Photo: Reuters retrieved
Political systems usually have a plan for everything except their end. Focused on staying in power, they exist pretty much the same way all mortals do (they’re human creations, after all): knowing that they’ll die someday but without giving much thought to the matter of delaying it as much as possible. Just like with people, some systems are more successful than others in this task. That’s why the transition from a political system to the other is generally traumatic, like every death, and sufficiently complex as to warrant its own field of study: transitology.
With the democratization process the world experienced after the Berlin Wall fell (known as the third wave of democracy) this science was developed with a focus on transitions from non-democratic regimes to democratic ones, although in the age of “new authoritarianism” and “hyperleadership”, or “reverse-wave de-democratization,” now transitologists talk of reverse transitions, where a democracy starts fading until it eventually disappears.
In the last five years, there’s been much discussion about Venezuela’s transition. In fact, everything indicates that we’re experiencing one, although not the one dissidents had wished for after Hugo Chávez’ death in 2013, or chavismo’s electoral defeat in 2015. On the one hand, it’s clear that this isn’t Chávez’s regime as he structured it back in 2007, when he declared socialism in his zenith. All of its fundamental pillars —popular support, El Comandante’s hyperleadership, oil revenue and the Armed Forces— have crumbled except the latter, as part of a system in which the nomenklatura, which didn’t split and remained in control of the economy, manages the country in a way strongly reminiscent of what specialists call a patrimonialist or even predatory State.
That’s why the transition from a political system to the other is generally traumatic, like every death, and sufficiently complex as to warrant its own field of study: transitology.
Therefore, if we look at the process since 1999, we could talk about a reverse transition going from the previous democratic system, capable of allowing an anti-system candidate to take power, to the situation we lived on May 20, when the electoral event itself had little meaning for Venezuelans.
It was a process with several layers, starting with its bonapartist use of elections to dismantle the previous State and concentrate power on Chávez. This aspect was key for the regime’s international legitimacy, but a problem for his successor when he realized he couldn’t win any more elections. His choice was to practically kill them, first by suspending the recall referendum with dubious rulings; later, politically disqualifying, jailing or exiling many opposition leaders, especially the most popular; and lastly, establishing conditions for regional and later presidential elections that kept the opposition from voting.
Going from the yearly elections held for anything during Chávez’s government, to this situation in which few people care about the electoral event without a substantial change in conditions, is no small change. We could say that the reverse transition that started in 1999 was successful. Perhaps the most notable aspect, in terms of Venezuelan history, is how long it’s taken for that to happen and the fact that the regime isn’t necessarily strengthened after May 20; during the republican period that started in 1830, transitions faced enormous difficulties, as can be expected in a country with great institutional weakness translated into dozens of civil wars. However, although regime changes in the 19th century were characterized by armed conflicts, this didn’t mean lack of respect for certain rules.
It was a process with several layers, starting with its bonapartist use of elections to dismantle the previous State and concentrate power on Chávez.
There was usually a committee in Caracas that awaited the triumphant caudillo while the defeated fled. After these committees, the new president started legitimizing his rule by holding elections for some sort of constituent congress, which ended up convening other elections which invariably resulted in the winning caudillo’s ascent.
When the State started having more solid institutions in the early 20th century, the rules of transitions were established by the law and there was practically no bloodshed after Juan Vicente Gómez died in 1935, and we could say that since then, aside from the military coup in 1948, all transitions (1935,1945, 1958) were framed within the Third Wave of Democratization. The line is severed with Chávez’ election in 1999: from then on, although elections did work for legitimizing the new regime, they’ve also been weakening democracy until, in 2013, Maduro’s election was challenged by the opposition, referendums were suspended in 2016 and in 2018, a sizable part of the international community disregards the validity of a presidential election.
Whether this reverse transition manages to establish a new system in the long term remains to be seen, but it certainly shows that life has a cruel sense of humor: we wanted a political change and we got it.
We’re pioneers in transitology, in the least desirable way.