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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently returned to Caracas from medical treatement in Havana to announce that he must undergo yet another surgical intervention for recurring cancer, and officially designating Vice President Nicolás Maduro as his successor. This is the clearest sign in more than two years of battling cancer that he thinks he might lose.

hugo chavez

Chávez has dominated the political scene in Venezuela like no other leader in the post-1958 democratic history of his country. Only a few of the country’s earlier dictators have ruled longer. Indeed, his opponents within the country and in the United States habitually refer to him as a dictator, but that betrays a gross distortion or outright misunderstanding.

Chávez first came to prominence in 1992 as the leader of an abortive military coup against the elected (but highly unpopular) President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez was protesting against the corruption of a democratic regime that had ruled the country through free elections since the overthrow of the last dictator in 1958. Even with oil wealth, Venezuelan governments (both authoritarian and democratic) since the 1920s consistently failed to raise the standard of living of the poor majority while promoting the enrichment of an affluent minority.

What was needed, Chávez argued, was the founding of a new republic that would both benefit and mobilize the poor, making them protagonists of their own history. He got his chance in 1998, when he was overwhelmingly elected President. In short order, he won a referendum that mandated a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, won the elections to that assembly, oversaw the writing of a constitution, and won its ratification by popular majority. He then secured election as President under the new constitution. Since then, he and his supporters have faced numerous competitive, honest elections. They have won most; they have lost a few, and have accepted those losses.

Unlike all of their elected predecessors, the chavistas actually delivered real improvements in the lives of the poor majority, such as improved health care, housing, and education. As a result, they can count on strong majorities from the urban and rural poor, even as they face hostility from the majority of the upper and middle classes.

It must be said, though, that Chávez has done no better than his predecessors in laying the groundwork for an economy less dependent on petroleum. His economic management may be questionable.

But is he a dictator? No. Americans tend to think that the only kind of democracy looks a lot like their own, a system characterized by extensive checks on the ability of popular majorities to work their will. This is what political scientists call a liberal democracy because it embodies the limits on government authority that were advocated by classical liberals like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Liberal democracy privileges minority rights against the will of the majority.

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Chávez comes from another approach to democracy, rooted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau envisioned a polity wherein the people would be sovereign: there would be no checks on their authority, no protections for minority rights. Similarly, Marx imagined a post-capitalist order where the proletariat would constitute the vast majority and would rule. This is the spirit of Chávez’s “twenty-first century socialism:” Strongly majoritarian, it amounts to radical democracy.

Both the constitution and practice of the Chávez regime do make some concessions to liberal democratic principles such as freedom of speech and press, and competitive elections. Still, Chávez has repeatedly used his majority support to impose his will to a much greater extent than could have been possible in a purely liberal democracy.

Radical democracy is particularly suitable for an agenda of radical change. But for a radical democracy to crystallize its agenda from the will of millions, a charismatic leader like Chávez is essential. And that, in turn, means that radical democracy is inherently unstable: as Max Weber pointed out a century ago, charismatic authority cannot be passed on. Hence Chávez’s Venezuela is entering an existential crisis.

His successors need a new basis for appealing to the majority. They will surely fall short of his popular support. The opposition has a new opportunity to appeal to the majority on the basis of a promise to administer better the programs that Chávez put in place. This contrasts with earlier opposition campaigns that promised only a return to the corrupt and unequal order before Chávez came to power.

The Chávez era in Venezuela and Latin America will be seen as opening the possibility of transcending liberal democracy in societies where the vast majority is poor. Its success will be up to his successors.

john peeler

John Peeler

Thursday, 13 December 2012