“Under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it’s just the opposite.”–John Kenneth Galbrait.
I’ve found myself quoting Galbrait a lot lately, especially when looking at the happenings in our South American neighbor, Venezuela. However, I’d be the first to admit that it’s applicability to the current happenings in Venezuela is not as perfect, because as I’ve written in an earlier post, while there are natural overlaps between economic ideologies and the sociologists’ definition of political systems, the two are not the same.
The Blurred Line: Authoritarianism Left and Right
Fundamentally, both fall under a general heading of Political Ideology, but political systems (or form of government considerations) has us looking more at the distinctions between liberal-democratic norms versus authoritarianism or autocracy. The discussions on economic systems, on the other hand, would have us debating between “capitalism” and “socialism”.
The lines between political and economic systems are often blurred, because, among other things, it often appears that in order for a socialist (or communist) State to execute some of its economic ideologies, it usually has to amass unto itself more power.
If it needs more power, then the principles of trias politica (separation of powers) and the need to periodically resubmit oneself to the popular vote (i.e. approval) of the people–hallmarks of democracy–becomes a bit of a nuisance. Consequently, leftist (socialist or communist) regimes ofttimes overlap with less democratic political systems, thereby, blurring the lines. Countries such as Cuba easily comes to mind here.
But here’s the thing: an Authoritarian regime can also be capitalist. For this reason, in modern times the term has evolved in a such a way to distinguish between Authoritarian capitalism (or State capitalism) or Authoritarian socialism.
Let’s use Donald Trump, who is often times described as an Authoritarian leader by U.S. media outlets such as the LA Times, as a clear example of a would-be authoritarian capitalist. If not for the strength of the US’s democratic institutions, Trump, who has shown sufficient signs to reaffirm the suspicions regarding his preferred leadership style, would inch the United States closer to such a regime.
Apart from Trump, let’s look at China and Russia. Both these economies can hardly still be described as communist in the traditional sense of the word. As someone once described China saying: “for a bunch of ‘Communist’ [the ruling Party describes themselves as such], they make pretty good capitalists”.
Writer John Lee, in his 2009 article in The Diplomat, explained that the debate is no longer of the Cold-Waresque type of communism versus capitalism. He puts it this way:
“The new contest is different and more complicated. During the Cold War, the competition was between capitalism and communism. China and Russia have adopted capitalism in one form or another. They are also participants in the global economic system. The new argument is about which side does capitalism better: liberal-democratic versus authoritarian states” (emphasis mine).
A Tweak to Galbrait’s Quote
It would then be likely that one might need to ‘tweak’ Galbrait’s Quote: “Under Authoritarian capitalism, man exploits man; under Authoritarian communism/socialism, it’s just the opposite”. That way, we can successfully ‘merge’ the political and economic systems’ conversation.
Whether its the Authoritarian Left or Right, Authoritarianism characterizes a state where individual freedoms are “subordinate” to the state and there are limited to no constitutional mechanisms to hold such a state accountable to the people.
Therefore, unlike the democracy that we’re used to, the concept of citizens exercising oversight functions of government officials is virtually non-existent or limited at best. Whether it is on the Right or Left, the definition provided by Spanish sociologist and Political Scientist Juan Jose Linz (1964), is useful. Linz describes an Authoritarian regime as encompassing what I’d call four pillars:
Pillar No. 1–Constrained political pluralism, as Authoritarians are less likely to care to listen, much less, make concessions with those of divergent views. Ideally, “pluralism” in general advocates for a type of balance among competing principles and views that could be expressed via different political institutions and groups, and that could be reflected in bodies such as a country’s Legislature. In short, pluralism seeks to avoid “extremism”, while the Authoritarianism (oftentimes linked to populism) tends to commit virtually exclusively to one value system, thereby, disregarding others.
Pillar No. 2–There is usually an emotion-based legitimacy, with the Authoritarian promising to combat the “evils” of whomever is described as their “enemies”. Think Trump and his phrases such as “Crooked Hilary”, “Need to Drain the Swamp”, and his promise to keep the “raping Mexicans” out of the United States. All this, in true populist fashion, to take care of the ‘poor and struggling’ ‘common man’.
