the grateful foreign businessmen and local elites who profited from his highly liberalized, and minimally regulated, economy — fit the archetype of the tin pot right-wing dictator with strong ties to Washington. He let multinationals do as they pleased and was, rather predictably, loved for it up North. In 1954 Perez Jimenez received the Legion of Merit from US President Eisenhower for his “energy and firmness of purpose in the fight against communism,” while in 1955 he graced the cover of TIME magazine with the subtitle “From Buried Riches, a Golden Rule.”
But once Perez Jimenez was overthrown, and democracy reestablished, the country’s new leaders set up a system which became, to my knowledge, the longest continually functioning democracy in Latin American history. The Venezuelan Constitution of 1961 remained in force until Chavez rewrote it 1999*. As discussed previously in “Wiki-constitutionalism,” Latin America is a region where the average national constitution lasts for only around 10-12 years. As such, 38 years of continuous constitutional governance, with no suspensions, coups or undemocratic successions, stands out as a huge regional outlier.
Up until the 1990s, international observers spoke of “Venezuelan Exceptionalism” and marveled at how a stable democracy had survived for so long in such a bad neighborhood. While dictators in Patagonia were disappearing political dissidents, Bolivian and Ecuadorian presidents were consistently ousted by coup before finishing their terms, Mexico and Brazil were ruled by the military (or entrenched one party systems) and armed insurgencies destabilized Colombia and Peru – Caracas remained at peace and stable.
While shifts from left to right-wing governance (and vice-versa) in Latin America tended to be undemocratic, Venezuela saw the respective parties trade off turns at the helm for nearly four decades with remarkable restraint. Granted, these parties could act just as controversially as those of their neighbors. The Accion Democratica party (whose populist left-wing frontman Carlos Andres Perez incidentally passed away this week) was instrumental in founding OPEC and scandalously nationalized the oil and steel industries before it was trendy to do so. For their part, the right wing COPEI party shut down the Central University of Caracas for two years in a draconian response to left wing student protests. There were excesses, corruption and abuses on both sides, a lot of mudslinging, and a tradition of newly entrenched parties wastefully dismantling all the flagship projects of the previous administration (as happens in the United States as well.) Yet all of this took place without seriously compromising independent governmental institutions, the judiciary, or the electoral process.
This democratic past is what makes the current situation in Venezuela so ironic, and sad. I would venture that ‘Venezuelan Exceptionalism’ still exists, only that it has been turned upon its head. The region grows steadily more democratic and nations like Chile, Brazil and Mexico are unlikely to backslide because in doing so they would rob themselves of victories that have cost them dearly. Oil rich Venezuela, to whom democracy once came easily and early, remains the outlier.
* It was minimally and democratically amended in 1983