Beyond the shock and anger that elected politicians are undermining reforms and ignoring the rule of law, many members of the middle class have begun to grasp democracy's downside: If the franchise is extended to everyone, and if the poor, who make up the majority of the population in most developing nations, band together behind one candidate, they could elect someone determined to reduce the economic, political, and social privileges enjoyed by the middle class.
Hugo Chavez, the charismatic Venezuelan military officer, certainly grasped the notion that, with the support of the poor, a politician could gain immense power in a developing nation. Born to a working class family himself, Chavez seems from an early age to have developed a deep distaste for Venezuela's traditional capitalists, the large landowning families and businessmen of Caracas. Chavez went into the army partly, it seems, as a means of rising up into politics. As a young soldier, he traveled through Caracas and witnessed the severe poverty of the city's slums—the country was, at that time, one of the most unequal in the world. It made a profound impact on Chavez. Early in his career, he founded a group called the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, which aimed to topple the country's traditional politics, which were nominally democratic but also dominated by powerful business interests and traditionally rich families.
In 1992, as Venezuela's ruling party implemented painful neoliberal reforms pushed by donors, including cuts in social welfare spending, Chavez tried to seize power in a coup. His putsch failed and he was sentenced to jail, but he had gained nationwide fame as a man willing to stand up to neoliberal reforms. Following his jail term, Chavez launched his own political party, and in 1998, riding massive support from the poor, who had fared poorly as Venezuela had pursued the Washington Consensus reforms, he was elected president.
Though Venezuela, like many Latin countries, had long been dominated by politicians from a few powerful families, in 1998 the country did boast strong democratic institutions and culture, including an independent judiciary, a vibrant print and broadcast media, and a healthy tradition of political debate.
Chavez would change that. He soon set about advocating for the interests of the poor and the lower middle classes against the interests of the urban middle classes and the elite, while also amassing more and more power to himself and a close circle of allies. Chavez nationalized many key industries, with private business people often getting what they perceived as unfair compensation for their assets. He launched a program called "Plan Bolivar," in which the state would help upgrade the physical infrastructure of poor areas, while also providing highly subsidized health care and food, and cheap credit to the poor to start up community projects around the country. He launched communal councils, an experiment in direct democracy that, in many poor neighborhoods of the country, gave the poor a greater voice in policy making, though these council also undermined legislators in parliament. While announcing these policies, he clearly positioned them as tools for the poor and as attacks on the middle and upper classes, often during rambling addresses on his popular weekly radio show, Alo Presidente (Hello, President). Using his powerful, mercurial speaking style to its fullest extent, on his show Chavez repeatedly fulminated against his favorite targets—local business people, whom he claimed were trying to take over the country, as well as the United States and other Western powers.
The longer Chavez remained in offi ce, the more populist his economic policies became. In 1998 he still retained some more moderate economic advisers, and he traveled to the United States and other countries to advertise that Venezuela was still open for investment, particularly in the oil and gas sector. But by the mid- 2000s Chavez had jettisoned most of the advisers who had links to middle class urban business people, and he had thrown out many foreign investors, particularly in the oil sector. Government spending continued to increase, boosting Venezuela's debt, and Chavez handed control of many important companies to a small circle of close friends, making them rich, even as his government's laws, price controls, and economic mismanagement made it tougher and tougher for average small business people to earn a living.
Chavez's policies had a mixed effect. At first, they did help slash poverty significantly, which only further bonded the poor to him, and they also did initially bring more of the poor into the political process, clearly reducing the political power of the middle and upper classes. But they also hurt the overall macroeconomic environment. Foreign investors bailed out of the country, and the national oil company could not meet its production quotas and saw its aging infrastructure deteriorate. Whenever the price of oil, the major export, dropped, Venezuela had trouble providing even basic services to its people. By 2011, even as the price of oil had recovered and its Latin neighbors, including Brazil and Colombia, were growing strongly, Venezuela was limping, posting some of the worst growth rates in South America and relying on loans from China to survive. Electricity blackouts hindered business in the cities, inflation soared, and in many parts of the country staple goods became harder and harder to find. As the economy worsened, violent crime rose, and by 2011 Caracas had the highest murder rate per capita of any city in the world—a staggering 233 per 100,000 inhabitants—higher than the killings per capita in war zones like Kabul and Baghdad. Many human rights organizations believed that the official figures actually were understated.
Still, Venezuela's poor repaid Chavez with their loyalty, even as he slowly strangled the country's relatively strong democratic institutions. When Chavez toured slums in Caracas and other cities, tens of thousands turned out to greet him like he was a god. He won election after election—united and engaged in politics, the poor by far constitute the majority of Venezuelan voters. Chavez kept offering job creation programs and other populist measures to keep them happy, along with new nationalizations, price controls, and other measures hated by many business people and other professionals.
Toward the middle classes and upper classes, Chavez practiced a harsher style of politics. He used his domination of broadcasting licenses to replace private television stations, which tended to favor the urban middle class opposition candidates, with state TV. Eventually he forced the most critical private channel off the air. He introduced legislation making it a crime for critics to offer "false" information that "harms the interests of the state"; he locked up judges who issued rulings he did not like and packed the courts with his supporters. Chavez and his backers in the National Assembly passed laws that essentially allow Chavez to rule the country by decree, making the Assembly meaningless. By the end of the 2000s, the international monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Venezuela, one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, as only "partly free." In 2010, the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional grouping that included several Latin states with left-leaning governments favorably inclined toward Chavez, issued a report condemning Venezuela for widespread abuses of media freedom, human rights, freedom of association, and other freedoms. "The state's punitive power is being used to intimidate or punish people on account of their political opinions," declared the OAS's human rights watchdog.
Chavez had not totally destroyed the country's freedoms. In the early 2000s, some newspapers and television stations remained in private hands, critical of the president's policies, and if opposition politicians had been able to unite around one platform and one anti-Chavez figure, they might have been able to dislodge Chavez. But instead, many middle class Caracas residents, and middle class politicians, took the easy way out. They launched street demonstrations, general strikes, and marches on the presidential palace starting in 2001 and 2002. Many protesters openly called for the military to intervene and push Chavez, authoritarian but also elected, out of office. During the protests, and the run-up to the military intervention, at least eighteen people were killed.
In April 2002, the armed forces responded, launching a coup and threatening to bomb the presidential palace if Chavez did not step down. When he did, they took Chavez hostage on a Ca rib be an island. While Chavez was jailed, the coup makers installed a prominent businessman as interim president. The George W. Bush administration seemed to tacitly condone the coup, with press spokesperson Ari Fleischer essentially blaming Chavez for the situation; later the Central Intelligence Agency was discovered to have known that the military was planning a coup against Chavez but did not provide a serious warning about the plot.
Rallying his support among the poor, who massed in the streets of the capital, and within lower ranks of the armed forces, Chavez would prevail. Unable to win much support outside the capital, the coup government collapsed. With the president's backers thronging the streets, he emerged from incarceration some forty-eight hours later at the presidential palace.
From that point on, the Venezuelan leader would only sharpen his attacks on the middle class and elites, further dragging down the country's democracy. But by backing the coup—and then stepping up the number of street protests designed to force Chavez out—his middle class opponents had showed that they cared little for the institutions of democracy, either.
Reprinted from Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government by Joshua Kurlantzick. Copyright © 2013 by Joshua Kurlantzick. With the permission of the publisher, Yale University Press. All rights reserved.