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It was during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whom many saw as one of the champions of economic reforms (even today, some people remember him that way), that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa decided to break one of the unwritten rules of Mexican politics. In a televised discussion at the close of a meeting of European and American intellectuals in Mexico City, the novelist who twenty years later would become the only Peruvian to this date to be the recipient of a Nobel prize in any field, described Mexico under the governments of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) as “the perfect dictatorship.” “So much is Mexico a dictatorship,” Vargas Llosa said, “that all Latin American dictatorships since I can remember have tried to create something equivalent to the PRI.”
Vargas Llosa’s argument was as simple as it was powerful. A dictatorship is not defined by whether or not there are elections because many authoritarian governments hold elections – and often even win them. Nor do repression or human rights violations define it because there are democratic governments that repress and violate human rights. Instead, a dictatorship is defined by the lack of alternation in power. A dictatorship is a system in which whoever is in power stays in power. When dictatorships can camouflage themselves through democratic institutions, they perfect themselves. The perfect dictatorship is not one in which there are no elections. The perfect dictatorship is one in which the government does not lose elections.
Even though I often do not agree with Vargas Llosa’s political positions, I have always admired his spirit of enfant terrible, willing to question consensus and speak inconvenient truths, regardless of who they offend. I feel that only if we keep alive the ability to question ourselves will we have the possibility of understanding how to make amends for our mistakes. As the heroines who have broken the siege of silence around sexual abuse through the Venezuelan #MeToo movement have shown us, we become more human when we take the first step towards saying aloud what we thought was meant to remain unspoken.
A year after Vargas Llosa’s words convulsed Mexico, Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski offered a succinct definition of democracy in his book Democracy and the Market. “Democracy,” Przeworksi would write, “is a system in which parties lose elections.” This concept would have a profound influence on democratization studies throughout the next three decades. The permanence in power of the ruling party has been incorporated today in several democratization measures, among which some take the recent alternation as a necessary condition for a country to be considered a democracy.1
Understanding the role of alternation in power in the concept of democracy is essential to visualize a way out of the terrifying political, economic and humanitarian crisis that Venezuela is going through. Restoring democracy is not about holding an election, even if that election is organized by impartial electoral authorities and supervised by international observers. Nor is it about achieving the freedom of political prisoners or stopping human rights violations, no matter how important these objectives are in the search for a just society where human dignity is respected. The only way in which Venezuela can return to democracy is if it carries out a profound and radical transformation in its institutional foundations that makes alternation of power viable.
DIALOGUE, SANCTIONS, AND VIDEOTAPE
Practically all the analyses that have sought to understand the negotiation process that seems to be – for the n-teenth time – being forged between the opposition and the government of Nicolás Maduro agree that Maduro’s main objective in these negotiations is the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the main incentive that opposition leader Juan Guaidó has offered as part of his proposal to Maduro for a National Salvation Agreement has been the “progressive lifting” of sanctions. Recently, the assistant secretary of the State Department for the Western Hemisphere told Maduro’s foreign minister in a Twitter exchange that if he wanted the United States to lift sanctions on Venezuela, he only had to meet certain conditions such as holding free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Maduro himself seems to have confirmed the importance of sanctions in the negotiation process by opening his list of preconditions with “the immediate lifting of sanctions against Venezuela.”
It was John Maisto, the US ambassador in charge of relations with Venezuela during the Bill Clinton administration, who said that with Chávez, it was much more important to see what he did than what he said.2 The same advice would be worth following when trying to interpret Maduro’s words. The first and most obvious fact that we must bear in mind is that there are very few occasions when serious negotiations in a complex political process occur in front of a video camera. Successful political and peace agreement negotiations tend to begin in the highest degree of confidentiality, precisely because negotiators need to be able to reach tangible pre-agreements that will convince skeptics in their respective coalition that the negotiation makes sense. When politicians turn to microphones to make demands, we can be sure that the last thing that they are doing is negotiating.