Pillar No. 3–Generally there is suppression of opponents, including political opponents and;
Pillar No. 4–There is usually no clear definitions or limitations on the States’ executive powers. Again, without any appropriate and constitutional channels to keep an authoritarian in check, they can exercise near limitless executive powers in some cases.
Chavismo: Leftist but Not Authoritarian
This brings us to the current happenings in Venezuela, where the biggest injustice that has been wrought against Venezuelan people is the blurring of the lines in the conversation. Chavismo is a left-wing political or economic ideology that’s closely linked with socialists principles.
While we could debate the robustness of their democratic structures under Hugo Chavez, Chavismo was clearly supportive of participatory democracy, which supposedly seeks to provide opportunities for ALL members of a society (the so-called “oligarchs” included). The definition of Participatory Democracy by Aragones and Sanchez-Pages (2008) is useful here:
“Participatory democracy is a process of collective decision making that combines elements from both direct and representative democracy: Citizens have the power to decide on policy proposals and politicians assume the role of policy implementation. The electorate can monitor politicians’ performance simply by comparing citizens’ proposals with the policies actually implemented. As a result, the discretion of politicians is severely constrained. In this system, the extent to which citizens can affect policy and determine social priorities is directly aligned with the degree to which they choose to involve themselves in the process.“
This level of citizen involvement is seen superior to the standard representative democracy; however, understandably more complicated. But that is what Chavez envisioned in his 1999 Constitution. Actually, even Maduro admitted as much.
Again, one could debate how “healthy” democracy was under Chavez, but that’s for another day. The point here is that while Chavez clearly envisioned a Socialist state, Chavismo was never designed to be Authoritarian; instead, it aspired to the highest levels of participatory democracy that is inclusive of ALL citizens, regardless of social class or any other discriminatory factor.
Venezuela’s Constitution speaks to Five Branches of Government
To capture the vision of Participatory Democracy in their Constitution (1999), Article 136 of the Venezuelan Constitution states:
“Public Power is distributed among Municipal Power, that of the States Power and
National Power. National Public Power is divided into Legislative, Executive, Judicial, Citizen and Electoral.”
In a representative democracy, we’d talk about the first three. In Belize, for example, there has been sufficient criticisms aimed at the citizenry, many of whom, after voting in General Elections, recline themselves to a “non-involved” status. Authoritarian rule was clearly the furthest thing from the Chavistas’ minds. It is for this reason, Chavez consistently subjected himself to elections.
The National Constituent Assembly: 1999 vs. Now
If participatory democracy is the spirit behind Chavismo, it could explain why several Chavistas, including Venezuela’s (now former) Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, have become heavily critical of President Nicolas Maduro’s approach to governance, especially since the Opposition gained majority control of the country’s National Assembly.
One would only need read the Preamble to Venezuela’s Constitution (1999) to confirm the goal of participatory democracy:
“The people of Venezuela…to the supreme end of reshaping the Republic to
establish a democratic, participatory and self-reliant, multi-ethnic and multicultural society in a just, federal and decentralized State that embodies the values of freedom, independence, peace, solidarity, the common good, the nation’s territorial integrity, comity and the rule of law for this and future generations…”
In the context of both rule of law, and Participatory democracy, one could understand why, in April 1999, Chavez held a referendum to first ask the citizens of Venezuelan if they wanted a Constituent Assembly to rewrite their constitution. Upon the citizens’ approval, the election of members was executed in July that year. And, once again, the redrafted Constitution was submitted to referendum in December that year. (See useful chronicling of events by Brewer-Carias, 2010, p. 513).
Now, don’t misunderstand! Chavez’s version of the Constituent Assembly functioned as a super-Constitutional body that had overridden the powers of the National Assembly and the Judiciary, acts for which the April referendum did not provide. But, at least, there was a referendum.
