From Left-wing populism to authoritarianism

Venezuela’s path to undoing its democracy amidst ‘Petro-Muzzled’ region

Traditionally, whenever the topic of Venezuela is discussed or written about, the stories are almost always framed as the Davidesque struggle of a Leftist regime against the Goliathan evils of the economic Right. Essentially, such characterisations are not necessarily invalid, because Venezuela’s government remains committed to its socialist principles, while resisting the tenets of its more conservative counterpart.

However, since the days of Chavez to the present times of his hand-picked successor President Nicolas Maduro, the issue is becoming less about capitalism challenging socialism and more about authoritarianism supplanting democracy–the ostensibly natural outcome of populism. 

Before the Consipracism Begins

Now, before the standard North-South conspiracism raises its instinctive head, let it be said here that even the United States of America, if it were not for the strength of its own democratic institutions that serve as fairly effective check and balances against the inevitabilities of populism, could find itself on a path where a fascist leader ‘trumps’ its own democracy.

The US-based-media political commentaries have already begun to ring the alarm bells, and the language of the day has not been void of references to possible impeachment. Why? Because President Trump, as Berlet (2005) outlined, has begun to show the signs of his employment of the three beats of “demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism”.

Actually, given the fact that for many, Venezuela is a little to “close to home”, let’s linger in ‘Trumplandia‘ for a minute.  Firstly, let’s ask this question: ‘What are the characteristic methodology of a demagogue?’ Generally, speaking such a political figure gains popularity with the “common people” by exploiting whatever prejudices and/or ignorance they possess. This process has historically taken on a mix of methods, but some common strategies include scapegoating; lying; making impossible promises; mocking and ridiculing the opponent (Luthin, 1954); using outrageous behaviour to prove that they’re going against the ‘establishment’; and of course, attacking the news media. (Click here for a full list and discussion of these traits).

The fair-minded observer would find many and more of these demagogic traits in the current US President, a right-wing populist leader by most experts’ accounts.

Populism, a path to Authoritarianism

In an April 1st, 2017 New York Times article, entitled “How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian? Venezuela Is a Case in Point“, authors Max Fischer and Amanda Taub do an excellent job in simplifying the descent from democracy. Fischer and Taub offered this caveat:

“Venezuela’s fate stands as a warning: Populism is a path that, at its outset, can look and feel democratic. But, followed to its logical conclusion, it can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism.”

It is not very difficult to see how this is possible. Let’s look at the Trump White House, again. After the United States Supreme Court blocked the Trumpian travel ban, the newly elected president pulled the “scapegoating” technique out of the demagogue’s toolkit and berated the third branch of government, the Judiciary. The LA Times, in an April 4th article entitled “Trump’s Authoritarian Vision“, put it this way:

“It’s nothing new for presidents to disagree with court decisions. But Trump’s direct, personal attacks on judges’ integrity and on the legitimacy of the judicial system itself — and his irresponsible suggestion that the judiciary should be blamed for future terrorist attacks — go farther. They aim to undermine public faith in the third branch of government.”

The LA Times goes on to remind of something that should be obvious in any democracy, but given the air of populism and demagoguery, it bears repeating:

“The courts are the last line of defense for the Constitution and the rule of law; that’s what makes them such a powerful buffer against an authoritarian leader. The president of the United States should understand that and respect it.”

Another tell-tale sign has been how the U.S. President has spoken of and treated the U.S. media, labelling them as “fake news”, a technique designed to keep supporters within a carefully managed populist-media echo chamber. However, at the same time, these measures serve to weaken institutions that keep the powers of a president in check. In a way, it’s also a form of the conspiracism. To this end, while reminding of the fortitude of the country’s democratic institutions, that same LA Times article concluded with another cautionary note:

 “But we should not view them [democratic institutions] as invulnerable either. Remember that Trump’s verbal assaults are directed at the public, and are designed to chip away at people’s confidence in these institutions and deprive them of their validity. When a dispute arises, whose actions are you going to consider legitimate? Whom are you going to trust? That’s why the public has to be wary of Trump’s attacks on the courts, the “deep state,” the “swamp.” We can’t afford to be talked into losing our faith in the forces that protect us from an imperial presidency.”

