The throwback

(A gift under the tree for our readers: this is an exclusive guest post by Alejandro Tarre, a talented, Caracas-based writer and blogger. Do check out his blog, if you haven’t already. Thanks Alejandro!)

It’s hard to look at Latinobarómetro’s yearly regional polls without noticing the Venezuelan paradox. In the latest poll Venezuelans once again ranked very high in their support for democracy. With 84 percent of the country saying they prefer democracy over any other political system, Venezuela exhibits levels of support for democracy that dwarf the likes of Uruguay and Costa Rica, which have historically led the region in this indicator.

Uruguay and Costa Rica are established democracies; their history partly explains their high level of support for democracy.

But Venezuela’s case is counterintuitive. In a country that values democracy so highly, how can authoritarian leader Hugo Chávez still have an approval rating hovering between 40 and 50 percent?

In “El asedio inútil“, a book of interviews with Germán Carrera Damas, Venezuela’s leading historian (pictured) sheds some light on this complex question:

“It takes a long time to eradicate the atavism of authoritarianism and subordination. In just 60 years a society cannot abandon a relationship to power that has lasted for many centuries. Many Venezuelans still relate to power, even if it is democratic power, as subjects (relate to a Monarch).”

Some Venezuelans might say they prefer democracy over any other political system. They might look at their participation in elections and access to a critical press as evidence of their democratic convictions and rights.

But this says little about the way they relate to power. Elections and vocal support for democracy can coexist with the underlying “atavism of authoritarianism” Carrera Damas refers to.

How can we define this atavism? Thinking it’s normal to have a leader with few real limits to his power, once he is elected to office; seeing power not as something that has to be exercised with moderation and responsibility, always within the bounds of the rule of law, but rather as something one uses “para de verdad mandar,” the way kings, generals, or hacendados do; accepting the authority of the president as a child accepts the authority of his father, without questioning it, assuming the role of subject as one’s natural station in life.

This behavior, says Carrera Damas, is handed down seamlessly from generation to generation:

“An important sector of Venezuelan society still relates to power as subjects. This is what we see when respectable persons who protest because they haven’t been paid say things like: “The president should know.” Who is the president? The monarch. How can we describe this attitude? As that of a subject begging to the monarch. Is he demanding his rights as a citizen? No. If he was demanding his rights, he would not appeal directly to the president. At bottom, they have not been able to dissociate the government, the state, and the president.”

As Juan has noted on this blog, Chávez’s Twitter account is another example of this behavior. Every day Venezuelans appeal directly to the president/monarch for a job or a health treatment or even trash collection.

I recently came across a tweet that said: “@chavezcandanga my request for help on my car is sincere please help me fredy garcia.”

Perhaps most illustrative is the way many Chávez supporters applaud the president when he publicly announces an illegal expropriation or gives a direct order to the Supreme Court. That reaction (“¡así, así, así es que se gobierna!”) reveals an implicit approval of Chávez’s authoritarian style and a disregard of the rule of law and separation of powers as basic tenets of democracy.

These cheering chavistas might not approve an expropriation of their own property. They probably would feel abused if that were to happen. But one should not confuse disappointment in a particular action ordered by Chávez with the general opinion of his style of leadership.

Unfortunately, Latinobarómetro polls don’t capture these nuances.