Since taking power in 1999, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías has managed to convert a frail but nonetheless pluralistic democracy into a semi-authoritarian regime. Certain freedoms continue to exist, and elections are still held, but the system of checks and balances has become inoperative. The government rarely negotiates with opposition forces, the state insists on undermining the autonomy of civil society, the law is invoked mostly to penalize opponents and never to curtail the government, and the electoral field is uneven, with the ruling party making use of state resources that are systematically denied to the opposition.
These conditions are all typical of electoral autocracies. However, the Venezuelan regime also seems to rely on a practice that is more peculiar to Chavismo, as the Chávez phenomenon is commonly known, or at least to a small subset of semi-authoritarian states: the promotion of disorder. Whereas many nondemocratic governments—such as those in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia—seek political legitimacy by attempting to deliver order, the rulers of Venezuela and their ilk do nothing to stop lawlessness. Consequently, ordinary citizens live in fear of random crime, oppositionists face targeted attacks by thugs, and businesses are subject to violence by government-sponsored labor groups. This intimidation through third parties, rather than through direct state pressure alone, helps to discourage collective action by regime opponents. It also produces discontent, but not among the protected class of Chavistas.
Chávez’s strategies for restricting the domestic political system have varied over time depending on the nature of the challenges he has faced. During the first phase of his presidency, which lasted through 2004, Chávez’s principal aim was to survive mobilized opposition. Once this challenge was overcome, the priority was to maintain high approval ratings despite decaying public services.
The Chávez administration has sought to bolster the domestic political transformation with a foreign policy that portrays Venezuela as the champion of a broader movement in the Americas and the world to balance the United States. This anti-U.S. foreign policy stand is the best known but perhaps the least important aspect of Chávez’s foreign policy. By overstating his commitment to development and his anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist credentials, Chávez seeks primarily to forestall criticism from socially progressive actors abroad, many of whom would generally disapprove of the erosion of institutional checks and balances. Another goal is to help radical leftist forces to win power in other Latin American countries. While producing occasional victories for Chávez’s clients, these interventions have contributed to the political polarization of the region. However, he has been able to mute the criticism of sitting governments, regardless of their ideological bent, by spending heavily on foreign aid and oil subsidies. The opacity of the transfers enables what is, in effect, the exportation of corruption. Recipients can spend the aid in an unaccountable manner, avoiding the safeguards and conditions attached to traditional forms of international aid or private investment.
The term Chavismo suggests a consistent ideological system, and the regime’s selfidentification as a “Bolivarian Revolution”—a reference to the Venezuelan-born independence hero of the early 19th century, Simón Bolívar—similarly implies that it is an example or prototype of a larger political species. While this is to some extent belied by Chávez’s hollow rhetoric and opportunistic adaptations, his strategies for consolidating and retaining power could be replicated by the leaders of other semi-authoritarian states, and that alone is reason enough to study them in detail.