When history does not Match. An answer to a Citigroup analysis entitled Venezuela: Back to the Future: A comparison with Chile’s Transition to Democracy

To undertake a comparative analysis from which one can draw valuable lessons, one must: first establish the relevant historical facts, and then  find variables that can be compared.

Citigroup’s analysis entitled Venezuela: Back to the Future: A comparison with Chile’s Transition to Democracy fails to meet both requirements. It would be appropriate for such analysis to meet these minimal methodological requirements.  In what follows, I contest Citigroup’s discussion of the following concepts, as they relate to Venezuela and Chile:

Careful analysis clearly shows that Citigroup’s attempt to draw a parallel between Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Chile under Agusto Pinochet is methodologically weak and awkward. 

Democracy v/s Authoritarianism

To compare Chile’s 1988 process of democratic transition with the current situation in Venezuela demands that one accepts that Venezuela under Hugo Chávez is an “authoritarian regime” and, hence, that democracy must be restored. Even the most exigent concepts of democracy do not support this idea. Venezuela fulfills all the conditions that Robert Dahl (1971), Guillermo O’Donnell (1997), Hartlyn and Valenzuela (1994), among other well respected scholars, require for a system to be considered democratic. These include:

Even a cursory overview reveals that, when assessed according to these well-established criteria, the Venezuelan political system does have problems, but no more so than the systems of other countries in the region.

(1) Constestation  implies electoral competition and, as O’Donnell (1997) argues, the expectation that a fair electoral process and the associated freedoms will continue into the future. These associated freedoms are enumerated by Robert Dahl (1971):

Since President Chávez took office in 1998, presidential, parliamentary and regional elections have been held regularly. All elections have followed the rules and procedures previously established. Under these circumstances, it is hard to argue that constestation is not a salient feature of Venezuela’s current political conditions.  Furthermore, it is not appropriate to compare electoral processes such as the drive to recall President Chávez with the 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet’s rule.  To cite only one of the most important differences in circumstances: before the 1988 plebiscite the Chilean citizenry had little –if any- political competition.

(2)  Democracy must entail political participation of the citizenry by the expansion of their civil rights and the protection of the exercise of those rights. O’Donnell (1997) expresses concern about the effectiveness of this participation and notes that for a country to be considered a democracy, elected officials should not be arbitrarily removed before the end of their constitutional terms. Nor should elected officials be subject to vetoes or other constraints by non-elected actors.  In Venezuela all civil rights are in place and protected.  Furthermore, the president and the congress have been elected under both the former constitution and the new constitution, which was written by a democratically elected constituent assembly and ratified by a referendum.  The only way to terminate officials from office is by constitutional means, such as the recall petition recently circulated. No one in the opposition has been tortured, killed, or censored. The same cannot be said of the opposition, which staged a coup d’état and an illegal work stoppage at the national oil company to get Chavez out of office. Venezuela has a free press, so free that is hard to find any positive news about the government, and most editorial boards launch constant attacks toward the executive branch in general and Hugo Chávez in particular. Again, this situation is radically different from Pinochet’s dictatorship and if it is one coincidence that can be established it is the attitude of the international media against both Chávez and Pinochet but for very dissimilar reasons.

(3) Constitutionalism means respect for the rules of the game. Constitutional order defines and limits the attributions and powers of those exercising authority, the operation of institutions, the proclamation and respect of civil rights, and the procedures of a given country as Zakarias (1997) argued when he described a liberal democracy. The citigroup analysis assumes that President Chávez is not following the rules. The core of this argument is that the Constitution of 2000 was made to suit his interest; hence, it should be considered an authoritarian enclave, an illegitimate instrument of Hugo Chávez. However, a review of the origins of the new Constitution shows a different picture. The Constitution was discussed by a popularly elected national assembly and adopted by a national referendum.  More than 80 percent of voters voted in favor of the new Constitution.  Moreover, it is hard to argue that Chavez has concentrated power. Venezuela has a Supreme Court, a Parliament and other political institutions –such as the national electoral council (CNE)- all of which work independently from the executive and are elected or appointed, independent of the executive branch, by constitutional processes. Moreover, the President has no power to prematurely remove judges, legislators, and other officials. In other words, to say that there is lack of checks and balances in Venezuela has to be proven and no merely stated. Recently, the Supreme Court, the CNE and and the Congress have made decisions unfavorable to the executive, as happens in any other democracy in the world. While the system is far from perfect, imperfections of the system are not different from other countries in the region.