In 2017, it doesn’t add up
Fast forward roughly two decades and we have Maduro convening the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), without calling on the principles of Chavismo’s participatory democracy to first ask the citizens if they wanted a NCA at all.
The lack of a referendum to convene a NCA was challenged in Venezuela courts earlier this year. However, the same courts that eventually upheld the 1999 Referendum under Chavez, eighteen years later ruled that a referendum was not needed. (See VenezuelaAnalysis.com June 2017 article).
Since then, legal experts from bodies such as the Venice Commission had analyzed the Constitution and relevant conventions ratified by Venezuela and concluded:
“Only the Venezuelan people have the power to convene elections for the National Constituent Assembly through referenda. That is to say, the Executive branch does not have this power.” (See Full Opinion here).
Now, we could get into a full debate on the legalities, but one simple question should suffice: In any functioning republican democracy, be it participatory or representative, when have you ever heard of an Executive Branch wielding powers over the Constitution, much less in possession of powers to convene an organism to re-write said Constitution?
Imagine President Donald Trump had that power to re-write the United States Constitution as he so desires. In a Parliamentary Democracy, even though the Executive has to enjoy the majority in the Legislature, to rewrite the Constitution would require a super majority in the LEGISLATURE, the principal law-making body. Again, The Executive does not and cannot have such powers. That’s the purview of the National Assembly.
As stated in Pillar No. 4 above, it is only in Authoritarian regimes where the powers of the Executive Branch are likely to be so unconstrained. Therefore, for any court, in a supposedly democratic state, to rule that the convening of a body that is designed to rewrite the land’s highest law does NOT first demand a PEOPLE’s referendum, is highly suspect.
It is conflicts such as these that helps us understand why a former high-court judge resigned shortly after the ruling. Venezuela Analysis newsagency also reported:
“In a resignation letter shared on social media, former TSJ legal consultant Gabriela Ramirez argued the ruling was a betrayal of the legacy of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. She continued by stating her resignation was due to the TSJ’s decision to allow Maduro to ‘hold a national constituent assembly to re-found the republic without previously consulting the people.'”
Additionally, The President (The Executive) is a constituted body, meaning it falls subject to the provisions of the Constitution, and is thus mandated to operate within the confines of the Constitution. How, then, can the President not only bypass a referendum, but proceed to recreate and redesign the voting rules and procedures for the elections to the NCA when Article 63 of the 1999 Constitution states:
“Suffrage is a right. lt shall be exercised through free, universal, direct and secret
elections. The law shall guarantee the principle of personalization of suffrage and
This speaks to the equality principle expressed in Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution, and enshrined in the “one-person one-vote” principles of democracies around the world, including in Belize. (Sometimes with exceptions for Indigenous peoples).
An analysis of all the legal pitfalls of the NCA decision is beyond the scope of this article, but I would encourage anyone claiming to be interested in this topic to review documents such as the report by the Venice Commission in its entirety. (Again, Click Here for full report).
Article 21 and the “Oligarchy”
Now, I started off this article discussing the distinction between Authoritarianism and Democracy for a reason. Whether we are dealing with the Authoritarian Left or Authoritarian Right, Pillars Nos. 1 & 2 discussed above speaks against equality before the law, and generally involves discrimination against a certain group. For President Trump, it was immigrants and other minority groups, and basically anyone who disagrees with him. For Maduro, it’s the so-called USA-friendly “oligarchs”.
Whether we label them the “Opposition”, the “US-backed Opposition”, or the “Oligarchy”, one thing remains true: these people are Venezuelans, who are entitled to a say and Constitutional protections just as any other group and social class. This is reflected in the Constitution’s Article 21:
“All persons are equal before the law, and, consequently: (1) No discrimination based on race, sex, creed or social standing shall be permitted, nor, in general, any discrimination with the intent or effect of nullifying or encroaching upon the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on equal terms, of the rights and liberties of every individual. ….(4) No titles of nobility or hereditary distinctions shall be recognised.”
