Of the major oil producing nations in the world, Venezuela appears to be the least able to cope with the price collapse over the last two years. The South American country, which happens to be home to the largest oil reserves in the world, has been both economically and politically unstable since 2014. Major news outlets, such as the Economist and the Washington Post, have begun using the term ‘dictatorship’ to describe President Nicolas Maduro’s government. They similarly called Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, a dictator.
It is certainly easy to see why newspapers labeled both leaders of the Bolivarian Revolution, the movement Chavez founded and Maduro has continued, as dictators. They have many of the trappings of self-promoting oppressors. Chavez started off his political career as the leader of a failed military coup in 1992. Once elected president in 1998, Chavez was known for hours-long diatribes on the ills of oligarchy and capitalism. These presidential addresses were required broadcasts for both public and private media. The dozens of radio and television channels brave enough to criticize Chavez began loosing their broadcast licenses in the 2000s.
After Chavez’s death in 2013, Maduro, then the vice-president, took over and attempted to revive the Bolivarian Revolution by following Chavez’s style of long presidential addresses, verbal attacks on US leaders, as well as closer diplomatic and economic relationships with authoritarian regimes across the globe, including Iran and China. More recently, as inflation, crime and organized political opposition have increased and threatened the stability of the Maduro government, repressive policies have become the default.
All of the signs are clearly pointing to dictatorship. Yet, before the scarlet ‘D’ is emblazoned all over Maduro’s Venezuelan flag-patterned jump suit, a clear assessment of what a ‘dictatorship’ is should be sussed out. Political leaders of all stripes around the world are constantly accused of authoritarianism. A quick Google search of any major state leader and the word ‘dictator,’ is likely to yield results. Luckily, political scientists, philosophers and historians have mulled over the topic for millennia and come up with…well, nothing close to a uniform definition. Still, there are some core factors that consistently reappear, and which provide a roadmap as to whether Maduro is ‘dictator’ worthy.
The most common criteria of a dictatorship is that a person or party acquires political power through means other than competitive elections. Maduro’s reelection in 2013 was rejected by the opposition and widely criticized as irregular because of government control over the national election agency, and both private and state-run media. However, despite repeatedly arguing against international elections observers, in the 2015 parliamentary elections, Maduro did accept that his United Socialist Party of Venezuela lost control of the legislative branch to a coalition of opposition parties. It therefore seems that while Maduro’s Venezuela is not a beacon of clean and democratic elections, his power depends on elections results and that the election process remains a viable, though troubled, path to political power in Venezuela.
A dictatorship is also often defined by a lack of pluralism, in that civil society has either greatly diminished or has been co-opted by the state. Here Maduro and his predecessor have obviously made powerful attempts to make their political ideology the only acceptable public position. Not only did they shut down uncooperative media outlets, but they also made other forms of public protest and political expression a dangerous business. Under Maduro, politically driven prosecutions have increased dramatically, and Amnesty International accuses the government of, “excessive use of force by the police and security forces resulting in dozens of deaths.” A cycle of protests and repression has taken over Caracas and other major cities. Despite Maduro’s attempts to limit independence in civil society, legitimate, political opposition remains a viable, organized outlet for citizens who disagree with the government.
Political scientists also generally agree that dictators routinely attempt to co-opt other legal, political institutions within the state as a method of subverting the rule of law and draining political power from the surrounding independent government apparatus. Although the election agency may not have been sufficiently co-opted to assure Maduro’s party National Assembly victories, the actual functioning of the legislative and judicial branches can still be controlled. Despite the opposition’s electoral victory in 2015, their legal power was limited from the start, as the previous legislative session passed a law granting Maduro legislative power until the end of 2015. Since taking over the National Assembly, the opposition has attempted to bring a referendum that would end Maduro’s presidency, but Maduro’s supporters have so far been successful in using delay tactics. Even if a successful referendum against Maduro passed, it would not lead to new elections but simply force him to hand power over to his vice-president, Aristobulo Isturiz. More broadly, the opposition-led legislature has been stymied by corruption charges. It has added weight behind Isturiz’s claim that, “Legally, the National Assembly does not exist,” because the Supreme Court nullified all legislative actions. Since the Chavez era, the judicial branch has been packed with pro-government judges that work in lock-step with the powers that be.
Clearly, Nicola Maduro displays many of the hallmarks of a dictator, as the country faces crisis after crisis. To date, Maduro has been unsuccessful in completing Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, which would entail a complete ideological stranglehold on all aspects of Venezuelan society. The biggest hurdle has been the oil collapse and the resulting economic crisis. Maduro has been busy attempting to pacify his political base among the poorer segments of society, leaving him with less time and political capital to co-opt the remaining free space in Venezuelan civil society. If Maduro is a dictator, he is a weak, ineffective and diminished one who could still be removed by the ballot box.