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Journal of Democracy 12.2 (2001) 17-31

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High Anxiety in the Andes

The Real Story Behind Venezuela's Woes

Moisés Naím

The rise to power of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is often seen as evidence of an impending backlash against globalization, American-style capitalism, corruption, and poverty. Chávez's fiery antiglobalization rhetoric, his strong alliance with Fidel Castro, his outreach to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi, his anti-Americanism, and his sympathetic overtures to Colombia's guerrillas and other insurgent groups in Latin America have gained the world's attention. To many, the case of Venezuela epitomizes the popular reaction to a prolonged concentration of power among a small oligarchy of corrupt politicians and their business allies. To others, Venezuela is the victim of a mysterious syndrome afflicting the countries of the Andean region. Mostly, however, the situation in Venezuela is cited as an early-warning signal of a worldwide backlash against liberal democracy, market reforms, and globalization.

Yet a closer look at the Venezuelan case unveils a rather different set of lessons. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Venezuela's problem is not too much globalization but too little. Its current economic woes and social deterioration are the consequence not of market reforms but of the failure to reform its economy. Its plight has little in common with that of its Andean neighbors. Moreover, the disappearance of the party system that dominated Venezuelan politics for more than four decades was not a sudden, Soviet-style collapse resulting from an excessive concentration of power in the hands of a small clique of politicians; in [End Page 17] fact, Chávez's ascendancy owes more to the long-term dilution of the political power once held by Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI, Venezuela's two main political parties. While corruption remains rampant and poses a formidable obstacle to progress, the country, and especially its poor, have paid a steep price for the national obsession with the need to eradicate it. The fixation with corruption is as much a constraint upon Venezuela's development as corruption itself. Finally, in sharp contrast to Chávez's rhetoric and the perceptions of some foreign observers, the policies of his administration have deeply worsened social conditions. It is very unlikely that the Chávez era will result in more prosperity and freedom for Venezuela's poor. The Chávez administration's failure to deliver on its promises of a better life for the majority is bound to create political instability that could lead to the erosion of civil liberties.

A country ravaged by poverty and rocked by political instability does not provide the best base from which to launch a political message that would be readily adopted by others abroad. Unfortunately, history shows that economic failure and political repression have not always been obstacles to the international popularity of the regimes that produce them. Thus, while unlikely, it is not impossible that Chávez's ideas and approach will become a model for politicians around the world anxiously seeking an alternative to the socioeconomic model that became the standard in the 1990s.

Misreading Venezuela

One of the reasons why the Venezuelan experience has been so frequently misread is that, for decades, Venezuela was too boring to offer foreign academics and journalists the sort of intellectual challenges that make reputations and boost careers. Indeed, Venezuela's stability posed a striking contrast to the cataclysmic changes afflicting the rest of Latin America. While wars raged in Central America, Venezuela was completely at peace. While military dictators throughout the region stifled freedoms and "disappeared" their opponents, Venezuela held peaceful, competitive, and fair elections every five years, with the opposition often actually replacing the party in power. While hyperinflation, high unemployment, and irresponsible economic management were the norm in most of Latin America, the oil-fueled Venezuelan economy seemed immune to the economic catastrophes that beset its neighbors. Whereas the unimaginable poverty and hopelessness elsewhere in the region inspired countless novels, doctoral dissertations, and journalistic dispatches, even the Venezuelan poor seemed to be better off...