Javier Corrales is one of the U.S. political scientists who has best described the increasingly autocratic nature of the Venezuelan regime which came to power in 1999. While describing clearly the regime, however, he has maintained his diagnosis of a Hybrid Regime for the Chavez-Maduro regime. In a new and excellent paper in the Journal of Democracy: “The Authoritarian resurgence: Autocratic legalism in Venezuela”, see: http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/article/authoritarian-resurgence-autocratic-legalism-venezuela , Corrales offers us an updated diagnostic examination of the regime and concludes that what he defines as a hybrid regime is getting more and more autocratic, now that a new president has replaced Hugo Chavez. When I read the term Hybrid Regime applied to the Venezuelan political dictatorship installed by Chavez and now followed, in a cruel and clownish fashion, by Maduro, I remembered the story about the “empanada” vendor who was captured by the police for filling the “empanadas” with horse meat while advertising them as hummingbird “empanadas”. His claim was that the “empanadas” were actually made of 50-50 horse and hummingbird meats and explained further: “I use one horse and one hummingbird, one horse and one hummingbird”.
A hybrid regime is made up of democratic and autocratic components, just as a horse and hummingbird “empanada”. But can we keep calling an “empanada” a hybrid of horse and hummingbird? I doubt it, especially since the unit of horse is much bigger than the unit of hummingbird. Can we fairly define the Chavez-Maduro regime as a hybrid of democratic and authoritarian components? I have my doubts and I find that the new paper by Corrales does not do enough to dispel my doubts.
Corrales says: “Since it first came to power, the ruling party has taken advantage of its dominance in the country’s legislative bodies (the 1999 Constituent Assembly, the 1999–2000 “small congress” or congresillo, and the 2000–present national legislature), in conjunction with its total control of the Supreme Court since 2005, to enact laws that empower the executive branch at the expense of other branches of government. By the time of Hugo Chávez’s death in March 2013, there were many such autocratic laws on the books…”.
If Corrales is correct, and he is, the autocratic component was there from the very beginning, clearly prevailing over any democratic portion. In July 1999, only six months after Chavez’s arrival in power, Jorge Olavarria had already warned the county about his autocratic or, even, dictatorial nature (read his magnificent speech in: http://laprotestamilitar.blogspot.com/2011/11/pofetico-discurso-del-dr-jorge.html). In a grotesque letter to the Supreme Court, in April 1999, Hugo Chavez had already claimed absolute and exclusive power over the affairs of state, see my 2007 article “De Presidente electo a Dictador”, in http://www.elcato.org/hugo-chavez-de-presidente-electo-dictador
Corrales also says: “Venezuela’s arsenal of autocratic laws exhibits two features. First, the autocratic aspect of these laws is not always overt. It is often buried among an array of clauses or articles that empower citizens or other political groups, and these surrounding clauses encourage empowered groups to support these laws, at least initially. But there is always one clause that ends up empowering the executive branch far more than other actors, which is what makes these laws so autocratic. Second, these laws have been enacted in a constitutional manner, at least insofar as they have been duly approved by constitutionally sanctioned processes. This paradox poses a twofold problem for the opposition: 1) Such laws bolster the state’s capacity to control non-state actors, and 2) they cannot be easily challenged because they have emerged through constitutional channels”.
Corrales’ argument in favor of the hybrid nature of the Venezuelan regime is largely based on what he calls the constitutional process that was followed to enact the anti-democratic laws. But this basis is very arguable. The Constituent Assembly which approved the 1999 constitution has been challenged by reputed Venezuelan constitutional lawyers, both in its manner to be convoked and in the high handed manner in which it acted, firing judges and dissolving a Congress democratic elected. The formidable number of irregularities and violations of the Venezuelan law that made possible the “constitutional” basis Corrales cites for the actions of the regime are there for all to see. We must remember what Martin Luther King said: “Everything Hitler did was legal”. I am sure that at the root of this sentence, King had in mind the illegitimacy of his arrival to power. In Chavez’s case illegitimacy was not of origin but certainly was of performance, from day one, when he took the oath of office in an anti-constitutional manner.
