A Realistic Approach to Immediate Institutional Reform in Venezuela

During all these years of political decline, many experts have been working on how to rebuild our democracy. Here’s one take based on a feasible scenario: the negotiations producing a cohabitation government

Photo: Cristian Hernández

Almost everyone with the slightest concern about Venezuela tends to fall prey to the immediacy syndrome, that being, focusing all their ideas, efforts, and thoughts on the issue of regime change and its how-to: either in an absolute manner or through a negotiated transition, or even with a pragmatic and cynical power cohabitation. 

It makes sense that with such a deep humanitarian crisis our top priority should be the removal of chavismo from power or, at least, paving the road for a gradual transition. Either way, we’re running out of options.

Uprooting the Bolivarian revolution and getting a democratically elected government is the essential prerequisite for the country’s complete normalization, that’s the truth. But the job would be far from complete there. Most people forget that Venezuela has a sprawling, deep-rooted problems that won’t end with a change of government.

If the current Mexico negotiations between chavismo and opposition bear any results—which I hope for, but doubt—some of these problems could even begin to be dealt with a moderate chavista regime—which to be honest, I wouldn’t buy—or a government born from a power-sharing agreement—far from ideal, but a step forward. 

If we want Venezuela to secure its future in the mid and long term and to eventually reach true stability and prosperity, we need to work to build a solid Rule of Law and become a full democracy.

Some readers may think that this isn’t that urgent and shouldn’t be dealt with now. But the reality is that we need to come with a plan beforehand. And when I say a plan, I don’t mean abstract, nebulous promises like the ones the democratic opposition often presents in a press conference in some theater and then puts in a drawer. What I mean are specific measures designed to build a strong institutional framework for the country to run smoothly.

In that sense, I’m convinced that a realistic institution buildup to be undertaken by a hypothetical power-sharing government—the more likely scenario on the short term—has to revolve around the following key areas of reform:

First, Demilitarize 

Venezuela has been a militaristic country from its inception. Its first generation of rulers was composed of the triumphant officers of the War of Independence, followed by a century of clashing regional warlords and long and ruthless military dictatorships during the first half of the 20th century.

The democratic period of 1958-1998 seemed to have put the Army in check, but chavismo, having been born from military figures, gave a disproportionate share of power to the Armed Forces. Military men and women have occupied every imaginable ministry, agency and bureau since 1999, controlling everything from banks, to mining in the Orinoco basin, media outlets, healthcare, citizen identification, culture and management of the national power grid.

Political discourse and the national conscience, in general, seem to have been conquered by the arms as well. Everyone from government officials to opposition leaders and common citizens tend to express their political views in belligerent and militaristic terms. We all see things with a dualistic approach: the enemy and us. We talk about struggle, resistance and conquering. We adopt warmonger symbols such as the 1814 “Guerra a Muerte” banner.

Besides this, in what is a structural problem, most of the members of the Armed Forces, from petty officers to top generals, have taken part in corruption or criminal activity in some way, from taking bribes and extorting people, to illegal mining and drug and weapon trafficking. Moreover, military academies and bases have become ideological hotspots that convert soldiers to the chavista religion. This has bought their loyalty to chavismo, enabling it to use the military to suppress dissent and control enemies.

A strong democracy can’t be controlled by the military. Even democracies with powerful and ever-present armed forces like the United States are always governed and guided by civilian authority. What’s more, no country that pretends to uphold the Rule of Law can possess armed forces as corrupted, ideological and powerful as Venezuela’s. An indispensable condition to the normalization of the country’s life is its demilitarization.

To be realists, chavistas won’t commit themselves to a full demilitarization. The Armed Forces are far too entrenched in the power structures. As such, the best way to deal with this would begin by giving back civil agencies to civilians. This would reduce the military influence and bring the system back under the control of civil servants.

Another essential move is to start depoliticizing the Army. A transition government must get rid of ideological slogans, oaths of loyalty to Chávez, teaching socialist doctrine in military academies and symbols such as red berets and shirts or the ever-present Chávez eyes.

Last but not least, stopping the extortion and harassment of security forces on people is an important measure to reduce social stress and anxiety and create a functional society. This needs to be coupled with the imprisoning and trial of every top-brass officer involved in drugs and arms trafficking. I can’t think of a better message of reform. Things won’t keep the same way.

Second, Reform the Justice System

Of course, in order to deliver appropriate justice to that sort of people, the judicial system must face serious reform. For that, judges, including Supreme Tribunal justices, must be selected by an independent public agency composed of fellow judges and academics and free of the interference of the Executive.

This would allow the law community to select adequate magistrates, with both the intellectual and ethical stature a person that upholds justice and fairness ought to have, and the personal independence of not being conditioned by partisan loyalty to access the office.

Besides that, most of Venezuela’s judges work under interim status and can be freely removed from office by the overly politicized Supreme Tribunal. If a judge is assigned a case with important political repercussions or particular personal interest for any Justice of the Supreme Tribunal or high-ranking government official, their ruling is going to be determined by the potential consequences they may face if that decision goes against those murky interests. 

Judges need stability to provide a service that is truly unbiased and non susceptible to external pressure. To that end, the reign of provisionality has to end. Judicial career opportunities and stable posts must be provided, public examinations and selection procedures need to be held frequently.