However, not just in Venezuela, but among certain outside observes, it has become apparent that the Opposition’s voice is deemed to be derived from something that is sub-human and not worthy of equality before the law. Protesters are tried before military courts, but that is supposedly justified by their “oligarchy” status; the country has amassed more than 400 political prisoners, with limited to no due process, but that is somehow acceptable because of their “oligarchy” and “US-friendly” designation; and the list of human-rights violation goes on.
However, instead of condemning these actions, some have remained silent or outright supportive of these infringements because of “WHO” the protesters and Opposition members are, and with whom they are affiliated. How does either of those things nullify Venezuelans of their rights and protections in a Democracy? Unless, indeed, Venezuela has already evolved into something undemocratic.
Participatory Democracy and the Opposition’s Voice
But one would think that it’s a minority voice that’s being boxed out according to discriminatory labels. However, one has to ask what level of support does the “Opposition” have?
In the 2013 Presidential Elections, Maduro won 7,587,579 votes and Henrique Capriles (who has since been banned from running again, by the way) received 7,363,980 votes. That’s 50.6% and 49.1% of the votes, respectively, for a meagre 1.5 percentage points difference. That’s no “safe seat”.
In 2015, the “Opposition” coalition (MUD) won 112 out of the 167 seats, effectively giving the Opposition the majority. A 2015 TeleSur article reported that Maduro had accepted the results.
Therefore, the Opposition is not only a strong voice; they’re also a voice gaining more and more support in the country. This was also reflected in their symbolic referendum in mid July, where roughly 7 million Venezuela participated.
If, then, the Opposition has this level of support, designing the NCA that could effectively grab powers away from the Opposition-controlled National Assembly is as far away as possible one could get from participatory democracy. The Opposition’s dominance in the Legislature was a reflection of the Will of the Venezuelan People.
Within this backdrop, one has to then question the results of the July 30th election. Maduro’s CNE claims that they had more than 8 million voters participating. That number would be more than the 7.5 million that gave him the presidency in 2013. And it would be far more than the 5,625,248 votes Maduro’s party (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) had obtained in the 2015 Parliamentary Elections. That 8 million would suggest a significant reversal of an apparent downward trend for the last few years.
The Opposition on the other hand has maintained that the number is closer to 3 million. Independent analysts that were on the ground suggest a number closer to 3.6 million. And last week, in a Reuters’ exclusive, the following was reported:
“Only 3.7 million people had voted by 5.30 p.m. in Venezuela’s controversial Constitutional Assembly election on Sunday, according to internal electoral council data reviewed by Reuters, casting doubt on the 8.1 million people authorities said had voted that day.”
This also follows a statement from the company who supplied the voting system used in Venezuela, Smartmatic, who reported that they have evidence that the system has been inflated by at least 1 million votes.
Additionally, a much less reported variable is the fact that the CNE had extended the closing time for the polls by an hour on July 30th. Even networks like Al Jazeera in their LIVE VIDEO coverage throughout the day reported on this extension, with video footage showing anemic lines. However, TeleSur reported that the extension was on account of “overwhelming response”.
These are some dangerously large discrepancies that ought not be ignored; however, before even the evidence by Smartmatic is made public, the “oligarchy” argument had already begun.
The Recall Referendum & Calling Constituent Assembly
In 2015, the Will of the People also gave the opposition the Constitutional Power (See Article 72 & 233) to recall the President, via a referendum, the rules for which is outlined in the Constitution. This, however, was effectively blocked by the National Electoral Commission (CNE).
If Maduro was so confident of his popularity, he would not have had any fears of such a referendum, because then he would have won. Remember: he is saying that everything he is doing is a reflection of the Majority Will of the Venezuelan People. If that is the case, the Opposition’s recall referendum, would have backfired and kept him in power.