Corrales adds: “The second element of autocratic legalism is the abuse of the law, meaning the inconsistent and biased implementation of laws and regulations. In Venezuela, this has occurred in many domains, but is especially salient in the media world, and it helps to explain how, under Chávez, the balance between private independent media and government-controlled media shifted in favor of the latter. Today, an ordinary Venezuelan with little access to the Internet is more likely to be exposed to public or proPSUV media, which is usually more easily available and economically accessible than private independent media. The consequence has been a significant decline in press pluralism. This shift in the media, known locally as “communicational hegemony,” has been a deliberate strategy of chavismo”.
It seems counterintuitive to read that the abuse of the law represents autocratic legalism since this implies that the legalistic component can somehow validate the autocratic component. There is no bigger crime than the use of legal tools to abuse the law. Such a crime would, in itself, be sufficient to discredit the democratic component in a hybrid regime. Corrales describes so well the abuse of the law that his resulting diagnosis of Hybrid Regime sounds far too lenient.
Corrales says: “Venezuela’s rising communicational hegemony has come about as a result of both the use and abuse of the law. The government has used existing regulations to set up public newspapers. Several of these circulate free of charge, easily displacing private competition—a practice that is within the law, but is meant to crowd out the independent media”.
Although Corrales does not condone this practice he calls it within the law. He might have fallen into a trap because the distribution of “free” newspapers by the regime is not really within the law, simply because the cost of doing this is incurred at the expense of the tax-payer, is our money. This practice represents “Peculado de uso”, the corrupt use of public funds to benefit the political objectives of a group.
Corrales adds: “The third element of autocratic legalism is, paradoxically, reliance on illegality. This has been especially significant in electoral politics. One of Chávez’s most important authoritarian legacies is an electoral environment plagued by irregularities and governed by a biased regulatory agency, the National Electoral Council (CNE). Indeed, in the sixteen elections held during the chavista era, by my count there have been more than 45 types of electoral irregularities, usually involving biased enforcement of electoral laws and often outright violations— for example, the government allows the PSUV to exceed spending or airtime limits; allows polling centers to stay open past their scheduled hours; arbitrarily bans candidates or observers; manipulates voting rules to the ruling party’s advantage; cajoles state employees or welfare recipients to vote a certain way; harasses voters at the polls; threatens to deny funds to districts that elect opposition candidates; and conducts cursory audits of results”.
This strong description of electoral irregularities is enough, in my opinion, to diagnose the regime as non-democratic and, as such, lacking in legitimacy. I might add that the practice here described by Corrales extends to the periods long before and after the electoral event. This collection of crimes adds up to a non-transparent electoral system. Democracy 101 calls for free and fair elections as an indispensable component of a democracy and this is not present in the Chavez and Maduro Venezuela.
Corrales points out: “Building an “Alliance of Tolerance” Chávez’s best-known foreign-aid program is Petrocaribe. Formed in 2005, this trade deal allows seventeen small Caribbean and Central American countries to purchase subsidized oil from Venezuela under favorable financial terms. Compared to similar earlier agreements, Petrocaribe increased the number of country beneficiaries as well as the volume of oil that they receive, raised the price subsidy, and made repayment terms even more favorable for recipient countries”….
Corrales lists these strategies to explain the increasing autocratic nature of the hybrid regime. I would go further: These strategies represent a way to consolidate power into the hands of the Chavez-Maduro gang. As such it is not simply an autocratic move but part of an anti-democratic strategy designed to maintain power indefinitely. The use of national money to buy political loyalties abroad has been one of the major crimes committed by the regime. PetroCaribe, including Cuba, has cost the Venezuelan nation no less than $50 billion during the Chavez-Maduro regime. This enormous amount of money has been essentially wasted, since it has no represented a lasting improvement of conditions for the peoples of the PetroCaribe countries but a transfer of money from a poor country to also poor countries, without positive structural changes taking place in their quality of life. It has given the regime an extended life, yes, but Chavez’s death and Maduro’s stupidity will not allow much more than a brief period of survival.
I hope Corrales ending phrase proves wrong. He says: “it is entirely possible that one of Latin America’s most politically restrictive regimes could turn even more restrictive in the years to come”. My hope is that this restrictive regime is forced out of power as soon as possible by the action of the people. There has already been enough suffering and humiliation.