- Venezuela Falters
Venezuela’s democratic regime has grown old and tired. After three decades of international and domestic popularity, it now faces a fate as sad as that experienced by veteran sopranos, whose voices inexorably decline, but who never seem to know when to stop trying to sing the heroine’s role. From the late 1950s until well into the 1980s, Venezuela was widely celebrated as one of the most stable democracies in Latin America; then, suddenly, and precisely when the poor old lady was attempting to take on new and even more flamboyant roles by adopting far-reaching institutional and economic reforms, radical criticism erupted.
Two schools of thought can be distinguished: 1) the newly arrived critics, who know about the soprano’s great moments only through old recordings, but never personally experienced the excitement of the supposedly legendary performances, and find it difficult to say something nice about the anachronistic heroine; and 2) the old-hands-in-the-business crowd, those who always saw that behind the colorful makeup and scenery there lurked ugliness, that the show was much too expensive to run, and that debts, mismanagement, and moral corruption were efficiently doing the work of destruction. For the first group of critics, disappointment with Venezuelan democracy is a spur for theoretical [End Page 168] innovation and recommendations on how to overhaul the show. For the old hands, however, disappointment is just the long-awaited confirmation of past suspicions, and possibly the prologue to more setbacks to come. The new critics yearn to see a renovated heroine rising from her grave; others, less optimistic, know that Venezuelan democracy never actually fit the exalted role attributed to it by some. They realize that the best that can be expected in the coming months and years is mediocre and lackluster performance leavened by the hope that the present democradura does not degenerate into outright dictatorship.
The authors of the books under review belong broadly to the first group, the “new critics,” but there are differences between them. Both studies offer interesting observations about a phenomenon of democratic deconsolidation that quite probably still has a few surprises in store for us. Coppedge’s book is a solid piece of scholarly work that offers valuable new insights about the inner workings of Acción Democrática, Venezuela’s predominant political party. It is obvious to this reader that Coppedge finds it hard to accept the manifest flaws and limitations of Venezuelan democracy. He places excessive weight on purely institutional factors, such as partidocracia or “partyarchy”—defined as a “pathological kind of political control” (p. 2)—and presidentialism, and pays insufficient attention to economic and cultural factors that, I believe, must be taken into account in any attempt to explain what has happened to the regime established in 1958. Hillman’s book, though markedly less theoretically ambitious than Coppedge’s volume and written in a more journalistic style, provides a less institutionally centered assessment of what went wrong in Venezuela.
One wonders if Coppedge demands too much from Venezuelan democracy. He argues that “in Venezuela there is great freedom of expression in the media and on the street,” but adds that “in order to have a truly effective voice, one must be able to organize; the freedoms must be complete” (p. 159). The existence of a plurality of organizations, including strong party organizations, has been one of the distinguishing features of Venezuelan democracy. In Coppedge’s view, however, these parties are largely to blame for the ills now affecting the democratic regime. In Venezuela, he writes, “political parties interfere with the requirements of polyarchy” (freedom to form and join organizations, freedom of expression, free and fair elections, and so on) in such a way that “Venezuela is probably the most extreme case” of partyarchy to be found among all the world’s pluralistic polities (p. 2).
Coppedge’s characterization of Venezuelan democracy, as it was until the 1992 attempted coups d’état...