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  • Venezuela: Democracy Hangs On
  • Anibal Romero (bio)

Numerous studies have sought to explain the weakness of democracy in Venezuela. Most accounts of the country’s steadily worsening crisis have stressed political, economic, and cultural factors. In view of the severity of the challenges that have long confronted the country’s democratic regime, however, the appropriate question is not “Why has Venezuelan democracy deteriorated?” but rather “Why does Venezuela continue to enjoy a democratic system of government?” How has it been possible for democracy, however flawed and degraded, to persist in Venezuela despite a massive popular uprising (1989), two coup attempts in the same year (1992), the impeachment of a president (1993), the profound impoverishment and disillusionment of a majority of Venezuelans, and almost three years of additional frustration under a new government? What is surprising is not that Venezuelan democracy faces serious problems, but that those problems—which are at least as grave as similar ones that have led in other countries and at other times to revolutions and dictatorships—have not produced a breakdown of constitutional order. 1

In a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, Adam Przeworski and colleagues argued that the conditions most conducive to a democratic future for a given country include democracy itself, affluence, growth with moderate inflation, declining income inequality, a favorable international climate, and parliamentary (rather than presidential) institutions. 2 I find that argument, and the evidence adduced to support it, persuasive. Yet only two of those conditions currently obtain in [End Page 30] Venezuela: democracy itself (in a rather sorry state) and a favorable international climate. The country has now endured several years of economic recession; living standards of the majority have plummeted; 3 income inequality has increased; and presidentialism has grown stronger rather than weaker. Can the survival of democracy in Venezuela be attributed solely to the presence of democracy itself and the new international context?

The factors that account for the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy are economic (falling oil prices and the eroding distributive capacity of the state), institutional (corruption and the reduced representational capacity of political parties), and cultural (the predominance of a paternalistic culture in which people look to the state for everything), while those that explain its continued survival are political. These political factors fall into three categories. The first includes popular apathy and passivity, and the absence of options other than the traditional ones. The second consists of the precarious but still effective stabilizing capacity of elite pacts, as well as the demagoguery of the nation’s leaders. The third set of factors includes a Hobbesian fear of uncertainty and the restraining effect of the new international and regional climate, characterized by the predominance of democracy and the U.S. government’s commitment to strengthening democracy in Latin America. Despite the supportive role of these political factors, Venezuelan democracy is threatened by real dangers that could cause it finally to break down. Thus it is appropriate to ask what can and should be done in the short run to strengthen democracy, forestall its continued decline, and bring about its recovery.

Social Dissolution

As the Venezuelan case shows, the survival of democracy can at times result from a series of paradoxes. Rapid social dissolution can erode the foundations of the political system, but that very process of dissolution also generates popular apathy and marginalizes the masses and the middle class, thereby stabilizing the situation by draining energy from important social actors. What survives, of course, is far from being an ideal democracy. It is a democracy that is in key respects perverted and exclusionary—the type that has generally predominated in Latin America. 4 Still, it is not a dictatorship.

Eugenio Tironi has described social dissolution as a process of large-scale involution or stagnation that can unexpectedly beset a society in the wake of epochal “modernizing” structural change—that is, following rapid and forced rationalization and urbanization, massive migration, and prolonged economic expansion. 5 Emile Durkheim wrote that societies periodically experience moments of “creative effervescence,” in which social relations are sharply intensified and continual change occurs. Yet [End Page 31] these situations are exceptional and cannot be prolonged indefinitely. Periods in which the limits of...

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