Other voices: quality democracy?

If Venezuela is Athens, guess who Zeus is?

A rebuttal to my post on Venezuela being a democracy, from reader Jonathan Pfaehler…


“Democracy is like beauty: you know it when you see it” – Anonymous.

A recent post on Caracas Chronicles asking “Is Venezuela a democracy?” provoked a healthy debate – with some rather predictable, combative, and contradictory responses. This probably happened because we shouldn’t just be quibbling over whether or not a country is a democracy – but on whether or not that country enjoys a certain minimum quality of democracy.

A quality democracy is one in which there is not only participation, representation, and (the always debatable point of) free and fair elections, but also a balance of power: a political system in which the executive branch does not legislate; a political system in which the judiciary is not a branch of the government (read: Chavernment) but a part of the state, and where the citizens have rights to be protected. As long as the law is democratic, justice is democratic.

Yet the point chavistas keep emphasizing is that all those things will fall into place, that the new division caused by Chávez was necessary to get away from the old division created long ago under the Punto Fijo pact signed in 1958. It is a question of legitimacy, they say: Chávez has now won four elections, and if the majority wanted him out, then they would have reacted so. It may not be the form of democracy that you like, but it’s the form that people want.

It is true, Latin American history (and perhaps world history) shows a deficit in citizenship for a particular kind of inhabitant: the poor, undereducated mestizo/mulato, perhaps female, who is not included by traditional political powers. For some, democracy is merely the inclusion of these people –a feat for which Chávez is lauded excessively by ardent followers who admire his dogged persistence in challenging the status quo.

To others, though, quality democracy contains another, not so subtle feature. As an Argentine professor once told me, “Democracy is the certainty that the noise outside your door at 3 a.m. is only the milkman.”

While it has been decades since the noise outside Venezuelans’ doors was made by military goons, there has been plenty of spilled milk. The obligation to stay in due to a high crime rate, the poor management of inflation, a national debt which has led to lack of options at Venezuelan markets, and autocensura are just a few examples of collateral damage in the search for “inclusion” in Venezuela. That nose you hear at 3 am may not be military goons, but it isn’t the ghost of Cleisthenes either.

We should still keep in mind that while the relatively new political majority of constituents in Venezuela may have benefited from Chávez’s policies in the last fourteen years, in no quality democracy does the majority benefit at the expense of the minority’s rights. Democracy is a system of minorities, because it is the only system that consistently guarantees equal rights to all citizens.

It seems, at this point, that even those who support Chávez are confusing rights with privileges.

The confusion of ideas may spring from the muddying of the term itself, which could be rooted in its inherent, and perhaps necessary, illusion. Democracy is a promise, which is never realized, but only sought after.

In Venezuela, that promise is a mockery, it’s a sham, and without that we don’t have a democracy. Just because we elect a government doesn’t mean it’s a democracy – these, my friends, are two distinct animals.

In a country in which the homicide rate is high enough to spike the neck hairs on the already dead, the executive has direct and unchecked use of FONDEN funds, and different rules are applied to opposition candidates/supporters, we might question what type of animal is upon us. It certainly isn’t one we have seen before.

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  1. I don’t believe that I have seen a post from Jonathan Pfaehler on CC before but I would like to see more. This ranks as one of the best written posts I have seen! Congrats!

  2. “We should still keep in mind that while the relatively new political majority of constituents in Venezuela may have benefited from Chávez’s policies in the last fourteen years, in no quality democracy does the majority benefit at the expense of the minority’s rights. Democracy is a system of minorities, because it is the only system that consistently guarantees equal rights to all citizens.”


    An excellent commentary. Well done!

  3. The way I see it, even the minimum criteria for democracy are not being met in Venezuela. Democracy comes from rule by common people. Clearly, Venezuela is not being ruled by the common people, even if we consider the elections free and fair enough for them to have elected the current rulers; the current rulers are simply not ruling the way the common people would have them rule.

    Doesn’t discussing the quality of democracy imply accepting that the minimum criteria for democracy have been met?

  4. I am pretty sure that none of the people that post here are representative of the common people.

    Demo stemming from people.

    Cracy from kratos or power.

    It is a word with literal meaning, all other meanings are associated, no thing more than wishful thinking.

    Merriam Webster’s

    : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority
    b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation
    usually involving periodically held free elections

    Everyone idealizes a political system that would best cater to them, I assume in the case of most readers here, a system that favors the middle class.

    Democracy is what it is, and in no country has it ever been in service of the minority. I believe the writer confuses what he wishes it were, rather than what it actually is.

    Ochlocracy is what everyone here is looking for.
    Rule of the majority. Plain and simple, arranging political functions and public
    powers to best serve their “needs“( defined by the so called socialists)

    • Word Origin & History: democracy

      1570s, from M.Fr. democratie, from M.L. democratia (13c.), from Gk. demokratia, from demos “common people,” originally “district” (see demotic), + kratos “rule, strength” (see -cracy).

      Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

    • Fernando, by the way, one does not have to be a common person to *represent* common people, much the same way a good lawyer can well represent an uneducated client’s interests and wishes.

  5. “Democracy is the certainty that the noise outside your door at 3 a.m. is only the milkman.”


    Though I think I have a better and more lapidary definition;

    “Democracy is the certainty that your life does not end with an election, whatever the results, whatever the election.”

    Whether you were a candidate or the humblest activist, or just a voter. Democracy is when there’s life after an election.

    Chavistas and opposition know that this is not the case in Venezuela for anyone whereas it was the case before 1998. Venezuela fails the test completely! They, the chavistas, live in a house of cards. The moment they lose, they know that it will collapse. We only know that opportunities will be denied to us, and some of us will be persecuted.

    And in fact that’s the main purpose of having a Republic and Democracy. Whenever succession went the wrong way for supporters of a faction in an absolute monarchy/totalitarian dictatorship/despotim, they knew their life as they knew it was ended. To insure the life and rights of everyone.

  6. When Fernando VII entered Madrid after of many years of imprisonment by Napoleon to begin what can only be termed a very tyrannical regime the common people of Madrid thronged to acclaim him with the shout ‘long live our chains’ , When Hitler begun his regime and early on annexed Austria to Germany his popularity rate was close to 98% , Mussolini was also enormously popular when he made ‘Italy’s railways run on time’, when Stalin died millions of ordinary russians sincerely wept his death . The notion that democracy will inevitably give nations good or free governments is fantastic in the extreme. People who believe that dont read history. Democracy defined as a system where a country’s rulers are chosen by mayority vote in an open election can be as good or as bad as the capacity of most of the people in that country to understand and asses the highly complex and difficult issues which a government must contend with and be able to tell the difference between a reasonable or responsible policy decision which perhaps is unpopular and a decision which is irresponsible inept or corrupt but can have popular results . Very few ordinary people ( or even highly educated people for that matter) have this capacity or can develop it in any sustainable way. In a democracy popularity is king and responsability is a frail whining old woman nobody pays any attention to. There are some excellent governments measured in terms of the quality of life they give their peoples who are only marginally democratic , Singapore for instance . The blind cult of democracy as practiced in most countries is undeserving of the pristine reputation it has gained !! Maybe all governments are bad and we get lucky if by chance we get one that is not too bad !! Mecken used to say that ‘in a democracy people get the government they deserve and they get it good and hard!!

    • One reason to go for democracy is because people want it. In most cases, regardless of the level of information, people want a say in what happens in their public life.

      Democracy alone, like you say, is not correlated with development or success.

      I do believe that in many cases the failures are due to poor system design. In many situations those in charge of designing the system do so by mimicking other forms of governance in different societies and they fail to grasp the details of their own.

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