Without sanctions, Maduro would be nothing more than an incompetent leader who ruined the Venezuelan economy
Holding a political negotiation in front of the cameras is more or less like holding divorce discussions in the middle of a family dinner. What the actors seek to do is not to reach agreements but to convince the children and relatives about who is the good guy and who is the villain. When Maduro says out loud that he demands lifting sanctions as a precondition for dialogue, he is not looking for them to be lifted. Instead, he is reminding Venezuelans that the opposition and the United States bear a large share of responsibility in the economic turmoil that the country is facing. Maduro is fully aware that he is not going to make a large part of the country think that he is a good steward of the country. His plan is to make sure he convinces them that the Venezuelan opposition could be worse.
Regardless of what one thinks about the effect that sanctions have had on our economy – and the economic discussion leaves room for reasonable persons to hold very different positions – 3 opinion studies coincide in showing that the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans are against them and assigns to them a share of responsibility in the humanitarian tragedy of the country (see Figure 1). It is no coincidence that the main TV ad used by the ruling party in the parliamentary elections of December 6, 2020, opened with the phrase, “they said that the sanctions were for a few, and they hit us all.”
Figure 1: Approval of oil sanctions imposed by the U.S.
Today, sanctions are Maduro’s main political asset to convince Venezuelans that the crisis is not his fault. As Moisés Naím wrote in a prescient column in 2017 in El País, oil sanctions would become “the perfect alibi” for Nicolás Maduro’s incompetence, as they would end up strengthening his government, weakening the opposition, and aggravating the humanitarian crisis. Without sanctions, Maduro would be nothing more than an incompetent leader who ruined the Venezuelan economy. Moreover, the sanctions allowed him to build an epic of resistance and consolidate Chavismo around his leadership. It would be foolish for him to reach a deal in which he ends up giving up his ability to paint the opposition as the bad guys.
WHAT CAN YOU OFFER TO ONE WHO HAS IT ALL?
To think that Chavismo seeks to enter into a commercial transaction to barter electoral concessions in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions is to repeat the analytical error of seeing the Maduro government as an actor motivated by economic interests. Chavismo is not interested in money. It is interested in power. This is not to deny the crucial role that corruption plays in its incentive structure nor that Maduro would like to get the economy to recover. It is to understand that both of these objectives – the accumulation of money and the pursuit of economic recovery – are subordinate to their role in preserving the political control necessary to ensure the government’s continuity. Maduro and his circle are not looking to get their money back; nothing prevents them from living like rich people. Nor are they particularly interested in turning Venezuela into a prosperous society. What they want is simple: to remain in power.
Chavismo is neither a mercantile coalition in search of economic benefits nor a benevolent government that seeks the well-being of its citizens. Chavismo is a political movement with hegemonic aspirations. It arose in the 90s after the failure of two coup attempts and took shape around the figure of a charismatic leadership under the classic populist scheme that promises direct and unmediated communication with the popular will. Unlike movements that have come to power through an armed insurgency, Chavismo reached power through elections and seeks to relegitimate itself continually through electoral events.
Every six years, Venezuelans do not elect the Chief Executive; they elect the chief of all branches of government. Regardless of who wins the election, Venezuelans do not elect a president. They elect a dictator.
That electoral events are part of Chavismo’s core narrative is partially due to the fact that there was already a strong electoral tradition before Chávez came to power in Venezuela. In fact, Venezuela in 1998 was the South American country with the longest tradition of competitive presidential elections. It is not a coincidence that Chavismo consistently argued that Venezuela was one of the countries in the world where most elections took place. As in the case of the PRI, electoral ratification was a central component of the narrative that sustained and legitimized the hegemonic project.
Maduro is not seeking the lifting of sanctions. Instead, Maduro is seeking to regain the political legitimacy he lost during the 2019 recognition crisis. He knows he won’t get that in a negotiation roundtable. He knows he can only achieve it through internationally recognized elections that legitimize him in power. Maduro is the first one who wants Venezuela to hold elections that are recognized as free and fair by the international community. His only condition is that he wants to be sure that he will win them.
