Events

The Domestic and Foreign Policies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

January 26, 2006 // 2:00pm4:00pm

Miriam Kornblith situated the discussion of Venezuelan politics within the broader debate over "third wave" democracies, in which concerns have arisen over the coexistence of formal democratic processes, such as elections, with practices that are deeply authoritarian. While some see Chávez's presidency as having deepened democracy through expanding participation, others decry the erosion of critical aspects of a democratic regime.

Kornblith stated that elections and voting have been key features of the Venezuelan political system, since 1958, and that elections were seen as the means of transferring power from one party to another. Since 1958, for example, Venezuela has held twenty-four elections, but fully ten of them have been held during the Chávez period. Kornblith attributed the acceleration in the frequency of elections to Chávez's attempt to establish a new model of power in the country – one that uses elections and referenda to consolidate, not distribute, political control.

Kornblith identified a number of ways that recent elections represent a loss of democratic standards. The decay of democratic institutions is seen in the pro-government bias of the national electoral board, arbitrary regulations, the elimination of public financing for political parties (rendering opposition parties penniless), the elimination of proportional representation, mounting concerns over the accuracy of electronic voting, and, even more worrisome, the development of software that allows voters to be matched with the votes they cast, thereby undermining the principle of a secret ballot. She cited additional concerns with the military's growing involvement in civilian functions related to the supervision and implementation of elections, the systematic harassment of voters associated with the opposition, and the increasing tendency to criminalize acts of protest and contestation.

Taking up the notion of "competitive authoritarianism," described in the recent literature on democratization and in which leaders exercise authority through the democratic system but violate the rules systematically, Kornblith maintained that the authoritarian side of the equation has grown in recent years. This poses a critical dilemma for the electoral opposition to Chávez: should the opposition participate in elections, thereby legitimating them even when they may not be free and fair, or should they abstain, knowing that non-participation could result in a complete loss of power. After two years of internal debate, the opposition decided to withdraw from parliamentary elections held this past December. At the same time, Kornblith pointed to growing debate within the governing coalition, particularly as smaller parties question whether the current rules of the game benefit their own political aspirations.

Michael Coppedge emphasized that the regime Chávez has created is no longer a liberal democracy, and that the events leading up to the country's 2006 presidential elections will be pivotal in determining the future of democracy in Venezuela. Coppedge predicted that Chávez will win the December elections, but that his current support of about 45-50 percent will decline by the end of this year. He surmised that as the country becomes more authoritarian—putting the leaders of the opposition Súmate on trial, for example, or putting pressure on the media--voters will become disenchanted. Economics will also play a large part in declining support for Chávez: although the economy is growing rapidly, it is also completely dependent on the price of oil. Inflationary pressures, shortages of basic goods, increased state micromanagement of the economy, and inefficiency in the private sector threaten economic stability. The pattern of expropriations of rural lands and urban buildings also remains controversial, and resentment appears to be rising of Venezuelan spending abroad in order to build political alliances. The decay of basic infrastructure and the lack of improvement in combating crime are additional challenges Chávez must confront.

Coppedge noted that support for Chávez will only decline to a certain point if the opposition remains divided, incoherent, and unable to address the concerns of ordinary Venezuelans. If they hope to gain popular support, the opposition must unite behind one presidential candidate selected through open primaries. Over the next year, Coppedge predicted that the opposition will most likely agonize over whether or not to participate. Coppedge echoed Kornblith's concerns about the government's power to manipulate elections. While "a fair election will be close," he said, "a close election won't be fair."

Javier Pereira noted that the Chávez administration has substantially repositioned Venezuelan foreign policy by replacing historic allies, the United States and the Andean Community, with Cuba and Mercosur. Venezuela exports approximately 95,000 barrels of petroleum per day to Cuba in exchange for social development assistance, and the leaders of the two countries espouse a common anti-imperialist platform. In South America, Venezuela has given priority to relations with Mercosur countries: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Venezuela's full membership in Mercosur—including voting rights and a rotation as president—is expected to be finalized by the end of 2006.

Energy cooperation is a principal instrument of Venezuelan foreign policy. Pereira noted that Brazil and Venezuela are engaged in bilateral infrastructure construction, including an oil refinery in Pernambuco, a bridge over the Orinoco River, and a fourth line for the Caracas metro. Moreover, Embraer, the Brazilian aeronautical firm, is protesting the U.S. veto of its sale of military hardware to Venezuela. Venezuela recently purchased approximately $300 million of newly-issued Argentine debt and plans to build a $30 billion gas pipeline from Puerto Ordaz to Buenos Aires in exchange for agricultural technology and expertise. Uruguay and Paraguay, the two smallest Mercosur economies, will also receive Venezuela financing for new oil refineries. Bolivia recently began developing closer relations with Venezuela, based on president Morales' anti-imperialist rhetoric and eagerness to receive alternative social development financing.

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela, which reached a crisis point in January 2005, improved dramatically following President Álvaro Uribe's denunciations of Bogotá-based plots to destabilize the Chávez administration. Chávez appears to be waiting for upcoming election results in Mexico, where the left is also favored to win. Similarly, Chávez supports the insurgent candidacy in Peru of Ollanta Humala, who is running second after the establishment candidate, Lourdes Flores. Pereira pointed out the irony that oil revenues paid by the United States help finance Venezuela's principal diplomatic tool: the conclusion of preferential oil arrangements with sympathetic heads of state throughout the hemisphere.

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