Back to Venezuela

Now, if the fear is real for the United States, the bastion of Democracy, then it may be time for even leftism’s supporters to take a cold, hard look at what’s been occurring in Venezuela; and, more importantly, to question why the region has been so slow to speak up against it.

Once done correctly, nothing is inherently wrong with socialist democracies. But, more importantly, as was stated in the start of this article, the issue here isn’t about socialism versus capitalism, but rather authoritarianism challenging democratic institutions.

While Donald Trump enjoys a Congress of his Republican peers, his Venezuelan counterpart has quite the opposite: A congress, since December 2015, that has been dominated by Maduro’s political opponents. The opposition’s (the alliance between the Democratic Unity Roundtable and three indigenous representatives) super-majority of 112 seats to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)’s 55 had hopes flying high, as the Congress had the powers to overrule many of Maduro’s policies.

Particularly, the opposition’s supermajority had them optimistic about their ability to pass laws to free political prisoners like opposition political leader Leopoldo Lopez. Likewise, the Congress hoped to reverse appointments made to senior positions within the country’s judicial branch. Additionally, the parliamentary victory added gusto to the idea that the opposition would be able to trigger a recall referendum once Maduro’s term reached its mid-way point in 2016.

Needless to say, none of those hopes have been substantially realised. Lopez continues to sit in prison on an almost 14-year sentence, and the number of political prisoners have continued to climb. In terms of the recall referendum, the Opposition’s goal was to execute it before January 2017, when a recall would lead to a presidential election, as opposed to a post-January-2017 plebiscite that would, at best, simply result in Maduro’s vice-president taking over the reign; thereby, keeping the PSUV in power. However, a decision from the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE) killed that dream late last year.

Attempted Murder of Separation of Powers

However, there has been no greater evidence of the path to authoritarianism than the decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court to effectively confiscate the powers of Congress for itself. In its March ruling the Court ruled: “As long as the situation of contempt in the National Assembly continues, this constitutional chamber guarantees congressional functions will be exercised by this chamber or another chosen organ.”

Secretary General of the O.A.S. Luis Almagro condemns undemocratic actions in Venezuela (source: BBC News)

Naturally, this move was denounced internationally, with the Organization of American States (OAS)’s Secretary General Luis Almagro leading the charge in the region. The de facto transfer of power was short lived, but that didn’t prevent the OAS from condemning the act in an April 2nd OAS resolution:

“The decisions of the Supreme Court of Venezuela to suspend the powers of the National Assembly and to arrogate them to itself are inconsistent with democratic practice and constitute an alteration of the constitutional order of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.  Notwithstanding the recent revision of some elements of these decisions, it is essential that the Government of Venezuela ensures the full restoration of democratic order.”

A hallmark of a democracy is the tenets of separation of powers, exercised via the three branches of government: The Executive, The Judiciary, and Parliament. The move by the government-influenced Judiciary sought to consolidate power, wresting it away from the opposition-controlled Venezuelan Congress, and in so doing was an immediate threat to the core concepts of separation of powers.

The act accurately sparked protests against the government of Venezuela; however, as any casual observer of the happenings in the socialist state would know, these protests have since turned violet with Reuters reporting a death toll of more than 30 persons as of May 3.  However, as pointed out by yet another OAS statement, the government has been increasing its numbers of political prisoners and unconstitutionally trying these people before military courts. The May 8th statement from Almagro opens:

“There are elements of dictatorships that are unmistakable. Today I must refer to one more in Venezuela: the passing of civilians to military justice. … The accusations of crimes of vilification and instigation to rebellion, as well as other categories of a similar nature, are part of a reactionary discourse devoid of legal grounds applied against demonstrators. The reality is that they simply serve the purpose of depriving peaceful protesters of their freedom.”

