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Volume 63 / Social Sciences


RENE SALGADO, Independent Consultant, Gaithersberg, Maryland

THE YEARS FOLLOWING 1999, have been framed by the increasing political prominence of Hugo Chávez, a former army paratrooper who in 1992 led a failed coup against the elected government of Carlos Andres Perez. Chávez won the presidency by popular vote in 1999 and succeeded in getting reelected in 2006 with the support of a large proportion of Venezuelans. Throughout his presidency, executive power has been enhanced at the expense of formal institutions such as the legislature and the judiciary, and even subnational levels of government. A few weeks after his inauguration, the president was entrusted by the national legislature with rulemaking prerogatives for an 18-month period in a wide array of issue areas, including public finance, taxes, national security and defense, transportation, and energy policy. Back in 1999 the executive was entrusted with a similar prerogative for a six-month period. The granting of legislative prerogatives to the president is not a new phenomenon in Venezuela; previous chief executives with strong legislative support have been entrusted with similar powers. A key difference, however, is that the system of institutional accountability that was typical of earlier periods has now virtually disappeared.

With Chávez becoming the elected president in 1999, the two-party system of government established by the 1958 Punto Fijo political agreement—often praised by local and international scholars as a sign of a healthy democratic trend—abuptly came to an end. The system had been weakened in the early 1990s when Rafael Caldera one of COPEI founders, left the party and won the presidency with the support of a conglomerate of small leftist parties—or the "Chripero" in colloquial Venezuelan parlance. Ever since the late 1990s, Chávez and his supporters have continued to hammer the idea that the AD-COPEI dominated party system was socially exclusive and controlled by economic and political elites whose main objective was the plundering of country's resources.

In his February 2007 inaugural address for a new presidential term, Chávez proclaimed the consolidation of his Bolivarian Revolution through the creation of 21st-century socialism—which he regards as a foremost objective of his new presidential term—and announced the nationalization of some industries along with the imposition of new restrictions on foreign investments in the oil sector.

Chávez's inaugural discourse in 2007 did not offer clear clues about his policy directions, but instead was a blend of ideas and apparently future plans. As noted by several observers of Venezuela's contemporary political developments, Chávez inflammatory rhetoric usually tends to be more radical than his actual performance. This may be related to the fact that the timing of his experiment is less than propitious for leftist radicalism: Unlike Cuba in the 1960s, or Nicaragua in the 1980s, he does not have the option of resorting to the Soviet camp (ot its equivalent) for advice or support. There has been assistance from socialist Cuba on the design and implementation of social programs targeted to the poor (misiones), but the planned economy with totalitarian political controls that Castro introduced to the island with Soviet support is not a viable option. Although Chávez enjoys using leftist rhetoric and political slogans in his speeches—often mixed with tempestuous diatribe against local or international adversaries—it is probably because he is aware that it pays political dividends among his supporters.

One of the shortcomings of the Chávez presidential style of politics, and a factor that contributes to social and political polarization, is his apparent unwillingness to pay any attention to dissident voices. This includes most of Venezuela's intellectual class, which Chávez does not hesitate to characterize as enemies of the Venezuelan poor and his "revolution." The lack of local intellectual support for his intended courses of action (even among previous leftist allies) has not prevented the chief executive from browsing around for inspiring thoughts for a social reengineering effort of his own. He has become an avid reader of earlier communist writers and contemporary leftist intellectuals and has made it a habit to recommend readings to and sharing his interpretations with supporters and public officials. Some journalists have suggested that the chief executive devotes a good amount of his cabinet meetings to the brainstorming of ideas from favorite writers. This at times leads to policy stances or declarations that are later modified according to the vagaries of the president's most recent readings. Thus, 21st-century socialism seems to be a mixture of thoughts, susceptible to change from one presidential appearance or speech to the next, rather than a clear-cut political ideology.

