Once considered one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, Venezuela is now a country in crisis. Two men claim to be president, inflation runs rampant, citizens suffer from intense food and medical shortages, and more than 5 million Venezuelans have fled the country. Though elections are held, they cannot be considered democratic. With certain parties barred from running for office, opposition leaders jailed or in exile, and intimidation tactics employed, elections are neither free nor fair. Venezuela stands as an example that democracy is not static. Even strong and stable democracies are vulnerable to backsliding and embracing authoritarian tendencies.
Venezuelan presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have twisted democracy to achieve authoritarian ends. These legitimately elected leaders used democratic means to undermine the rule of law and democracy itself. Collectively, Chávez and Maduro have ruled Venezuela for over 20 years, yet democracies around the world are still struggling with how to pull the country out of crisis and restore order as well as genuine, principled rule of law.
So far, the United States has responded to Venezuela’s democratic backsliding and authoritarian exploits by heavily sanctioning Venezuelan leaders. In March 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted President Nicolás Maduro and other Venezuelan leaders with narco-terrorism and drug trafficking, among other charges. More recently, human rights investigators from the United Nations accused top Venezuelan leaders of crimes against humanity.
The December 2020 legislative elections further complicated Venezuela’s situation. Denounced by election observers and boycotted by the opposition, the victory by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela was rebuffed by democracies globally. Rejecting the 2020 results, the United States still recognizes Juan Guaidó as interim president. Guaidó claimed the position in 2018 after pronouncing the presidential election fraudulent, declaring Maduro illegitimate, and invoking the Constitution, which allows the Speaker of the National Assembly to serve as interim president in the absence of a legitimate president. Conversely, the European Union, despite not recognizing the December legislative results as legitimate, withdrew its support of Juan Guaidó as interim president on the basis that the election removed him from his position as head of the legislature. Division among democracies regarding who is the legitimate president of Venezuela only strengthens Maduro’s hold on power and further limits the available courses of action to solve the crisis.
The situation in Venezuela proves that democracy is not a simple, one-time achievement. Rather, it is something to continually strive for. It must be constantly nurtured and cultivated. Venezuelan leaders, however, did the opposite.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Venezuela enjoyed four decades of solid democratic government even while its neighbors suffered from democratic backsliding, dictatorships, and military rule. The country’s economy never diversified, its wealth remaining dependent on oil, but by the 1960s, Venezuela was booming. At the same time, however, Venezuelan leaders were becoming corrupt and enriching themselves from the thriving oil industry. Between 1972 and 1997, approximately $100 billion was embezzled. In the 1980s, oil prices plunged, dragging the standard of living down with them. Yet corruption continued unabated. Increases in poverty and inequality strained the public’s patience with the government and its corruption. Citizens took to the streets demanding change, and a former military officer, Hugo Chávez, successfully channeled this discontent and rose to prominence.
In 1992, Hugo Chávez ventured his first coup, but he was unsuccessful and was jailed. The coup failed but his popularity grew, and later that year Chávez supporters attempted a second coup. Again, their efforts were thwarted. Despite twice attempting to undermine democracy, Chávez was viewed as a man of the people. Promising to stamp out corruption and support the poor, he was elected president in 1998. After two failed attempts to overthrow the government, Chávez had become president legitimately.
An electoral path to authoritarian power
While Chávez gained his authority through democratic means, he built his power through authoritarian methods and by undermining key democratic tenets.
Shortly after his election, Chávez crafted a new Constitution, increasing presidential power while diminishing checks and balances. The new Constitution gave the president new powers to call for constitutional modifications. It changed the presidential term limit from two nonconsecutive five-year terms to two six-year terms, which could be served consecutively. In addition, it abolished the Senate, changing the National Assembly from two chambers to one. While the new Constitution did allow for a Supreme Court, this court lacked any real power to hold the executive in check. Chávez stacked the court with loyalists in 2004, and from that time until his death in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the administration in every case brought before it.
The lack of independent judicial oversight allowed Chávez to launch a series of attacks against democracy. He began by restricting freedom of the press, blocking media companies critical of his regime from renewing their broadcast licenses, while simultaneously forming government-run media companies. He nationalized the telecom industry and prohibited media that "disturb[s] public order," or in other words, media that could lead to public unrest or that criticized the administration.
Chávez also attacked civil society and limited its ability to push back against human rights abuses. The government maneuvered to prevent both internal and external oversight and investigation of its human rights practices. Reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling that organizations could be tried for treason for accepting foreign funding, civil society groups were prohibited from receiving outside assistance. Moreover, Chávez blocked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from entering the country and expelled workers from Human Rights Watch.
Where potential checks and balances still existed, Chávez tried to usurp them. In 2009 he successfully eliminated presidential term limits; he could now stay in power indefinitely. When Chávez lost his two-thirds majority in the legislature in 2013, before the new lawmakers were sworn in, the National Assembly approved a measure to allow Chávez to rule by decree for 18 months. The move restricted newly elected opposition leaders from participating in the legislative process and checking executive power.
A brutal successor
Although Chávez died in 2013, his legacy of undermining democracy has continued. Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, won the presidency in a special election in 2013 and has plunged Venezuela further into crisis as he pursues ruthless authoritarian tactics. From 2014 to 2019, the Maduro regime made 15,000 arbitrary arrests, 400 of which are known political prisoners. The government quashes protests with violence. Venezuelan security forces have killed 18,000 people for what they call resistance to authority. Moreover, despite his people suffering a staggering 96% poverty rate, Maduro has refused to allow international humanitarian aid to enter the country.
Although Maduro has long had low approval ratings — often measuring 20% or lower — he has managed to hold onto power. He does this by maintaining control over key institutions through intimidation tactics, and by packing them with loyalists. He infiltrated the military, ingraining intelligence agents among its ranks. Officers suspected of disloyalty can face anything from arrest to torture. In 2019, there were an estimated 217 officers in prison and 250 confirmed cases of torture.
Maduro has also delayed and manipulated elections so he and his supporters would maintain control of the government. Because the National Assembly was led by the opposition party, in 2017 Maduro organized and rigged a vote to form the National Constituent Assembly, a new legislative body that would have more power than the National Assembly. Furthermore, in 2015 he forced 13 justices to retire so he could appoint loyalists to the Supreme Court, guaranteeing that the court would operate as an extension of his administration.
All of these efforts have helped tighten Maduro’s control over the government and consolidate his power.
By holding and rigging elections, for many years Venezuelan leaders were able to uphold the façade of democracy while dismantling it behind the scenes. Even if results are manipulated, turnout is low, or voters are intimidated, pressured, or threatened to vote a certain way, leaders can tout election results as approval of their leadership and use it to justify their policies and actions. Furthermore, by creating and maintaining a Supreme Court, Chávez and Maduro were able to claim checks and balances existed, when in reality the court system has been a mere smokescreen, acting as an extension of the administration and serving as a legal tool to reinforce presidential power.
The depressing reality of the Venezuela crisis is that democracy was and is abused and twisted for authoritarian ends. Leaders can come to power legitimately and undermine the rule of law and other key democratic tenets. Venezuela stands as proof that democracy, once attained, is not guaranteed any permanence. This poses unique challenges to democracies globally. If the world’s democracies are unable to come to a consensus on how to respond to democratic backsliding, the risk of additional countries adopting authoritarian tendencies will increase. Without the ability to insulate democratic institutions against authoritarian attacks and abuses, the United States and other democracies could suffer similar assaults and setbacks on their institutions and democracy.
Katie Galgano is a research assistant at the Center for a New American Security specializing in democracy, governance, and the rule of law. The views expressed are the author's own.