In a world where populism is on the rise, Venezuela is a good example of how far populist leaders can go to undermine democracy. The country with the world’s richest oil reserves suffers an advanced stage of institutional destruction. In Venezuela the only institution that matters is the man in charge, President Nicolás Maduro.
Eighteen years ago a leftist paratrooper, Hugo Chávez, became Venezuela’s president, and the anti-establishment movement he founded—known as Chavismo—destroyed the separation of powers and undermined checks and balances, all done under the banner of helping the poor. A Chavismo-engineered economic collapse now includes shortages of basic goods that have left people scavenging dumpsters for food, and the world’s highest inflation at 800% that forces people to weigh money instead of counting it. Chavismo’s biggest innovation, however, is its ability to cling to power without being branded an autocracy. What Chavismo wants and what is has achieved is a plausibly deniable dictatorship.
Chavismo has held on to power in a way that is barely tolerable to Venezuelans and the world. The regime controls the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, the Office of the Comptroller, the Attorney General’s office and Venezuela’s Ombudsman. But to create the illusion of democracy, these institutions sometimes side with government opponents. Chavismo delays elections and jails enemies, but welcomes votes and free speech when it has enough oil money to buy political support. Maduro, Chavez´s successor, uses emergency measures to rule by decree, sidestepping an opposition-controlled Congress. But when critics call him a dictator, he points to the 2015 Congressional vote that—against all odds—the opposition won. Maduro abuses laws to stay in power, but follows them to the letter to hurt opponents. Chavismo has a level of control over politics, business and society that only autocracies possess, but enjoys the perk of not being classified as one.
Venezuela’s recent money crisis reflects this absolute hold on power. Maduro decided to pull the 100-bolivar note from circulation hoping to hurt illegal dollar traders, but left the population cashless in the middle of the Christmas season. This shows he doesn’t fear people’s wrath, because the military keeps them in line. Chavismo has co-opted and bought off the military by enabling its rampant corruption and by feeding it privileges and power. The cash crisis was also possible because Chavismo controls the central bank, the finance ministry and the country’s oil company. Those who caution that overspending and printing money cause inflation are dismissed as cranks. Chavismo has convinced many Venezuelans that economists promote an elite ideology.
The deniable dictatorship thrives because people underestimate Chavismo. Maduro, like Chavez before him, pretends to be a simple man and blasts cosmopolitan elites to pander to the uneducated poor. He calls his government a “dictatorship of the people,” but given that less than 20% of Venezuelans support Maduro, “the people” really means himself. Many still struggle to call Venezuela a dictatorship because Chavismo holds elections, even if it uses oil money, intimidation and biased institutions to prevail. Chavismo understands that an unvarnished dictatorship becomes odious and can be toppled so it keeps people debating the true nature of its regime.
Venezuelans tolerate this deniable dictatorship because Chavismo manipulates hope. Maybe in the next election an unpopular Chavismo will lose. Maybe a more benevolent Chavista leader will emerge. Chavismo promotes these thoughts to keep the opposition going. A December poll by Venebarómetro found that 61% of Venezuelans think Chavismo is a dictatorship; the other 40% don’t believe it or still debate it.
The international community enables Chavismo’s deniable dictatorship because it doesn’t fit the mould of Cuba or North Korea, dictatorships that accept their nature. Foreign leaders naively treat Venezuela as a government that has lost its way—they nudge Maduro to respect elections and private property. They try to mediate talks between the opposition and a government that uses ‘dialogue’ as a fig leaf to hide its contempt for those who think differently.
Chavismo is buying enough time for its oil fortunes to recover, so it can once again buy voter support to win elections. Understanding this is the key to understanding Chavismo. Venezuela’s new form of autocracy thrives in a liberal world order that is unprepared to deal with a deniable dictatorship. Maduro knows that peace-loving Venezuelans are not ready to sacrifice their lives for regime change. Those who oppose Maduro are also too hungry and divided to paralyze the country through strikes and protests. And the international community isn’t ready to impose financial and trade sanctions like those imposed on Iraq to squeeze Chavismo. Maduro and his cronies cynically take advantage of the fact that no one really wants blood, coups, or sanctions.
Venezuela’s deniable dictatorship is especially dangerous. The regime’s move to scrap a recall referendum against the president and the delay of gubernatorial elections is just the beginning. Maduro will likely hang on in 2017 and finish his term through 2018 with the help of his circle of cronies. He will likely disqualify political enemies from running for office and may even delay presidential elections too. Maduro will continue to seize those companies and industries he does not yet control, using other people’s money to curry favor with radical supporters. The first step in helping Venezuela begins by accepting what Maduro’s regime has become, a plausibly deniable autocracy that mocks the world.