Maduro's Failure: Degrading Democratic Norms in Venezuela

In Venezuela, the death of Hugo Chavez has caused the deterioration of a “sultanistic” regime, one in which state institutions become conflated with a single authoritarian leader. When this person on whom the state depends leaves power, the absence of sociopolitical norms independent of him become problematic as the political imperative based on the cult of his personality can no longer guide people. This is why Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, has tried so hard to legitimize himself as the new president of Venezuela and frequently renders himself a rebirth of his predecessor. But it isn't really carrying out Chavismo that Maduro is interested in so much as his own power, which is hard to hold on to in a society where power and Chavez had become inseparable. In the process of trying to legitimize himself as the proper president of Venezuela, Maduro has further damaged the country's already weak democratic norms and institutions. He must put an end to his counterproductive campaign for legitimacy for the sake of peace and democracy in Venezuela.

Maduro's disregard for democratic norms and institutions comes at time when Venezuelans need them respected and strengthened. As a first example, according to Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, the President of the national assembly—in this case, Diasdado Cabello—is to become the interim president when the incumbent leaves office. Instead of respecting this clear-cut clause, Maduro decided to just become interim president anyway, and, with the backing of the country's foreign minister, ascended to the position, setting the precedent of unconstitutionality before his term even began.

This overt example of Maduro disrespecting Venezuelan democracy is accompanied by less explicit examples found in his public announcements. In a public broadcast April 16, Maduro had this message for TV station networks: “Decide who you are with: with the country and peace and the people, or are you going to go back to be with fascism?” The first problem with this provocative question posed to the media is that it implies that peace and backing Maduro are two sides of the same coin. He is effectively saying that not to politically support him is by nature subversive to peace. In addition to being plainly untrue, this assertion goes against the ideals of democracy in which people civilly disagree, negotiate, and compromise. Furthermore, reducing those who disagree with him to fascists amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem attack that turns reasoned political debate into a mudslinging contest.

But Maduro doesn't just rhetorically portray dissidents as subversive to peace; he also explicitly threatens to use violence against their peaceful demonstrations. The irony! For example, supporters of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles had planned a march to the National Electoral Council to protest the election results, and Maduro threatened to violently squash it. He specifically stated, “The march to the center of Caracas will not be permitted. I will use a hard hand against fascism and intolerance. I declare it. If they want to overthrow me, come and get me. Here I am, with the people and the armed forces.” His violent intolerance for people disagreeing with him shows he has no vested interest in peace. By prohibiting dissidence in his paranoia to keep the presidency, he's implied to the Venezuelan people that armed insurrection is the only effective way to disagree with him.

Moreover, by portraying and using the armed forces as a weapon against opposition, Maduro is again sacrificing one of the most necessary parts not just of democracy, but of any peaceful society by compromising the impartiality and non-interventionist stance the armed forces should have. Once a country's military starts taking sides in political conflicts, hope is lost for peaceful civil dissent.

In addition to undermining constructive conflict that accompanies democracy, these quotes demonstrate how Maduro is trying to strip political opponents of their humanity. He explicitly separates political dissidents from “the people” in his rhetoric. In this way, he parallels the conservative armed forces in many Latin American countries that dehumanizedtheir own citizens throughout the Cold War by rendering them “subversives” or “communists.” This justified the execution of hundreds of thousands of people who weren't directly supportive of the conservative military governments. In using similar tactics, Maduro proves no better than the military generals who left behind so much trauma in much of Latin America.

Maduro's assertion that he'll use a hard hand against “intolerance” is ironic beyond words and speaks volumes about his ability to reason through the hard decisions he'll have to make as president. It he fails to see that obviously fallacious logic, how can Venezuelans trust him to make reasoned decisions in the future? And more importantly, now that he is the president, he should use his huge base of vocal support to re-institutionalize the Venezuelan state. He must realize that compromising with people who disagree with him is the best way to keep his own presidency intact and establish stronger democratic norms in the country.

Grayson C. Fuller ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator in Lowell House.