The Constituent Assembly
But here’s another point that is hardly ever brought up publicly, but was reflected in the Venice Commission’s report. The same Article 348 that gives the President the authority to kick start the process to a National Constituent Assembly also gives that power to other bodies, INCLUDING the Opposition-controlled National Assembly. Article 348 reads:
“The initiative for calling a National Constituent Assembly may emanate from the
President of the Republic sitting with the Cabinet of Ministers; from the National
Assembly, by a two thirds vote of its members; from the Municipal Councils in open session, by a two-thirds vote of their members; and from 15% of the voters
registered with the Civil and Electoral Registry.”
This was a fact admitted to even by the Government-friendly news agency TeleSur. But a point underscored by the Venice Commission was this:
“The wording of Articles 347-348 may be taken to mean that Article 348 regulates merely the power to initiate the procedure which can lead to the establishment of a National Constituent Assembly, while Article 347 entrusts “the people of Venezuela” with the decision to convene the assembly. The decision should obviously be taken through a referendum. According to this interpretation, the President, too, would only have the power of initiative, and convening the assembly would require the approval of the President’s initiative (or that of the other bodies entitled to do so) in a referendum.”
I guarantee you this: had the Opposition-controlled National Assembly used its Constitutionally given powers to “INITIATE” the National Constituent Assembly, the ruling from the Supreme Court would have likely coincided with that of the 1999 decision: that it has to be subjected to a popular consultation of the Venezuelan People.
Logically speaking, I’m not sure any legal expertise was needed to understand the need for a referendum, prior to the NCA election. For instance, instead of the opposition, the Constitution allows for 15% of the electorate to trigger the process. How can 15% of registered voters be enough for the BYPASSING of a referendum, and going straight to elections of a Constituent Assembly. Consider the instability that such a reading of the Constitution would cause.
Yet, this is the ruling that the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) essentially gave: that any of the bodies outlined in Article 348 could call an NCA election, WITHOUT the need for approval from the rest of Venezuelan People via a referendum. Consider that to even trigger a referendum on matters of national importance, the Venezuelan Constitution demands that signatures from about 20% of the voters be first obtained. Now, TSJ’s ruling has effectively said that 3 million people (15% of 20 million registered voters) have the power to call a body that can rewrite the entire Constitution. The absurdity of this ruling cannot be lost in a forest of conspiracism.
However, back to an earlier point, had it been the Opposition to call for a Constituent Assembly, the Court would have demanded that a referendum first be held. And such a referendum would have been completely acceptable, because it falls within the confines of the Venezuelan Constitution and international democratic conventions that Venezuela had ratified. And Maduro would have won or lost according to the Will of the People.
The Other Extremes: Opposition Violence & the Scapegoat
On a concluding note, the Opposition–while their frustrations are not without merit–should also be criticised for their lack of condemnation for the violence that has spawned out of their protests. That fact cannot be ignored.
Also, the United States, a country that has made no secret of their involvement in Venezuelan politics and desire for “regime change”, should also have done the gracious thing and taken its hands out of Venezuelan affairs, because its presence affords Maduro the perfect tool for any demagogue: a Scapegoat and something fear (Fearmongering).
By being able to point to US “imperialism” (fear-mongering), whilst simultaneously scapegoating the economic ills on the “Oligarchs” and not his and his predecessor’s economic policies, the waters have been muddied enough that in many instances the discussions overlook the Authoritarian transformation taking place right before our eyes. Instead, the “propaganda” has kept many focused on a debate about “Imperialism” and “Oligarchs”.
As a side note, it is worth mentioning that a definition of “Oligarchs” makes reference to a “person who belongs to a small group of people who govern a country or business, etc.” If the country has reached to the stage where only those who adhere to ‘Madurismo’ (pun intended) make up the ruling class of Venezuela, boxing out dissidents and holders of divergent views, then they themselves have effectively become the “oligarchs”.
Again, Chavismo was about participatory democracy that supports a socialist economic ideology. It was more of “Liberal-Democratic Left” paradigm. The Chavistas like Luisa Ortega who take issue with Maduro’s actions are condemning the apparent transition to a brand of Authoritarian socialism that Chavez did not envision. To see this, one simple need to read the 1999 Constitution left behind by Hugo Chavez.