Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales are closely linked, and many fear they represent a new trend away from democracy, open markets, and the United States in Latin America. Overlooked are substantial differences between these two countries and from their Latin American neighbors.
What Venezuela and Bolivia do share is the weakness of their political institutions which results in large part from their history with democracy. Democracy emerged in Venezuela in the late 1950s and Bolivia in the early 1980s after elites joined together to form a "pact" that established the rules for the new governments.
These pacts brought stable democracy to both countries no easy feat in Latin America. But, these agreements left many policy issues particularly economic issues permanently off the agenda. They also encouraged the development of cartel-like political parties, more interested in staying in power than truly representing their own populations.
These dynamics excluded large percentages of the population in both countries from politics. In the face of economic turmoil, these poorer populations searched for someone to represent their interests and found outsider candidates Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. Their elections ended the cozy arrangements between the traditional political parties and challenged the rules of the political game.
But here is where the outcomes in each country diverge. Due to Venezuela’s oil wealth, Chavez has vast resources to satisfy his heterogeneous political base - creating new schools, health care clinics, affordable housing, and food subsidies. Morales, in contrast, does not have the public resources to provide so abundantly for his supporters. Instead, divisions within his own coalition are emerging, questioning his ability to balance campaign promises with the country’s economic realities.
Politically, Chavez has successfully consolidated power retaining control now over the judiciary, the public bureaucracies, and the Congress. In Bolivia, we see a political standoff between the Morales’ political coalition and his opposition. The opposition including the traditional political parties - retains control of several governorships, and for the last six months has stymied any substantive debate within the Constituent Assembly. These political divisions are now leading to social unrest and violence. In short, the battle between these two sides has yet to be won.
These separate outcomes in Venezuela and Bolivia are both worrisome for democracy. But since they result from domestic factors, their spread throughout Latin America is unlikely. It shows that to counter these trends, however, we need to pay more attention domestic institutions, and less to the grandstanding of particular political leaders.