By contrast, to speak of Constitutionalism during Pinochet era is out of the question. He and his ruling clique created a Constitution full of undemocratic constraints, with significant enclaves still in place.  The constitution was approved in a sham national referendum riddled by the fraud and coercion.

  At best one can argue that President Chávez is confrontational, that he is a critic of the establishment and of the political order created by the Pact of Punto Fijo, and that he has been very persistent in dismantling the structure of power that characterized the political system in Venezuela between 1958 and 1998. It is true that in accomplishing this, he has not been open to bargaining or compromise.  However, it is worth remembering that Chavez was not elected on a platform of compromise. Rather, Chávez campaigned as an antiparty, anticorruption, antiestablishment and anti-neoliberal candidate.  Since 1998, he has, if nothing else, been consistent with that platform. Like it or not, Hugo Chávez became a potent symbol of major change, while the opposition represented the status quo.  The Venezuelan people have twice elected him to change Venezuela, and if he is consistent with his promises, the process cannot to be expected to be free of conflict, especially if one considers that the people who formerly exercised power are no longer in a position to influence the decision-making process except through their representative politicians in congress and the other channels of political participation granted in the Constitutions and secondary laws.

In sum, the political system in Venezuela under the presidency of Hugo Chavez has no similarities with the dictatorship in Chile under Agusto Pinochet. While a recall of Hugo Chávez would be part of Venezuelan democratic system and would therefore deepen democracy, the plebiscite in Chile made possible the transition from an authoritarian regime to democracy.  As I have clearly demonstrated above, the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela can in no way be considered an authoritarian regime.

Base of Legitimacy

The Citigroup analysis states that “an authoritarian obtains his legitimacy directly from the popular will to destroy what is widely perceived to be a failed political system”(page 2). This statement is based on a number of false premises, both theoretical and empirical.

In theory, authoritarians obtain their legitimacy from sources of power including coercion, patronage, clientelism or whatever source permits them to control the citizenry. For President Chávez, a democratically elected president, legitimacy does rest in the will of the people, but that will has been twice expressed through elections that clearly mandated him to replace a failed political system considered by most scholars— McCoy (1995), Crisp (2000), Hellinger (1991), to name only a few—as co-optive and unrepresentative. Chávez pointed out the inability of traditional politicians and institutions to deal with Venezuelans’ interests and popular demands.  Indeed, former Venezuelan President and vocal Chávez opponent Carlos Andres Pérez has publicly stated, “Chavez was born of our own mistakes.”

Again, the situation in Venezuela is not even remotely comparable to that in Chile under Pinochet. As a dictator, Pinochet’s legitimacy was gained through coercion.  Even thought Pinochet frequently claimed that the people called him to power, the causes of the breakdown of democracy in Chile were definitely not the “popular rejection of traditional politics and desperation for change,” as you claim in your analysis.  

The coup d’état was a result of multiple factors and complex processes, both international and national. Linz (1978) and Valenzuela (1978) have argued that political institutions were not strong enough to handle crises through democratic means. Political parties became trapped in a framework of polarization, where a centrifugal dynamic caused the center to lose support in favor of the extremes, leading political actors to become disloyal to democracy.

In other words, powerful actors searched for solutions outside “the democratic rules of the game,” taking advantage of the government’s lack of capacity to solve economic and social conflicts. The government lost control over its political and social coalitions and as violence and popular turmoil increased, attempts at normalization through democratic means seemed impossible. Fears of Marxism came from the US and from Chile’s social and political elites. It did not come from the populace, which generally supported Allende’s government, and certainly did not favor a lengthy military regime. The situation was worsened by economic sabotage of the right-wing parties and the CIA, which has been well documented (Verdugo, 2003).  It was Chile’s political elites who contacted the barracks and encouraged the military to take power and get rid of Allende.

