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  • Venezuela's Vulnerable Democracy
  • Michael Coppedge (bio)

On 4 February 1992, over three decades of Venezuelan democracy very nearly came to an end when a battalion of paratroopers led by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías laid siege to the presidential palace, using a tank as a battering ram. After 15 hours of fighting that killed 80 people, sent President Carlos Andrés Pérez fleeing for his life, and turned parts of Caracas into something resembling a South American version of Beirut, the insurrection was defeated. A three-month suspension of constitutional guarantees helped to restore order, but the blow of February 4 left the democratic regime staggering. Prominent politicians called for Pérez to resign, and his own party, Democratic Action (AD), pressured him to allow early elections for a successor. Opposition parties refused to participate in a national unity coalition, and none were eager to mobilize demonstrations of support for the regime. Colonel Chávez, however, immediately became a popular figure among a significant minority that began calling publicly for his release from prison and an amnesty for the conspirators. The coup attempt spurred a feverish debate on constitutional reform, but rumors of more coup attempts to come kept flying.

The attempted military takeover came as a shock to nearly everyone, for Venezuela had long been considered one of Latin America's most stable democracies. The Pérez government was the latest in a series of seven that had been chosen in fair, competitive elections held every five years since 1958, even during the wave of authoritarianism that swept Latin America from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Rumors of planned military coups were common during difficult times, but there had been [End Page 32] no actual attempts for nearly 30 years, and the military high command routinely proclaimed its unswerving allegiance to elected governments. Compared to other Latin American countries, Venezuela in the early 1990s seemed to have a highly stable democratic regime. It had no terrorist insurgents like Peru's Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement; the economy was improving, with 9.2 percent GDP growth and accelerating foreign investment in 1991; unlike Fernando Collor of Brazil or Alberto Fujimori of Peru, President Pérez was no dark-horse antipolitician lacking an organized base of support; and drug trafficking had only begun to make its appearance.

Venezuela's vulnerability challenges the conventional wisdom concerning threats to democratic stability. The central irony of the case is that certain characteristics unique to Venezuela-oil wealth, consensual leadership, and strong catchall parties-which for decades helped democracy to survive there ultimately undermined the legitimacy of the political class that ran the country. As a result, when Venezuela's leaders finally recognized the need for structural adjustment of the economy, they lacked the moral authority necessary to demand sacrifices from the population. Since the fundamental cause of the problem is peculiarly Venezuelan, there is no reason to expect an exact replication of this kind of crisis in other countries. Yet some elements of Venezuela's crisis-especially the need for structural adjustment and the impact of presidentialism-are common to almost all of Latin America, raising the possibility of similar difficulties. Moreover, the sudden outbreak of instability in one of the stronger democracies has great symbolic importance for the entire region, serving to alarm the friends of democracy while emboldening its foes.

Some Unique Advantages

The coup attempt was a shock because Venezuela possessed many of the advantages associated with stable democracy. Opinion surveys always showed that a large majority of Venezuelans considered democracy the best form of government. Democratic procedures were used to select the leaders of most organizations in society. The party system was not fragmented, as the two leading parties-AD and the Social Christian Party (COPEI)-routinely garnered four-fifths of the congressional vote and 90 percent of the presidential vote after 1968. No single party dominated the system, as AD transferred executive power to COPEI following the elections of 1968 and 1978, and COPEI lost the presidency to AD in 1973 and 1983. Although AD is predominantly a center-left social democratic party with a strong base in organized labor and...


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