The fiery statement went on to quote from Venezuela’s own Constitution, before adding:

“We have reached a point from which there is no other return than that of immediate general elections, so the people of Venezuela can express themselves and return democracy to the country. Judging civilians according to military justice violates all the basic principles of democracy and human rights. In yet another authoritarian act, the regime is again assailing sovereignty and democracy in Venezuela, thereby losing more and more legitimacy.”

Mixed Response from Region

The evidence of demagoguery, conspiracism, and other components of authoritarian populism are written on the walls, and are too conspicuous to be missed by even the casual observer. However, the region’s response has been mixed, with countries clearly hesitant to offend Caracas.

For instance, when the April 26th resolution on whether or not the OAS Permanent Council should convene a meeting of Foreign Ministers to “Consider the Situation in Venezuela” was tabled before member states, according to an OAS statement on the resolution’s approval, this is how the votes were cast:

“The Resolution was approved by a roll-call vote. The Permanent Missions of Argentina, The Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia and Uruguay voted in favor.

The representatives of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Venezuela voted against, and abstaining were: Belize, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago. Grenada was absent from the meeting. The place and date of the meeting are yet to be determined.”

As can be seen from the excerpt above, 19 of the 34 OAS member states voted in favor of the resolution. Among these parties were five Caribbean nations, and even Guatemala. Six Caribbean countries, on the other hand, voted against. Belize, however, found itself among the four abstentions.

Regaining Backbones

In 2014, when concerns regarding the protests and subsequent deaths in Venezuela occurred, it was the “nays” that carried more sway, and allowed for a closed-door session on Venezuela. Belize, of course, was among them. The MiamaDiario reported:

“A total of 22 countries voted in favor of dropping the curtain on the session so that their positions with respect to Venezuela would not be disclosed to the public. Mexico, Peru, Chile, Panama, Canada, the United States, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Paraguay all called for transparency, rejecting the proposal of holding the session behind closed doors. Nonetheless, this was insufficient to earn the necessary majority.”

The Miamadiario piece, entitled “Bankrolling votes in the OAS pays off for the Venezuelan regime”, did not hold back any punches regarding the motivations for secrecy:

“Countries such as those aforementioned are in fact being heavily extorted by the Maduro regime, since they form part of an agreement known as Petrocaribe. The nations voting for secrecy all benefit economically from the current regime, diverting the purpose of the OAS from that of protecting democratic principles to one of vying to protect their own national economic interests.

“Petrocaribe includes Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Suriname.”

Back then, however, it was hard to blame PetroCaribe-reliant states for tip-toeing around the matter. Maduro, at the time, made his threat very clear. As was also reported in the MiamaDiario:

“Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro warned leaders around the region that he would end oil shipments to their countries if they interfere with the plans of his regime.  In a show of force, Maduro broke off all diplomatic, political and commercial ties with Panama recently, after the Central American nation called for the enforcement of the Democratic Charter in the Organization of American States (OAS).  Maduro warned that ‘anyone who intervenes in Venezuela goes dry, sinks and pays a high price.'”

However, as the Petrocaribe program begins to lose ground due to reduced world-market prices for oil, and on account of the fact that several countries have been working to reduce their dependence on Petrodebt, three years later it would seem that some backbone is returning to a region that supposedly supports democracy as enshrined in the Democratic Charter in the Organization of American States (OAS).

Countries seem to be recalling that the Charter affirms that “all countries of the Americas” collectively commit to ensuring that “democracy is and should be the common form of government for all countries” within this region. The Charter also speaks to a “collective commitment to maintaining and strengthening the democratic system in the region”.

On this motif, Jamaica, for instance, has moved from its 2014 position and openly voted in favor of this April’s resolution. Belize and the Dominca Republic have moved from “nay” to abstention. One could debate whether or not that’s progress;  however, with glass-half-full lens, let’s say it is.