  No parallel can be drawn between President Chávez’ source of legitimacy and that of Pinochet.  Moreover, it now seems that the opposition in Venezuela, in order to justify the coup attempt in April 2002, tried to duplicate the scenario that occurred in Chile in 1973. However, the Venezuelan opposition failed to see that President Chávez had enough popular legitimacy to ensure that popular protest would return him to power.  In addition, the military were mostly loyal to the president and the international context was totally different. Similar miscalculations regarding Chávez’s strength were made when the opposition-led PDVSA shutdown, an illegal action that cost Venezuelans over 7 billion dollars and sparked a major economic downturn. In sum, President Chávez has survived to two attempts to remove him from office by undemocratic means.

Since the Venezuelan Constitution allows for a recall of the president, the opposition has elected to behave democratically for the moment. Nevertheless, the context and the reasons for the recall in Venezuela are not even remotely similar to the circumstances that permitted a plebiscite in Chile in 1988.     

Hard – Handed Tactics:

The concept of hand-handed tactics used by the Citigroup analysis is confusing.  First, you appear to equate the “hard-handed tactics”
—presumably a reference to the Spanish concept of “mano dura,”—employed by Pinochet.  This comparison is wholly without merit.  
All political leaders have to exercise authority. What differentiates democratic leaders is their respect for institutions. Pinochet was a dictator, 
so his hard-handed tactics were obviously undemocratic and abusive. President Chavez is no more “hard-handed” than any president in Latin 
America. His rhetoric responds to a process of rejection of the old political system and represents the will of a majority of the population that 
elected him. In addition, because of the Caracazo experience in 1989 –where the Venezuelan government used repression to control social 
mobilization-Chávez has been against to any use of force during opposition-led protests.  This was not the case of Sanchez de Lozada in 
Bolivia in October of this year -to give one contemporary example Latin America.

The opposition has the right to be against him and to fight their way back to the executive through democratic procedures. While Chávez has won two presidential elections and remained faithful to his electoral platform, he has done nothing that can be characterized as “hard-handed” in the way an authoritarian is hard-handed. 

The Citigroup analysis states that Pinochet and Chavez “identify a domestic enemy to justify hard-handed-tactics…oligarchs (in the case of Venezuela) needed to be rooted out and destroyed…”. The crucial difference is that Pinochet eliminated his enemies by killing and repressing them. Chavez is not physically “destroying” the opposition; he has acted within the democratic rules of the game to dismantle the existing net of clientelism and patronage, as he promised to do in his campaign. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that it is normal that a president does not appoint members of the opposition to strategic positions—one would not expect George W. Bush to appoint Democrats to his cabinet, or indeed to any other post. For the parties in the Coordinadora Democratica, the Chávez government has necessarly implied a loss of influence over the process of decision-making. New actors have replaced them.

Transition to Democracy

Because the Pinochet regime was a dictatorship his withdrawal from office constituted what scholars such as Linz (1996), Stepan (1989,1996), O’Donnell (1986), and Huntington (1991) have called a transition to democracy. In the specific case of Chile this transition took the form of transformation—a negotiation between the soft liners on each side, with the authoritarian leader maintaining overall control. Because Chávez is a democratically elected President and because Venezuela has a democratic regime, none of the elements of a transformation are present. What is happening in Venezuela is a transformation within the democratic system motivated by the decay of the former one. Chávez will leave office as any other president in a democratic regime: at the end of his term, in response to elections or some other constitutional process. All arguments against the Bolivarian Revolution must be expressed through democratic competition.

