Fading democracy in Venezuela demonstrates failure of socialism

Fading democracy in Venezuela demonstrates failure of socialism
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The rapid deterioration of the once prosperous and democratic nation of Venezuela is only the most recent evidence of the failure of socialism. Standards of living have dropped disastrously since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 set the country on its current course. Food riots, accelerating emigration and outright starvation plague what was once the brightest economic light in South America. The 2013 death of Chávez brought Nicolás Maduro to power, who has doubled down on both the redistributive and repressive policies of the Chávez regime.

But in the justifiable rush to condemn socialism for the Venezuelan tragedy, observers must not lose sight of a more far-reaching failure in Venezuela. This is the failure of its once exemplary democracy. This failure must be fully understood, since socialism would never have had a chance to fail, had not democracy failed first.

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In the 1970s, Venezuela could boast of being one of only two democracies on the continent. Since military dictatorship ended in 1958, elections had occurred peacefully at regular five-year intervals. There was regular alternation between the social democratic Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian Democratic Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI). Both were center parties committed to democracy, and both acknowledged Venezuela was a mixed economy.

Then came the 1978 election. With the popular President Carlos Andrés Pérez unable to succeed himself, COPEI’s leadership saw an opportunity to take the reins of power at a time when oil wealth was pouring into the country. The Christian Democrats had a golden opportunity to present an alternative to AD’s socialist approach to national wealth, which had culminated in the 1976 nationalization of oil. Officially, COPEI was opposed to high levels of government intrusion into the economy. The party embraced self-reliance and a strong private sector.

But the siren song of free oil money proved stronger than fidelity to principle. COPEI’s candidate, Luis Herrera Campins, abandoned his party’s philosophy and replaced it with expansive promises of government programs. He supplemented his suddenly pro-statist rhetoric with specific and unrealistic promises, such as a commitment to build 600,000 houses in five years. From that day forward, there has been no real alternative in Venezuela to a socialistic approach to economic policy. The core promise of democracy, that the people can choose the basic direction of government, was broken.

There is a direct line from that single decision to today’s humanitarian nightmare. With both the AD and COPEI promising more and more benefits, paid for by oil money, Venezuelan democracy quickly became a bidding war. Strains in the economic system appeared quickly, and accelerated during the second presidency of one-time hero Carlos Andrés Pérez, who returned to power in 1989.

Ominous cracks in the political facade were also emerging. COPEI had all but disappeared, replaced by parties distinguishable only by the splendor of their promises. With no real opposition, and with a government monopoly on oil wealth, corruption changed from an occasional nuisance to a way of life. Elections were farcical in their lack of meaning. Then, after expectations had been raised to the heavens, increased global competition meant the end of the oil bonanza.

In 1992, a failed coup attempt gave Venezuelans a new national hero named Hugo Chávez. Such was the level of popular disgust with the country’s hollowed-out democracy that Chávez was able to present himself not as a threat to democracy, but as its savior. He was elected president only six years after the coup attempt. Pointing out the endemic corruption of the traditional party leaders, he attacked the Constitution as the creation of those corrupt leaders and convened a “popular assembly” to write a new one. That assembly consisted of 121 Chávez supporters, out of 131 members. Attacks on the independent judiciary soon followed.

Within a year, the chief justice resigned, saying the Supreme Court should “commit suicide instead of waiting to be killed.” The Constitution that emerged from the rubber-stamp assembly is a dictatorial dream. Venezuela’s president has the right to dissolve Congress, dissolve the Supreme Court, dissolve state legislatures, and dismiss governors. Congressional acts can be easily overturned by plebiscite. The presidential term was extended, with immediate reelection. Maduro has made his intention to remain president for life quite plain. In the meantime, there has been no letup in corruption, nor in the irrational economic policies that are based on the promotion of envy and hatred, socialism’s twin pillars.

While Chávez and Maduro cannot escape the lion’s share of the blame for today’s nightmare in Venezuela, they are reaping the bitter fruit planted by Venezuela’s democratic leaders. By robbing the voters of meaningful choice, by substituting buying votes for earning them, and by persuading voters that their fate is not in their hands, the leaders of the AD and COPEI committed an act of abdication that led, as such abdications invariably lead, to corruption, then chaos and evaporation of confidence in democracy, followed by dictatorship and tragedy.

Edward Lynch, Ph.D., is chair of political science at Hollins University, where he teaches courses on foreign policy and international affairs. He served in the White House under President Reagan and is the author of “The Cold War’s Last Battlefield: Reagan, the Soviets and Central America.”