Third, Optimize Bureaucracy

A simple, smooth, contained administrative apparatus is imperative for the correct implementation of the Rule of Law. An oversized and slow bureaucracy puts citizens in a state of insecurity in which every administrative act and process passes through uncountable stages and through the arbitrary hands of a myriad different and unrelated agencies and offices with always uncertain results, determined more by the discretionary powers of public officials than by clear, fair and known rules.

This uncertainty prevents the system from working efficiently and transparently and infringes people’s rights. The State must work based on a set of predetermined and cohesive norms that give people confidence in the results of its processes and a clear picture of what to expect.

Bloated bureaucracy is an old story, well-known all over Latin America, but the chavista government has made it an even worse problem than it’s always been, dramatically exploiting the client relationships that come from the creation of a non-professional, unstable and freely removable bureaucratic class.

To make things more problematic, the bureaucratic tendencies of the central government have permeated into regional and local governments too, even those controlled by the opposition. They have capitalized on the same practices chavismo uses.

The bureaucratic Leviathan gets more untamed when taking into consideration the pyrrhic wages these people make, which prompts a lot of civil servants to resort to corruption.

The scope of this much-needed simplification endeavor will vary depending on who you ask. Statists will prefer to keep a Big State but with clearer rules, whereas a minarchist will advocate for the reduction of the size of the State. The former is probably the easier way forward and the one a power-sharing government would use, considering both chavista and the opposition’s predisposition to big government, but I tend to side with the latter.

A comprehensive reform of the State that disposes of unnecessary government ministries, agencies and offices, that unify most administrative processes into a single platform, that sought to turn the State into the user-friendly entity it should always have been and gets rid of excessive formalities and rigidity. That’s what we should aim for, making Venezuela a country in which starting a business, paying taxes, enrolling for college or getting a passport or an ID card aren’t hellish journeys but normal, everyday things to do.

Fourth, Give Autonomy to Regions

If you visit Wikipedia’s article on federation, you’ll notice a map marking all the countries that use that system in the world, versus the ones organized under a unitary State. Venezuela is one of the green ones. We’re supposed to be a federation and have been so since 1864. But the truth, again, is very different from what the Constitution mandates.

Venezuela was never a fully federal country in real life, but efforts were being made to gradually change that and make its constituting states more autonomous. Since Chávez rose to power, though, the country has regressed to an increasingly centralized one. This has allowed chavismo to control every form of effective power in a much easier manner and to avoid serious contests to the authority of the strongmen living in Caracas from anyone in the regions.

This, however, has also made life more difficult for people residing outside the capital. States can’t directly access their own resources, nor can they manage their own assets or collect many taxes. Generally speaking, they don’t have the final word on their own issues. Citizens in Maracaibo can’t authenticate or legalize a document without sending it to Caracas. A business owner in El Tocuyo wanting to establish a small factory has to wait for the respective ministry in Caracas to authorize it and issue instructions to its subordinate local office for every little detail.

The closer the source of decision-making gets to citizens, the stronger democracy is, as people can directly interact with elected officials, raise their concerns, queries and complaints to them, hold them accountable and put them under scrutiny with greater ease and, in general, take part in local public activity as a whole.

Chavismo has interpreted this proximity in a completely erroneous and ideological way. They’ve put effort into developing a Communal State that takes away attributions from municipalities and gives it to peculiar organizations, such as Communal Councils, that are not composed of elected officials but rather, of politically loyal appointees and that are directly accountable to the central government. This framework of centrally dependent and Marxist-inspired entities actually moves people away from the decision-making process.

Besides discarding this whole nonsensical and ineffective communal organization, the Republic must, by means of constitutional reform and laws, transfer a big chunk of its attributions to states and municipalities. There are plenty of areas currently held by the central government that are local or regional in nature and it’s in everyone’s best interest that they are managed by local and regional authorities: policing, roads, ports and airports management, collecting taxes from the exploitation of their own natural resources, just to name a few.

A federation is supposed to be the union of independent states that forfeit part of their sovereignty into a central government that is entrusted with the exercise of some powers for the common interest of all the united parties, not a monolithic entity that treats its components as simple administrative divisions. It’s about time that Venezuela realizes that.

A New Country by a New Generation

I’m aware that all of these reforms aren’t a piece of cake. Executing and taking them to fruition is a task that requires unrelenting compromise, foreign aid and political will from all the actors that inevitably are going to be forced to remake the country.

It’s impossible to see chavismo doing all these on its own, as it would challenge its hold on power. Even the opposition, so accustomed to the improper ways that have allowed it to stay half-alive in Venezuela, doesn’t appear to be a willing reformer. The opposition parties are more likely to only enact survivalist and emergency reforms but not the far-reaching ones that are desperately needed. 

Nevertheless, I believe that with enough pressure and a serious will to change, demilitarizing the country, reforming the justice system’s composition, giving its states enough autonomy and simplifying the horribly tangled bureaucratic apparatus aren’t far-fetched things to ask. Other much-needed core reforms dwell in the realm of naïve hopefulness. Ultimately, that’s what a Venezuela with a restored democracy will eventually need: a new generation of unpolluted leaders that have the kind of hope that brings big change, great political acumen, sharp strategy skills and the willpower to make it a decent country. Just as the ones that struggled, half a century ago, to get us a democracy.