THE ELECTORAL MIRAGE
Holding an election is not difficult. What is difficult is to get the loser of the election to admit defeat. Understanding what makes democracy work where it does requires understanding how those with a monopoly on the use of force can decide that it is in their interest to hand over power when the voters so decide. Perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of this enigma was provided by Ronald Reagan when he assumed the presidency from Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1981. “In the eyes of many in the world,” Reagan said, “this every four-year ceremony that we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
A stable democracy does not only require elections. A stable democracy requires the existence of autonomous and independent public powers that can limit the ambition for power of those who control the executive branch. For democracy to exist, there must be effective institutional counterweights to the power of the presidency. When those who control the executive branch acquire the ability to subordinate other branches of government to their will, it will not be long before that society turns towards complete authoritarianism.
To think that negotiation could lead to a solution to the Venezuelan political conflict without addressing the country’s serious problem of institutional design is simply avoiding the fundamental issues. Regrettably, western diplomatic bureaucracies will always be inclined to prioritize an electoral solution that allows them to present the achievement of a peaceful and democratic resolution to the Venezuelan crisis. Unfortunately, chances are that unless institutional reforms become an integral part of a negotiation, even new parliamentary and presidential elections will not solve anything.
The model of a purely electoral agreement to resolve the crisis of governance was already tried in Venezuela. That was exactly the design of the accord signed between the representatives of the government of Hugo Chávez and the Democratic Coordination Group in May 2003, which led to the holding of the Recall Referendum in 2004 with observation provided by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS). By the way, this supervision by the international community did not prevent the government from deploying the Tascón and Maisanta lists to intimidate anyone who participated in the initiative to convene the referendum.4 That 2003 agreement allowed the international community to consider the Venezuelan crisis resolved when Chávez won the recall. But it failed to attack the root causes of the country’s governance problem.
In Venezuela, it has become habitual for the loser of the elections not to acknowledge defeat. Not recognizing or trying to circumvent the electoral result is part of the basic political repertoire of both the government and the opposition. When the government lost the 2007 constitutional referendum, it simply called another referendum; when it lost elections for governors, it appointed “protectors” in charge of channeling the resources assigned to the state; when Chavismo lost two-thirds of the Assembly in 2015, it went to the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) to annul the opposition’s supermajority as well as the legislative powers of the Assembly. The opposition, for its part, refused to avow the government’s victory in the 2004 recall referendum, the 2005 parliamentary elections, the 2013 presidential elections, the 2017 regional elections, and everything that has come after. Even in 2006, when Chavez almost doubled the vote of his opponent Manuel Rosales, the latter went before the cameras to say that yes, Chávez had won, but by a narrower margin than published by electoral authorities. If recognition of the electoral results by the losers is what defines a democracy, Venezuela stopped being one a long time ago.
Maduro is the first one who wants Venezuela to hold elections that are recognized as free and fair by the international community. His only condition is that he wants to be sure that he will win them.
Losers of the Venezuelan elections do not acknowledge their defeats because it does not make sense for them to do so. Venezuela’s institutional design, designed by Chávez at the height of his power and incorporated into the 1999 Constitution, allows the executive branch to easily subordinate all other branches of government to its will. Simply threatening to call elections for a Constitutional Assembly, which the president can do by appealing to Article 348 of the Constitution, can assure the obedience of all public authorities. Every six years, Venezuelans do not elect the Chief Executive; they elect the chief of all branches of government. Regardless of who wins the election, Venezuelans do not elect a president. They elect a dictator.
For Venezuela to make an effective transition to democracy, it must first carry out a series of institutional reforms, including its constitutional framework, that guarantees that handing over power for someone who loses an election is not equivalent to political suicide. This requires eliminating the supra-constitutionality of the Constitutional Assembly, instituting an electoral system that protects minorities, and ensuring that neither the president nor the Legislature has the ability to change the correlation of forces in the judiciary at will. This discussion of institutional reforms is so far removed from how both parties are now thinking about the negotiations that it would be illusory to see us going there. With both parts accepting the winner-take-all institutional configuration, the best we can hope for is either that everything remains the same or that at most at some point in the future, we manage to change a left-wing dictatorship for a right-wing one.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
These days, a conversation I had with my father – a veteran of Venezuelan politics since the times of the resistance to the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship of the 1950s – a few days before the attempted coup against Hugo Chávez in April 2002 has come to mind a lot. Caracas was a river overflowing with conspiracies against the background of massive demonstrations and ubiquitous calls for Chávez’s resignation. Sitting in front of two lattes and guayanés cheese arepas, I asked my dad if he thought the opposition would be successful in their goal of removing Chávez from power. “Governments are not overthrown, Francisco,” replied my father, telling me how the dictatorship of Perez Jimenez, in the end, was toppled as a result of infighting more than anything that the resistance did. “Governments that fall, fall on their own.”
