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Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization, and Conflict (review)

From: Latin American Politics & Society
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2004
pp. 187-192 | 10.1353/lap.2004.0022

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Latin American Politics & Society 46.2 (2004) 187-192

Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds. Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization, and Conflict. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003. Figures, tables, bibliography, index, 259 pp.; hardcover $49.95.

The emergence of Hugo Chávez's Fifth Republic from the ashes of Venezuela's 40-year experiment with representative democracy has huge implications for understanding the dynamics of political change. The dominant stream of scholarship in comparative politics viewed Venezuela's post-1958 political regime, known as Punto Fijo, as a successful case for the argument that democracy was indeed the political future of Latin America. Punto Fijo enjoyed broad support, improved significantly on the human rights record of its predecessors, and resisted the wave of authoritarianism that swept over most of the region in the 1960s. The regime's two dominant political parties, AD (Acción Democrática) and COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, the Christian Democrats) contended for power in free elections; and between 1958 and 1988, democratic governments lifted millions of citizens out of poverty and expanded the middle class. Also, the long, intrusive military institution appeared to have accepted civilian authority.

The Punto Fijo system depended heavily on government's ability to distribute petroleum income, which grew slowly in the 1960s and soared between 1973 and 1983. In that year, however, state income from petroleum began a punctuated downward spiral that lasted until 1999. Dramatic political changes accompanied economic decline, the most profound being the erosion of support for the political regime itself. Several traumatic events sealed the fate of Punto Fijo democracy: urban riots in 1989, two unsuccessful coup attempts in 1992, the banking system crisis in 1994, and internecine warfare between political party elites that discredited AD and COPEI in the late 1990s.

This volume gives special weight to the social factors that shaped Venezuela's political landscape after 1989. Its cut-off point is the return to power of President Hugo Chávez Frías on April 13, 2002, two days after conservative military officers placed businessman Pedro Carmona Estanga in the presidency. The removal and reinstatement of Chávez was the most dramatic episode of the post-1998 struggle between supporters and opponents of the president's so-called Bolivarian revolution. Although both sides took a step backward and reassessed their strategy following that episode, the lull lasted only a few months. Since the final quarter of 2002, the prospect of gaining broad-based support for new rules of the political game has been dim at best.

Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger have assembled a group of distinguished social scientists from Venezuela, Europe, and the United States to examine the breakdown of Venezuela's 40-year representative democracy and the subsequent struggle to craft a political regime that, while "different," would remain democratic. Ellner's opening chapter identifies the most common scholarly explanations for the failure of post-1958 democracy. He correctly points out that these explanations are largely institutionalist, and characterizes them as incomplete and unsatisfactory. They include pacts between political parties, the extent of political party institutionalization, "overlearning" of lessons drawn from earlier experiences, status as an oil exporter, the system of proportional representation, and the elites' preference for multiclass political parties. Ellner notes that the first five of these factors suggest overcentralization, a widely recognized defect of the early Punto Fijo regime that political and economic leaders attempted to correct after 1988. Their efforts are examined in chapter 8 by Angel Alvarez, who concludes that while the attempts were well intentioned and carefully crafted, they mattered little to the downwardly mobile masses once those people had lost faith in the political regime.

The editors and contributors to this volume view destabilizing events during the 1990s and Punto Fijo's loss of legitimacy as the products of rage resulting from perceptions that the ruling-class strategy of "sowing the oil" had failed. This failure left Venezuela without a viable alternative to neoliberalism. AD and COPEI, however, had promised a political regime more attuned to social justice concerns. Hellinger's account (chapter 2) of the political regime's loss of support focuses on the time when neoliberalism...