The definitive 21st-century guide to the fight in Venezuela

Maybe wrong but also not right.
Maybe wrong but also not right.
Image: Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters
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You’d think the Cold War is still raging from the reactions to the latest clash between Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

One camp is calling Guaidó’s US-backed insurrection last week a replay of the US’s nasty history of bullying leftist governments in Latin America. Another, meanwhile, frames it as a noble effort to dislodge a regime supported by “colonizers” from Cuba, in the words of White House national security advisor John Bolton.

News alert: The Cold War is long over. The contours of the fight in Venezuela speak to a different kind of conflict spreading around the world. In this war, the “bad guys” are not those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, and those who are democratically elected are not necessarily the “good guys.”

Applying binary left-right concepts to the situation in Venezuela—and elsewhere—muddles what is a pretty clear-cut trend: Autocrats of all ideological stripes are sapping democracy, and they’re doing it under the guise of being democratic.

Post-Cold War dictatorship

This new kind of conflict is authoritarians’ response to the post Cold-War order. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the trappings of dictatorship were out for even the most iron-fisted of rulers, and democratic principles such as elections, constitutional norms, and the rule of law were in. A democratic demeanor became a must-have for leaders seeking to participate in the global economic system. Human-rights violators and dictators were shunned by clubs like the World Trade Organization and the European Union and punished with economic sanctions.

It’s one thing to dress the part, and another to play it. Over the past three decades, autocrats have figured out how to pass for democratic. This new breed of leaders is democratically elected. Once in power, they start dismantling building blocks of democracy one at a time: The press, the opposition, the checks and balances between branches of government. They replace them with propaganda machines, cronies in high positions, and paramilitary groups with loyalist leaders.

The global rise of strongmen in democratic clothing is a quantifiable trend. While coups were the preferred democracy-squashing method during the Cold War years. Since then, the share of dictatorships established by democratically elected leaders has swelled, according to How Dictatorships Work, a book by political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz.

Another common trait of new-school oppressive regimes: They are controlled by a single individual—a phenomenon the researchers dub “personalism.” It, too, is becoming more common.

With these regimes, the question to ask is not whether their leaders are right-wing or left-wing, but how they operate. “They don’t have a united ideological message,” says Clay Fuller, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on authoritarians and corruption.

If he quacks like a dictator…

Venezuela’s Chavista regime is a quintessential democratic, personalist dictatorship.

After trying to get to power through a coup, Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998 by a wide margin. Over the next few years he proceeded to check every box in the dictator’s checklist. He packed the Supreme Court with allies and restricted the independent media. He created his own media network, TeleSur, and armed paramilitary forces.

At every turn, Chávez, and later Maduro, used the constitution and other democratic institutions to justify dictatorial behavior. Neither could pass the test of a true democracy: opening themselves to the possibility of being thrown out through free and fair elections.

“Venezuela had a very strong vibrant democracy for a very long time,” says Fuller. “Chávez slowly eroded that.”

By 2005, the elected Chavista government had slid into autocracy, according to the How Dictatorships Work criteria.

Guaidó, 35, doesn’t have much of a record to be judged by. He is a relatively recent entrant to the drawn-out fight between the opposition and Chavismo. Elected to the National Assembly in 2011, he kept a low profile until he became the body’s president earlier this year and declared himself the country’s interim president a few weeks later. He did so invoking the Chavista constitution, which states that the leader of the National Assembly should assume the country’s leadership if the president becomes “permanently unavailable”—a condition some argue was met after Maduro was re-elected in irregularity-plagued balloting.

The US connection

If Maduro is a blatant dictator, why are some leftists in Latin America and beyond stopping short of condemning him?

Through a Cold-War lens, American involvement is synonymous with interventionism—with good reason. From 1946 to 1991, the US attempted to topple numerous left-leaning regimes in the region, often successfully.

So, many on the left don’t want to be on the same side as the US—especially under the Donald Trump administration. They blame US sanctions for the misery in Venezuela and see Guaidó’s US-backed uprising as a coup.

You can see the corner they’ve painted themselves into in comments made by José Mujica, Uruguay’s former president and a darling of socialists around the region. Asked by a reporter to comment on tanks driving into crowds of Maduro protesters last week, he said “People shouldn’t put themselves in front of tanks.”

“Who’s behind this, Maduro?” the reporter asked.

“If you go out in the street, you expose yourself,” answered Mujica.

(Mujica later told Uruguayan media he wasn’t justifying the use of the tanks to run over people, which he called barbaric, but was just trying to educate the public.)

Just as there is plenty of evidence of Maduro’s repressive ways, there is ample documentation of Chavista incompetence and mismanagement that produced Venezuela’s economic woes.

Those who believe the efforts to unseat Maduro are a US-orchestrated conspiracy should also look at who else is backing Guaidó: Europe’s biggest democracies, including socialist Spain, and diplomatically correct Canada, whose foreign minister recently called on Maduro to step down in both English and Spanish.

The list of Maduro supporters, on the other hand, is a who’s who of strongman-led regimes: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua. Mexico, whose own president has been rolling out autocratic practices (see attacks on the media, questionable referendum—says it’s remaining neutral.

Does that make Trump a “good guy”? Not really. Setting aside the fact that he, too, has some dictatorial tendencies (see attacks on the media and fearmongering), his Venezuela policy is not likely to help Venezuelans that much.

When dictatorships fail

Unlike the US, Venezuela no longer has any institutions that can keep presidential power in check or enforce term limits. Trump may claim that Democrats would turn the US into Venezuela if allowed (see demonizing the opposition), but even if that were what Democrats wanted, it would be practically impossible to achieve.

In Venezuela, a quick return to a functioning democracy is almost as unimaginable. Personalist dictatorships like Maduro’s are less likely to be replaced by democracy than other types of autocratic regimes, in part, because of the splintered armed forces favored by their leaders, according to Wright, one of the book’s authors.

Even if the military sided with Guaidó—which it hasn’t—Maduro would still have paramilitary groups at his beck and call. And even if there were a US-led invasion that successfully drove him out, the splintered armed factions would remain, making for a long and chaotic transition.

That’s what happened in the last three places the US intervened militarily: Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011. Here’s how those countries rank in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index:

The Cold War narrative Bolton and others superimpose on Venezuela obscures the key question: If Maduro is ousted, will whoever replaces him keep it together? Or will Venezuela sink into a civil war?

They should also consider that the more the US squeezes Maduro through sanctions, the bigger his incentive to seek help from Russia and China.

“It could make things worse by using coercive foreign policies toward this kind of regime,” says Wright. “It’s unlikely to yield peacefully. That’s been the historic pattern.”

The US president seems to be catching on to this. After last week’s failed attempt to overthrow Maduro, Trump has been grumbling that Bolton misled him into believing things would be easier, the Washington Post reports. Maduro, he said, is a “tough cookie.”