Maduro cannot win a free and fair election. But the opposition could lose it.
Whether Maduro remains in power will ultimately depend on his ability to hold together the military coalition that supports him and prevent internal power struggles within Chavismo from threatening the regime’s internal stability. In the midst of this context, his government will organize electoral events with which it will seek to recover the legitimacy lost in recent years. These elections will not cease to be an interesting opportunity for opposition movements to organize and try to take advantage of the loopholes that the system leaves to contest power. Maduro has proven to be very adept at taking advantage of the opposition’s mistakes. It is up to those who oppose him to be at least prepared to take advantage of the mistakes that he will surely make at some point.
It is impossible for an incumbent like Nicolás Maduro to win a fair presidential election against a united opposition. His levels of unpopularity are so high, the magnitude of the economic and humanitarian crisis that has occurred under his government is so large, and his capacity to antagonize society is so great that any moderately coherent candidate should be able to defeat him, even if only because Venezuelans want to put an end to this dark chapter for once and for all. What can happen is that an opposition as disjointed and disoriented as Venezuela’s, entangled in its internal struggles and meaningless disputes, fails again, as it did three years ago, to unite behind a figure who can confront him. Maduro cannot win a fair election. But the opposition could lose it.
Only a unified, broad coalition could present a proposal for the country’s peaceful transition whose main objective is to rebuild the country’s governability rather than to seek revenge against opponents.
At this time, the main objective of the opposition leadership should be to reunite efforts to present a broad front to confront Maduro in the 2024 presidential elections, the next real opportunity to challenge his hold on power. Faced with this objective, regional elections are no more than a necessary but ultimately largely irrelevant distraction. Recovering the ability to confront Maduro requires rebuilding the type of coalition that was successfully maintained until 2015 and that included both radical and moderate sectors as well as left-wing parties, including a space for Chavista dissidence. The opposition coalition must be managed with an inclusive perspective that allows groups involved in it to picture themselves as part of a future governing coalition. Doing so would call for the complete opposite of the sectarian approach that prevailed in the conduct of the interim government and that largely explains its disintegration. Such a coalition should present a proposal for the country’s peaceful transition whose main objective is to rebuild the country’s governability rather than to seek revenge against opponents.
Above all, the Venezuelan opposition must present a proposal to turn into reality the aspiration that unites us Venezuelans beyond our political positions: to leave behind two decades of conflict and begin to lay the foundations of a society where we all fit in. It must set itself the task of building a country where differences are settled in the spaces of debate and democratic competition and not through violent confrontation. A country where the energies of those involved in politics are focused on finding solutions to people’s problems instead of creating new problems for them as a by-product of their struggle for power. To achieve that, we have to stop thinking about how we topple a dictatorship and start thinking about how we build a democracy.
Francisco R. Rodríguez is a Venezuelan economist, director and founder of Oil for Venezuela, and currently the Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
This essay first appeared on his blog.
 In the Democracy and Dictatorship index, a country must have seen an alternation in power under electoral rules identical to the ones that brought the incumbent to office to be labeled a democracy. See Cheibub, J. Gandhi, J. & Raymond, J. (2009) Democracy and dictatorship revisited. Public Choice, 143, pp: 67-101. In the Democracy Ranking Association’s Global Democracy Ranking, two of the eight indicators that measure the political system (which in turn accounts for 50% of the value of the index) refer to whether there have been changes in the head of government within the last ten years, and whether there have been partial or complete changes in the government party within the last ten years. Both affect the democracy score negatively if answered no. See: http://democracyranking.org/wordpress/2016-full-dataset/. The Economist’s democracy index takes into account whether the opposition has “realistic” prospects of achieving government, whether public office is open to all citizens, and whether there are “clear, established and accepted” constitutional mechanisms for the transfer of power. See: https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/.
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