Not surprisingly, Chávez's governing style, politics, policies, and performance are primary topics of discussion and analysis in the current literature, some of which very rigorous in terms of empirical and conceptual approach. This is notably the case of the work by Trinkunas (item #bi2006001726#), a well-written, methodically documented, and nuanced comparative examination of civil-military relations and the role of the military throughout three regime changes: 1945–48, 1958–98, and 1998 to the present. The book—destined to become a classic on Venezuela's contemporary politics—provides a remarkable exploration and analysis of institutional weaknesses that prevented the sustainability of civilian authority over the armed forces.

Another significant contribution to the understanding of Chávez's political performance is the book edited by Ellner and Hellinger (item #bi2004003582#), which covers a broad spectrum of domestic and foreign policy issues and themes, and discusses institutional and policy blunders that have led to democratic decay and social polarization. Also valuable is Ellner's work (item #bi2005003124#), which presents a balanced overview and appraisal of Chávez's first two years in power and contrasts it with other populist experiences in the Latin American region. Levine's important study (item #bi2007002218#) highlights the challenges of political consensus in contemporary Venezuela and comments on the country's democratic uncertainties.

Two useful studies placing Chávez in the broader perspective of Venezuela's political evolution and political ideas and ideologies are the books by political historian Manuel Caballero (item #bi2005006706#) and political scientist Andres Stambouli (item #bi2005006712#). The first contends that Chávez discourse distorts Venezuelan history and Bolivar's ideas in an attempt to enhance and perpetuate his power. The second places Chavismo in the context of Venezuela's political evolution and tries to show how it has broadened cleavages and divisions in the political community.

A book that helps to trace the evolution of Chávez's political conceptions and ideas is Garrido (item #bi2005006715#) with testimonials by people (mostly leftist thinkers or guerrilla leaders) with whom the president had significant contacts during much of his military and political career. Another piece with helpful information on leftist conceptions is the study by Marquez (item #bi2005006703#), which systematizes his early communist views and subsequent socialist ideas, initially dispersed in documents, interviews, and testimonials.

Chávez's customary dislike for policy suggestions and ideas not in tune with his personal preferences has not prevented Venezuelan intellectuals, academicians, and policy practitioners from offering their generous advice to the president. Three books, all of them full of policy ideas and suggestions on how to improve the country's economic and social performance, are particularly relevant in this context: Marquez and Pinango (item #bi2005006710#), Ramírez Ribes (item #bi2005006707#) and Faria (item #bi2005006709#).

Critical and often sarcastic journalistic accounts of the government's exclusionary decision-making style and courses of action are provided in Petkoff (item #bi2005006701#), Heydra (item #bi2005006711#) and Carvajal (item #bi2005006700#). The first is a compilation of editorials from the Venezuelan daily Tal Cual, with acute observations of the inconsistencies between government proclamations and actual behavior. In a similar vein, Heydra depicts contradictions between presidential promises and realities, while Carvajal, in a sardonic mood, questions the president's view of the country's historical evolution.

A few works focus on traditional topics of enquiry such as party politics, party systems, and electoral politics. This is the case of both Molina and Alvarez (item #bi2005006702#), and Molina and Perez (item #bi2004002514#) that offer useful explanations on the decay of traditional mass party loyalties, the boost of personality-centered party politics, and the weakening of parties—to some extent related to the emergence of new competing mass organizations, such as the Círculos Bolivarianos, that are directly answerable to the chief executive.

Other works focusing on particular aspects of Venezuela's political evolution are Kenneth (item #bi2004001548#), Lucena (item #bi2004002357#), and Smilde (item #bi2004002515#). The first explores the limitations of traditional party politics amid economic and policy challenges of the 1980s and 1990s. The second offers an appraisal of electoral reforms from the late 1950s to the late 1990s, while the third deals with the topic of religion and politics with an account of evangelical political preferences in the 1998 elections.

Finally, valuable studies focusing on contemporary political upheavals are provided by Rey (item #bi2004002225#) with an illuminating discussion of the 2002 failed coup against Chávez, and Lopez Maya (item #bi2004001531#) who reexamines and sheds new light on the factors surrounding the 1989 Caracazo.

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