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.

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  1. To be more precise: you want representative liberal democracy with a small collection of “right” and “left” parties who pass the baton every few years, and whose discourses blend vaguely into one another, concealing and ignoring the fact that private enterprise dominates the economy, politics, media, society and culture.

    • Of course a single party system is the ideal of any advanced society. Maybe it’s your ideal but people with different ideas might disagree. And you might too, if the single party is for example, right-wing. That goes to show how empathic you are, really, for other people’s concern. Not at all.

      Besides, stop it with the utter crap about “private enterprise”, for, did you know? Whatever our ideas, when we go around our business, we are private citizens. PRI-VA-TE. Yes, private enterprise dominates the economy, politics, media, society and culture because outside of the State which you adore and to which you wish to give everything, everything else is PRIVATE. Because society is mostly private.

      The freaks are the ones insisting on domination and ownership of society by a single party headed by an uncontested Leader (or shall we call him Liege and Lord?) that prevents with violence the appearance of any other… in one word, serfs to it.

      And yes, don’t please go on with the fairy tale about how in the distant future everything will be nice and the State will disappear.

    • Yoyo, less than passing the baton I’m talking about the re-democratization of the country – involving, you know (for example), participation that isn’t based on literal gifts from the government. The executive doesn’t legislate in a democracy, even if it’s a majority in the legislative branch. I think what’s happened in Venezuela’s past (recent and further back) points to a need to detach the political parties from the state and reorient them to serve the public.

      As far as the private enterprise “domination” – you might as well be referring to the elite/oligarchy that comes to dominate the different spheres of society you mention. But even in a largely state-run economy the “economy, politics, media, society, and culture” can be dominated by a small oligarchy and control the national discourse. The idea is that there should be competition with equal rules applied to everyone. We need political parties (plural) that can compete with the same resources and access to the media/people. Whether or not they “pass the baton” is unimportant.

      • Re-democratization?? As if before Chavez the country was more democratic? Are you serious? Back when labor leaders and organizers were tortured, when people like Posada Carriles headed up state intelligence, and people like Octavio Lepage oversaw the torture and killing of people like Jorge Rodriguez’s father? Back when the executive had no qualms about sending the military out to crush protests, even if they had to massacre people like in the Caracazo? Back when student leaders were frequently arrested, tortured, disappeared?

        Certainly you’re not serious.

        • Ok and the steps taken since that time are better/more democratic? We should build on all of it – no? Of course there were problems under the Punto Fijo system on a mass scale – which is why it was booted. But I think it would be naive to criticize that system as if it contributed nothing to some aspect of democratization of the country (like many hardcore antichavistas criticize chavismo). There may be some (or lots) of bad aspects about a regime – but it doesn’t erase the success that was achieved.

          And yes, I completely agree with loroferoz, the most trying challenge lies in the oil rents – who wants to share the lottery?

        • Oh it was really really bad back then. If fact it was so bad that if you tried to take over the government by force via a military coup, you were pardoned and let out of prison early so that you could mount a democratic campaign to topple those whom you previously tried to kill. Balurdo, no seas tan bruto!

  2. Thanks for a well written post, Jonathan.

    What we should aspire to, as written by you, would find no argument from just about anyone.

    I have trouble visualizing how to get there with a people that over 14 years have learned that the State is a Teat.

    How to wean them and get them to walk on their own two feet is going to be Herculean.

  3. That’a what I’ve been saying all along, for years…: bring back the competitive party system! We cannot dream of an utopian “liberal hegemony” such as what some pundits want… That’s the aim of the Unidad: you cannot topple the government, so let’s make do with the notion of alternability.

    The Puntofijo years and the quinquenios that followed had a vibrant public sphere (read attentively: congressional debates were fruitful, ingenious and policy minded up until 1998… They were neither “sexy” nor perfect, but in such imperfection lies freedom). Therein lies the crux of the Constitution.

    I had hopes such normalisation of the PSUV would come after 2007 (just as the opposition has tried to since at least 2006). Is this a “restoration” of the old system? Not at all, but it is a realisation that an imperfect democracy (a redundancy more than an oxymoron) is better than a grey-shaded authoritarian regime.

  4. Begin by erasing the raison d’etre of the Cartel and of domination of Venezuelan society, whether AD/COPEI or PSUV’s: Oil money in the hands of the State.

  5. loroferoz is right on the money. together with Torres, et alias….
    The Petrostate model is just too juice for incumbents and hopefulls to change.

    The constituency must understand (be educated) and drive the change… A mi que me den lo mio!

    Gigantic challenge in a society that has been purposefully educated to beg and receive migajas….

    There lies the beginning of the solution!

    • Hugo Chavez and chavismo were a disaster waiting to happen. Rather, it’s some kind of miracle that Venezuelan democracy survived as long as it did after the Petrostate became established. It just needed an unscrupulous and bold adventurer such as Hugo Chavez, supported by equally unscrupulous old-guard politicians.


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