Venezuela is in full-blown crisis mode. The violence has been in the making for years. It’s not a social or economic crisis—the economy is in shambles, but it’s not yet at its worst. Crime is stratospheric, but then, it has been high for years. The crisis, it seems, goes beyond this.
What makes the current conflict so sad is that it could have easily have been avoided if minimal spaces for dialogue between opponents had been safeguarded. The crisis, it seems, is institutional.
The recent violence has taken place against a backdrop absolute institutional decay. The rock-bottom-basic institutions a modern country needs—the high school civics triad of the executive, the legislature, and the courts—have just plain stopped operating in anything like a recognizable form.
The key shortcoming of a presidential system is the overload of legitimacy on a single human being and his or her agenda. Take this example: a president that gets elected by a narrow margin, say by 1.49 points. In this example 20 percent of the voters abstain. That 50.61 percent (out of the 80 percent that voted) who elected the president did so because they favor something like 75 percent of his agenda, while the others that didn’t vote for him, supported only a fraction of that. And yet, the president feels he can legitimately push 100 percent of his agenda.
Sound familiar? That is Nicolás Maduro for you.
The problem of excessive power in the hands of the president is not a Venezuelan issue. This is a problem with the system we have chosen for ourselves. We chose it because the forefathers of Venezuelan democracy thought a strong executive was needed to govern in Venezuela. This was a choice made in 1961, but its roots go back to the 1820s.
Yet, in theory, there’s supposed to be a National Assembly and an independent Supreme Court in place able to keep an overzealous president in check. That is where Venezuelan institutions, and its politicians, have failed the country. First, in 2004, the Supreme Court was packed with a gaggle of unconditional yes-men (and women), ending any hope for judicial redress. Then our parliament went into a protracted death spiral.
A simplified mission of the Parliament is, of course, to pass legislation, but it is a lot more than that. It is place for different political forces to meet and talk (parler in French). In this space, political forces look for common ground to reach solutions that satisfy all representatives, and through the representatives, the constituents. The Parliament is an outlet for discontent, a space for negotiation where progress is slow but effective.
We talk and argue in Parliament so that we don’t have to do it out in the streets. But we broke Parliament, and turned it into a boxing ring, and we allowed our courts to be packed, breaking the one final check to authoritarian control.
This degradation was years in the making. First, the opposition boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections, which ended with a meager 25 percent voter turnout. This broke not only the checks and balances, but the opposition walked out of a space of dialogue. A culture of imposition was created inside the halls of the National Assembly, one we really haven’t shaken off yet. For five years the opposition was not to be represented in the central government, and no alternative outlet for discontent was provided.
The 2010 reforms, just weeks prior to a new legislature taking office, left the Parliament an institutional husk. This was exacerbated with every Enabling Law that gave the President the power to legislate by decree, of which we have had two since 2010. Add to that aggressive nationwide gerrymandering in 2009, which ensured the government ended up with 49 percent of the votes and 59 percent of the seats, and the Parliament’s emasculation was complete.
When you thought it couldn’t get worse, chavismo made it illegal for representatives to vote against party line—whoever does so loses his or her seat, so long as the majority approves it. In other words, voting the party line is now mandatory … but only for regime supporters. There are no penalties for opposition members who switch sides to support the government. (It bears noting that Venezuela’s constitution explicitly forbids this rule, not that that’s made a difference.)
Since then, the opposition in Parliament (and their constituents) have been harassed, insulted, physically beaten on the floor of the Assembly, with all ability to legislate or hold a dialogue or issue a vote of no confidence effectively gutted. With no institutional space for dialogue, there is no democracy.
So history repeats itself. It has happened all over the world—when one large chunk of the population doesn’t feel represented, riots eventually follow. Democracy is all about muddling through to minimal mutual accommodation. Elections are just one mechanism to help bring that about, but you can’t expect the losing side to go dormant between elections while it is being insulted and humiliated, and while their legitimate interests are attacked.
When dialogue stops, we descend into anarchy. In other words, we see what we are seeing.