Since President Chávez was first elected in 1998, the Venezuelan opposition has tried civil disobedience, mass demonstrations, a coup, strikes/lock-outs and a recall referendum to remove him from office. None of it has worked. From 2006, these tactics went into abeyance in favour of an electoral strategy based on a united front through the MUD – the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Board). The elections held on 7 October 2012 were billed as the opposition’s best chance yet to oust Chávez, yet they failed to do this. What went wrong?
In research carried out among opposition civil society groups and political representatives in Venezuela in February 2012,[i] we found two possible reasons why the Opposition lost: firstly that they failed to learn from failures of the preceding ‘Punto Fijo’ period of two party dominance (Ad and Copei) from 1958 onwards and secondly, they did not adequately evaluate the positive impacts of Bolivarian democracy for popular sectors. With regard to the first reason, McCoy and Myers outlined four reasons for the failure of ‘Punto Fijo’: an over-dependence of the state on oil revenue; a degradation of state regulative capacity leading to a compensatory over-reliance on distributive policies, including corruption; the fossilisation of party hierarchies; and, the institutionalisation of political and social exclusion, especially of marginalised groups.[ii] In interviews and on examining opposition policy papers we found a certain acceptance of the current regime, most notably in a willingness to continue state ownership of the national oil company, PDVSA, and to continue the flagship government social Missions. Yet in the economic sphere, emphasis was placed on the state using the oil wealth to support private production and in subjecting PDVSA to market disciplines, both bounded by the concept of state subsidiarity to the market. On social policy, while we found a strong discourse on poverty, and an intention to continue state involvement to combat it, class, race or gender inequalities were considered unproblematic, and social programmes were to facilitate labour market participation, not to extend citizenship rights. Finally, there was an important discourse expressed on the need to “reconstruct” liberal democracy but with little regard for participatory mechanisms instituted under Chávez. Throughout little consideration was expressed nor safeguards offered to ensure that the fatal practices of the ‘Punto Fijo’ period outlined above were not repeated, presenting the risk of a continuation rather than a break with that past.
The reasons why the opposition were unable to make that break are fourfold. First, opposition diagnoses of Bolivarianism were almost entirely within what Buxton[iii] terms “the analytical framework of liberal democracy” prevalent in Venezuelan and foreign academic and policy circles, especially at the highest levels. Second, despite claiming to be centre-left, proposals differed little from standard centre-right policies favouring neoliberalism. Third, opposition proposals seemed to be built on largely short historical timelines, responding primarily to their own partial narrative of the failures of Bolivarian democracy, without fully taking into consideration deep-rooted structural problems in Venezuelan democracy. Finally, proposals underestimated the possible positive impacts of Bolivarian democracy, most notably of popular participation at the social, economic and political levels. In essence the opposition seemed to be proposing a return to the pre-Chávez status quo ante rather than providing a thorough rethink of the basic premises of the ‘Punto Fijo’ system, while failing to allay fears that gains under Chávez would be dismantled. This miscalculation in the end proved fatal for their electoral chances.
[i] Research was carried out with Ybiskay Gonzaléz Torres, University of Cambridge, New South Wales, Australia.
[ii] Jennifer McCoy, and David Myers, (eds.), 2004. The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela. (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press), pp.6-7.
[iii] Julia Buxton, ’Foreword: Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy’, p. x, in David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger, (eds.), 2011. Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez. (Durham and London: Duke University Press), pps. ix-xxi.
Barry Cannon works at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Republic of Ireland