Venezuela withdraws from OAS

Of course, one has to wonder whether the regaining of some backbone even really matters, given the recent withdrawal of Venezuela from the OAS. Given that discussions were pending on whether to suspend the South American state, the withdrawal feels awfully akin to a “you can’t fire me; I quit!” response.

Nevertheless, the process itself should take about 2 years, and last Wednesday, May 10, the OAS Permanent Council met to “to discuss the preparations for the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs on the situation in Venezuela and to discuss the change of venue of the General Assembly, which will take place between June 19 and 21.”

As Reuters reports, that decision prompted the Maduro administration to make good on their threat to withdraw. (See Reuters report here). Of course, it came with the usual belittling and scapegoating common to populist leaders.

Democracy or Bust

The realm of Geopolitics is certainly not the most straightforward arena. And, fundamentally, deciding on a country’s foreign policy position is always a delicate exercise that has to balance multiple interests simultaneously.

When asked outside of last Friday’s House meeting whether Belize is compromised on the matter of Venezuela, Prime Minister Dean Barrow responded that Belize’s abstention on the recent vote reflects a mix of both gratitude and the fact that the situation is complicated.

I believe in gratitude, and I can’t forget that we benefited handsomely from their largess when things were good,” Barrow explained. “I, as a human being, as a politician, greatly admired Chavez’s vision. I recognize that things have since moved on. So what I want to do, and what I asked the Government and the Cabinet to do, is to try to steer a middle course.

“For example, the Supreme Court in Venezuela made that ruling in which it appeared it was saying it would, as it were take over, would substitute itself for the Congress: I had no difficulty saying to the Venezuelan ‘charge: That, we don’t support; that, we cannot agree with; and if it’s a matter that one is called out to comment on it that would be our position – fortunately, the decision was reversed the next day, and that is where we are. Belize is a democracy; Venezuela has been a democracy; what is happening now in terms of the scarcities and the protests and the response of the government is extremely complex.

We in Belize, I think, need to consider our position very carefully, so that we don’t at the first sign of trouble turn our back on our friends. But also, so that nobody takes us for granted in feeling that no matter what, Belize will support any and all actions of the Venezuelan government, no. So we really on a case by case basis.”

Fortunately, this statement reveals Belize’s tolerance threshold as it pertains to ostensibly authoritarian goals of Maduro. Essentially, Prime Minister Barrow’s statement draws a line in the sand when it comes to protecting the democratic ideals of separation of powers. This is a correct stance to take. The next thing would be to determine our policy position on the accusations of passing civilians before military courts.

Petro-Muzzled in the Wrong Frame

Gratitude aside, one cannot help but think that the price of cheap money is too expensive. Belize, like the other states that abstained or voted against the meeting of Foreign Ministers, have to think about energy security and their economy.

For example, what would happen to an economy with limited fiscal space if a vengeful Venezuela opts to change the payment terms on the 25-year PetroCaribe loan, asks that economy to pay the market price of fuel, or simply cancels the agreement all together. This would leave the country with a short window of time to make the requisite adjustments both in terms of financing the PetroCaribe loan that makes up, for instance, roughly 18% of Belize’s external debt, while simultaneously finding new suppliers.

Until then, PetroCaribe beneficiaries remain somewhat ‘Petro-muzzled’, even though the signs of growing authoritarianism are evident in our South American neighbour, who strategically promoted a program to secure “loyalty”. But, again, as alluded to in Barrow’s comments, there are signs that the noose is loosening and the muzzle is coming off. It is difficult to not draw a line in the democratic sand pit, especially as it pertains to something as fundamental as the separation of powers doctrine.

However, in the midst of all this, the conversation–at least the portions that are not muffled by money and oil–remains inaccurately conflated. The issue of Venezuela, if framed as socialism versus capitalism, appears as a battle over economic ideologies, and is hardly justification for intervention into the affairs of the South America state. But, once the issues are separated, it becomes clearer that the matter has since evolved to a point where democracy itself is being eroded in the true fashion of authoritarian populism. It’s the latter that should concern everyone who claims that they support the ideals of a democracy.





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