By Javier Corrales
For the past decade, analysts have debated whether the administration of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is democratic. This debate now seems settled.
Over the past five months, the Chávez administration has launched an autocratic blitzkrieg of a sort not seen in Latin America since the era of military juntas ended a generation ago. After obtaining a 55 percent victory in a February referendum to eliminate term limits, Chávez and his associates have set about dispensing with every potential political challenge of consequence in Venezuela.
Opposition leaders who won regional elections in December have been denied funding to run their governments or pushed into self-exile-to avoid arrest under selectively applied corruption laws. Other leaders have been jailed. The government has begun to ban books from libraries. With the help of the military, it has also accelerated the arbitrary nationalization of private assets. Chávez has repressed independent student groups, and is attempting to shut down Globovisión, the most critical television news channel left in the country.
In effect, Chávez has managed to convert a frail but nonetheless pluralistic democracy into an authoritarian regime. His autocratic impulses were evident when he took power a decade ago, but since the February referendum, he has crossed a crucial line. While it is true that certain freedoms and electoral contests survive-in part because Chávez still manages to win elections-the system of checks and balances has become inoperative.
Government negotiations with opposition forces are nonexistent; the judiciary rarely restrains government actions; state employees are forced to act as campaign props and vote for the government; electoral authorities disregard the law; and the ruling party is allowed to make use of state resources that are systematically denied to the opposition.
These are all the practices of a garden-variety electoral autocracy. But the Venezuelan regime goes farther, relying on a strategy seen only in a small subset of authoritarian states: the promotion of disorder.
Whereas many authoritarian regimes-such as those in China, Saudi Arabia or Singapore-seek political legitimacy by attempting to deliver at least the appearance of order, Chavismo advances its objectives by enabling chaos. This produces discontent, but it also discourages collective action against the state.
The government does nothing to stop rising crime rates or arbitrary decisions of the bureaucracy. Consequently, ordinary citizens live in fear of random violence, regime opponents live in fear of targeted assaults by state-sanctioned thugs, and business leaders live in fear of attacks by government-sponsored labor groups.
In addition to this intimidation through third parties, the regime makes use of the traditional powers of the state, wielding the law like a cudgel. The government enacts draconian legislation on matters including corruption, tax evasion, media content, foreign-exchange access, productivity standards, and campaign finance.
It then applies them almost exclusively to non-Chavista forces: the privately owned media, major businesses, landowners, civil society groups, and opposition politicians. Chávez is thus modernizing an autocratic motto made famous by a Latin American dictator from the early 20th century: "For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law."
In the West, "autocratic rule" evokes the notion of political order imposed by state coercion. Chávez's brand of autocracy rests on neither. It rests instead on what one could call "piracracy," whereby the state has become the country's preeminent pirate. Like vessels in the Atlantic until the 19th century, Venezuela's civil society and political actors never feel safe from state-supplied or state-condoned piracy. Life, liberty, and property are threatened by crime, thugs, and bureaucratic arbitrariness.
On May 10, Chávez declared on national television that in Venezuela, "there is no private land." This blanket denial of property rights, which contradicts the constitution, is an emblem of the regime's hearty embrace of arbitrary rule. Chávez made the statement in defense of a bill, currently under discussion in the National Assembly, that would grant the state the right to seize any property deemed by the executive branch to be of "public utility and social interest." The legislation, so vaguely worded that it gives total discretion to the government, is only the latest example of codified caprice in Venezuela.
Chávez currently faces the worst economic crisis since 2003, with the state-run oil sector's productivity collapsing even as crude prices suffer amid the global downturn. But predictions that such problems would weaken the regime have proven inaccurate. Chávez's power has never rested exclusively on his massive fiscal outlays. It has also depended on the promotion of disorder, both on the streets and in the law.
And as resources grow scarce, political loyalty and personal connections to the leadership-the only guarantees of security under resource dependent regimes like Venezuela, as well as Russia and Iran-will likely become far more valuable than oil.
Javier Corrales is an associate professor of political science at Amherst College. This article is adapted from a longer essay that will appear in "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians," a special report to be released on June 4 by Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia.