For many years, Venezuela seemed to offer a democratic model for Latin America. Powerful political parties, a controlled military, and a strong economy provided a basis for social peace, political stability, and the apparent consolidation of democracy. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, this stability has been shaken by economic decline and the decay of key state and political institutions, leading to growing public disaffection, violence, and attempted military coups.

    The crisis of democracy in Venezuela raises questions about democracy everywhere in Latin America. On November 13, 1995, an international panel of scholars met at the International Institute to explore the roots of Venezuelas crisis and to consider possible solutions. Sponsored by the Latin American and Carib-bean Studies Program (LACS), with support from other university units, Brian Crisp, José Enrique Molina, and Aníbal Romero engaged an overflow crowd in a wide ranging discussion. Daniel Levine moderated the forum, and Fernando Coronil and Mark Jones provided invited commentary.[1]

    Venezuelan democracy was inaugurated in 1958 and during the 1960s survived economic crisis, repeated military coups, and an extended leftist insurrection. In the 1970s Venezuelans enjoyed an economic bonanza underwritten by booming oil prices and political stability. The good times began to fade by the mid-1980s, as sagging oil prices, disinvestment, fiscal imbalance, and a rising burden of debt service sparked a broad economic decline. Poverty and unemployment grew and per capita GNP dropped from U.S. $4,740 in 1983 to $2,840 ten years later. Inflation — a new phenomenon in Venezuela — and widespread bank failures in 1994 exacerbated the crisis.

    The appearance of stability was maintained until February 1989, when urban rioting broke out in response to the governments economic adjustments, leading to a period of open social protest and increasing violence. Citizen disaffection surged, and voter abstention, long minuscule, began to rise sharply. Disaffection undeermined the political dominance of the AD and COPEI parties,[2] which together had pulled in over 80 percent of the popular vote in elections since 1973. In the 1993 presidential elections the AD-COPEI joint vote fell to 45 percent, as former president Rafael Caldera abandoned COPEI to lead a new coalition to victory.

    Various governments have tried to cope with the crisis. President Carlos Andrés Pérez and the International Monetary Fund negotiated a structural adjustment program, but it stalled after sparking intense political opposition. Before long Pérez was removed from office and put on trial for misuse of public funds. The new Caldera government is again negotiating with the IMF, this time for a more gradual debt payment program stressing compensatory social policies. To raise state funds and cut dependence on oil revenues, many public enterprises have been sold and a more effective tax system implemented. Yet severe economic difficulties remain.

    On the political scene, major reforms began well before the crisis reached severe proportions. Decentralization and electoral reform have had visible and far-reaching political impact. Governors are now independently elected, no longer appointed by the President. Along with mayors — also elected for the first time in 1989 — they are becoming a major new source of national leadership.

    This context of crisis and reform drew a wide range of comment and prediction from forum participants. To Brian Crisp, the same factors that once explained the strength of Venezuelan democracy (oil revenues, a strong central state, and stable parties), now make sense of its decline. The political system has become frozen in place: excessively dominated by AD and COPEI, themselves rigid and corrupt patronage machines, unwilling and unable to represent new social forces. Crisp suggested that if democracy is to survive in Venezuela, reform at the core must take place: loosening party control, furthering decentralization, and lowering barriers to access and representation by emerging social and economic groups including new unions and business associations. Such reforms would increase flexibility and commit a wider range of groups to democracys survival.

    José Enrique Molina stressed the importance of understanding why Venezuelan democracy has survived despite the crisis. Political and institutional reforms have already made the system more flexible and resilient. Democracy has become a value in itself, making system legitimacy independent of governmental performance. At the same time, a politically divided military, a favorable international situation, and "the prevailing moderation of the political elite," create a "safety net" for democracy. In Molinas view, these are permanent elements of the political landscape that give grounds for hope.

    Aníbal Romero took a contrary, and highly pessimistic position, declaring Venezuelan democracy already dead. Romero acknowledged that it is natural to search for positive signs and possible solutions in a crisis, but insisted that none could be found. Economic indicators continue to worsen, and for the first time in many years there is widespread hunger in Venezuela. Survey research confirms that most Venezuelans expect things to get worse: leadership has been irresponsible when not simply absent from the scene; and public alienation extends well beyond criticism of particular leaders or policies to rejection of the system as a whole. To Romero, the most likely future for Venezuela is decay and continued degradation of democracy.

    Discussion centered on those elements likely to affect democracys transformation. Discussants argued that the best way to solve Venezuelas political crisis is to democratize democracy itself. This involves more than politics narrowly defined: the states role in the economy must be reworked, at the same time that the countrys overall position in the international economic system is refigured to be less dependent on a single product. None of the proposed solutions is new, and participants agreed on the potential to build on initiatives already in place. Disagreement centered on whether Venezuelas leaders have the vision, and organized groups the patience, to make these solutions work.

    José Enrique Molina is Professor of Political Science at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and a visiting scholar in U-Ms Political Science Department. Daniel H. Levine is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.

      1. Brian F. Crisp is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona. Aníbal Romero is Professor of Political Science at the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela. Fernando Coronil is Assistant Professor of History and Anthropology, University of Michigan. Mark P. Jones is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University. return to text

      2. Acción Democratica and Comité de Organización Político-Electoral Independiente. return to text