- Hugo Chávez's "Petro-socialism"
On 15 February 2009, Venezuelan voters approved a referendum to eliminate term limits for all elected offices. The 55 percent majority that voted for this measure cleared the path for President Hugo Chávez to run again in 2012. In order to make sense of the timing as well as the result of this referendum, one must understand both the recent local and regional elections and the broader evolution of Venezuelan politics over the last two years.
On 23 November 2008, Venezuelans had gone to the polls in their country's first regional elections since 2004. After Chávez-aligned candidates defeated those of the unified opposition by 53 to 41 percent, the president declared that the people had voted for socialism and turned his energies back toward his quest for constitutional changes that would allow him to seek reelection to the presidency indefinitely. The 2008 balloting did show that one-time coup leader Chávez still commands ample support ten years after first being elected to his nation's highest office. Yet it demonstrated as well that the opposition has made important political and symbolic gains even at a time when the increasing authoritarianism of chavista rule has caused Freedom House to declare that Venezuela has dropped from the ranks of the world's electoral democracies.
The recent campaigning and voting confirmed the existence of an extensive democratic culture that, for the moment, presents a serious obstacle to the president's vaguely defined ideological project of driving Venezuela toward what he calls "twenty-first-century" or "Bolivarian" socialism. Indeed, it is likely that the opposition's 2008 showing at the urns, along with the rough economic times augured by the plummeting [End Page 78] price of the heavy crude oil that forms Venezuela's key export, were behind the renewed push to do away with presidential term limits. Since Chávez's entire political project depends on his personal continuance in office, political conflict is unlikely to abate: A key battle has been joined, and both sides know it.
After winning an August 2004 recall vote and then securing reelection by a wide margin two years later, Chávez began pushing a complex set of constitutional changes whose chief goal was to allow indefinite presidential reelection. In December 2007, the proposed changes went before the voters, who narrowly rejected them. Although the opposition developed a sound strategy and mobilized on a large scale, the key elements that contributed to Chávez's defeat were the problems within the coalition of parties that backed him and a lack of support among chavistas themselves. Some abstained because they did not wish to give the president a blank check, others because they wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the government's inability to solve particular problems, and still others because they objected in general to "Bolivarian socialism" (which might better be termed "Bolivarian neopopulism," since it lacks a well-defined basis in the organized working class and instead takes unorganized, state-dependent popular or marginalized groups as its main referent).1
Whatever it is called, the Chávez model is characterized by a high concentration of power in the president's hands, the elimination of boundaries between the military and civil sectors, and the direct subjection of military personnel to the president's authority. The model also exhibits democratic as well as authoritarian, radical, and Bonapartist elements. The emotional and clientelistic link between the leader and the people is reinforced through various mechanisms and periodically renewed at the polls. Chávez has been savvy in taking advantage of frequent elections to give his regime a plebiscitary character. Accountability is low, and the rule of law is weak. What in a well-functioning democracy would be autonomous institutions are instead subordinated to the president and his lieutenants.
If to these characteristics we add the limits that hem in the exercise of certain political rights and civil liberties, it becomes clear that Freedom House is right to rate Chávez's Venezuela as belonging outside the ranks of liberal democracies.2
Recent elections—including the constitutional referendum overturning term limits—suggest that Venezuela is shifting...