Authoritarian Tendencies in Venezuela and What the US Can Do About Them

by Brian Sherry

This month the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, asked the Venezuelan Congress to give him emergency powers in order to “fight corruption and economic sabotage.”[1] According to the Washington Post, Maduro is imitating his charismatic predecessor Hugo Chavez in asking for a broadening of his presidential powers:

Four times during his 14 years as president, Chavez got the National Assembly to give him the power to rule by decree. In all, Chavez used the power to enact 200 legal changes that strengthened state control over Venezuela’s economy.[2]

Creeping authoritarianism in Venezuela is not a new development. Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World Report details the various ways in which authoritarian tendencies permeate Venezuela, including: a lack of separation of powers; an electoral system which favors the governing party; a significant role played by the government in the economy (which breeds corruption); and the routine harassment of opposition media outlets and NGOs operating within the country.[3] In spite of all this, the political ideology known as “Chavism” remains highly popular in Venezuela and other parts of Latin America. In the United States, this begs the question of whether or not Latin America’s democratization, which began in the 1980s as the power of right-wing military dictatorships began to wane, has been entirely successful. In Venezuela, the Chavistas speak the language of popular democracy and have attained and kept power through popular mandate. It is not the democracy component of liberal democracy that is in danger so much as the liberal part: the checking of personal rule by representative institutions and a free press. The danger for the United States is that Chavism is a potent revolutionary doctrine which has already gained ground in Venezuela and other Latin American countries (left-wing leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere have maintained close ties with Venezuela and echo Chavist rhetoric and policies), and it is pointedly anti-US in its foreign policy and hostile to US business interests in its domestic economic policy. How then can the United States deal with these authoritarian tendencies in Venezuela?

The fact that the ideology with which we are dealing is not classic authoritarianism but a semi-authoritarian variant of popular democracy makes any potential action on the part of the US difficult. Any attempt at intervention in Venezuelan or other Latin American countries in the name of stopping the actions of elected governments would be disastrous for US foreign policy, bringing back bad memories of the days when Washington backed right-wing dictatorships in order to keep Communists out of power. Most importantly, it would seemingly confirm the Chavistas’ claim that the US is an imperialist power and the source of Latin America’s social and economic ills. The use of hard power would be undesirable, so the alternative is for the US to employ (as best it can) the soft power of projecting a positive image. Most importantly the US should work constructively with the vast majority of Latin American states which have not turned to semi-authoritarian democracy, especially the regional leaders. Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia remains a key US ally. Mexico is an integral partner of the United States whose economic future is intimately bound up with our own. And Brazil, in spite of the recent controversy over NSA spying on its president and nationalized oil company, is a mostly stable and open liberal democracy whose relationship with the US can weather temporary storms. US foreign policy in Latin America must be geared toward maintaining and improving good relations with these states and offering the alternative of liberal democracy and the market economy to the semi-authoritarian democracy and command economy of the Chavistas. The poor state of Venezuela’s economy and political system will most likely collapse on the Chavistas, while their constant blaming of the country’s woes on the US will become tiresome. In the meantime, Washington would do best to respect the internal affairs of Venezuela and let the Chavistas wage a one-way argument.


[1] “Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asks lawmakers to give him the power to rule by decree,” Washington Post, October 8, 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-10-08/world/42829853_1_president-nicolas-maduro-henrique-capriles-hugo-chavez

[2] Washington Post, October 8, 2013

[3] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2013 – Venezuela, http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2013/venezuela