Crumbling cartels and reform

El sol sale para todos
El sol sale para todos

I received a coment via email from someone asking why Caracas Chronicles was being so pessimistic. He wondered if there was any reason for hope.

This guest post Jonathan Pfaehler attempts to get at that by looking at the medium term a bit more. Enjoy!

Crumbling Cartels and Reform

By Jonathan Pfaehler

Pessimism. This is what my Venezuelan friends have been reluctantly feeding on after the October 7th Presidential elections. Witnessing the end of Venezuelan culture as they knew it, they girded their loins, ready to be feasted on by a ravenous clique. The somber main course included the continuous takeover of everything from (what remains of) government to the media, the oil industry, and the military, with a fatty side of an over-boiled opposition that seemed unlikely to survive the depression that followed – as some sort of durable and devastating dessert.

Now, things are different. It’s not that pessimism has turned to optimism – or anything like it. It’s that, although we all suspected something like this was in the pipes, we’re all still in shock. As Moisés Naím astutely noted two months ago, Venezuela’s path following the elections has depended more on biology than ideology.

But does it? What’s being tested now in Venezuela is typically among the least undemocratic features in democracies: the party system. We may be seeing a transition from the current lopsided cartel system that favors the PSUV to a more inclusive, democratic state, one that’s only feasible with the proper reaction from the opposition, as discussed before.

Political parties have a democratic aspect insofar as they incorporate people and ideas – but once in office, and as organizations, they are extremely undemocratic by definition. They are hierarchical in nature, and although they’re designed to channel the public’s demands into packages of policies, they can easily become professionalized and politicized to the public’s mass discontent.

In Venezuela, people’s demands have varied so widely in the last fourteen years there has still been no effective, cohesive response to the PSUV’s cartel machine. This could be due to the black goo that flows in favor of the socialist party, which allows them to spend heftily without extensive (to put it generously) checks and balances.

It’s legitimate to begin wondering what an opposition government would look like, but it’s good to keep in mind that institutions like FONDEN, Cadivi, PDVSA, and the judiciary cannot be simply fixed by the incredulous waving of a wand by Henrique Capriles and crew. As much as we wish that he was, he’s not the Harry Potter of Venezuelan politics. The necessary changes in rhetoric, objectives, and actions that should be taken in the Venezuelan government as a whole to bring about inclusive, long-lasting, and accountable democracy depend upon the political party system – no matter who is in charge of the executive or legislative branches.

This implies a shift in the relationship between the people and the state – before (or simultaneously, if the task can be handled) addressing the issues that have become deeply rooted in Venezuelan culture: insecurity, lack of transparency and trust, economic irresponsibility and inflation, etc.

The political parties seem to have become mere extensions of the state, servicing or (in the case of the opposition) responding to a movement more than to the livelihoods of millions of Venezuelans. In the PSUV’s case, they have been riding on a wave of predictable support for a leader whose popularity has fluctuated with the oscillating prices of oil.

The thirty political parties that form part of the MUD, though, have been in reform and reaction mode since the collapse of the Punto Fijo system in the 1990s, made painfully official by the landslide victory of Chávez in 1998. With substantially fewer resources, the possibility to affect positive change on a large scale has been difficult, when not impossible.

The former elite from la cuarta república that is still criticized by the vigorous Chávez supporter, though, has only been replaced by a new kind of oligarchy: only it is one that doesn’t like to compete fairly with another party, as COPEI and AD did under Punto Fijo. The competition was restricted, but it was still competition – creating incentives to perform well. In all fairness, neither system was entirely free of exclusion: Punto Fijo tended to exclude leftist parties such as MAS and the Communist parties (though not widely popular), while PSUV has ridiculed any candidate that is not socialist as rightest, pitiyankee, majunche, etc.

Perhaps to approximate ourselves to a more authentic democratic culture in Venezuela, we should keep in mind what democracies are not. They are not:

1) necessarily more economically efficient than other governments;

2) necessarily more efficient administratively; and

3) likely to appear more stable or governable than the autocracies they replace.

Lastly, they will have more open societies and polities than the autocracies they replace, but will not necessarily have more open economies (Schmitter and Karl, 1991).

What we should aspire to, instead, is the development of a political system in which the parties compete fairly (economically, politically, in the media, etc.) to develop governments and influence policies supported by the greater portion of the population; that can channel civil societies’ demands via regular procedures; and that can effectively root itself in civil society to connect with constituents and citizens and give them the unobstructed ability to reform the rules and improve upon the current institutions. For while democracies don’t promise the delivery of all of the aforementioned goods, the ship democracy steers is more likely to ultimately arrive than the battered barge beaconed by autocracy.

Chavismo is not going to disappear with Chávez when he shuffles off his mortal coil – indeed, by becoming socialism’s martyr, Chávez’s chosen successor may ride a wave of support. But the PSUV may well lose its grip on power and break up into factions. The splintering of such a system that has been powerful for this long will be difficult to endure, but it may be necessary to begin anew, detaching the parties from the state and creating more direct linkages with the public, creating some sort of momentum towards a democracy in which representation of the people is not a punch line.

This is where hope comes from. We wait and learn more about the President’s state of health, but that is not the end of the story. As Nicolás Maduro’s face showed in Chávez’s speech – for now we are all astounded, watching. But the best may be yet to come.