Social mobilization in contemporary Venezuela is not comparable to the Pinochet-era social mobilization. In the case of Chile social protests were launched to force respect for human rights and to push for political liberalization. In the case of Venezuela protest are more akin to the Allende period, when mobilizations were representative of social polarization and the unwillingness of the opposition to wait for a democratic end to the president’s term. In any case, the opposition has the right to protest as in any democracy. However, to promote popular mobilization in order to force a political collapse of a political system—as the Venezuelan opposition has done— opens the door to a breakdown of democracy, as happened in Chile.

To compare the Chilean Concertación to the Venezuelan opposition alliance Coordinadora Democratica is also awkward. It is true that at the beginning the main objective of the Concertación was to remove Pinochet from office, but it is inaccurate to maintain that the only thread that unified the parties that made up the coalition was their opposition to the dictator. They shared principles, most notably an idea of a country and a national project based on a center-left ideology. This made it very easy for them to present a common program and to successfully govern the country from the early 1990s until today. Virtually all the weakness highlighted by those opposed to the concertación have proved unjustified, as history has proved. Additionally the political parties that make up the Concertación were institutionalized, despite the fact that Pinochet banned them and tried to eliminate them. Institutionalization of political parties includes party organization that inhibits instrumental control by personalistic leaders, as well as stable roots in society. This facilitates the steady articulation of political preferences over time and regularity in how people vote (Mainwaring and Scully, 1995). The well-documented decay of the political party system over the last few decades in Venezuela (Coppedge, 1999) inhibits precisely the kind of institutionalization that the Concertación had and has.

Coodinadora Democrática resembles the Concertación in that it is a coalition of parties with one common goal, but it has yet to exhibit the strength to formulate a national project and a successful government, as the Concertación has done. Right now it is more reasonable to think that because of the differences between the Venezuelan and the Chilean coalition, the outcome will not be the same.  The Coordinadora Democrática is composed of the political parties that represent the establishment, against which people voted when Chávez was elected; the same political parties that went through a steadily process of desinstitutionalization and decay without popular support. It remains to be seen whether  Venezuela’s traditional political parties can regain popular confidence through a process of renewal.

Moreover, the Concertación did not need a detailed platform of policies to defeat Pinochet. As a brutal authoritarian dictator, he was an “easy target”. By contrast,  Cordinadora Democrática cannot underestimate President Chávez. The Bolivarian Revolution represents a new project of  national development. Moreover, the Bolivarian project represents a holistic alternative to the system that existed before. Hence, to democratically defeat Chavez it is essential for the opposition to present a program in order to compete.

  Concluding Remarks

It is awkward, if not totally methodologically inappropriate to draw a parallel between the Chilean transition to democracy and the Venezuelan recall of Hugo Chávez. The circumstances, actors, methods of government, and national projects that characterized Pinochet on the one hand and Chávez on the other are completely different.

If any comparison can be made between Chile and Venezuela, it would have to be drawn from Allende’s period: the Cordinadora Democrática is more comparable to the right-wing opposition to Allende before 1973.  Furthermore, the role of the national media was a tool of opposition during 1970-1973 in Chile as pervasive as has been in Venezuela, where the media has played the role of a political party[1].  Polarization of society is also a common feature; the national and international destabilization attempts that occurred during Allende’s government have occurred in Venezuela as well.

The Citigroup analysis cannot pretend that the Venezuelan opposition gains from the Concertación prestige just for trying to force a parallel. Neither can it justify the Venezuelan opposition’s undemocratic attitude by comparing them with the process of democratic transition in Chile. History simply does not match.

If they want develop an adequate strategy to win a referendum or election, the members of the Venezuelan opposition need to improve their understanding of the process of democratic change currently under way, and must develop convincing arguments, not only against the government, but also in favor of themselves. Learning from history requires a proper evaluation of circumstances.  Any attempt to equate recent events in Venezuela with the Chilean transition points in the wrong direction.

Maria Cristina Escudero
Analysis Unit of the Press Unit
Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela


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[1] Perter Kornblush in his book The Pinochet File: A declassified Dossier on Atrocity an Accountability pointed out “In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger identified Chilean millionaire, owner and publisher of El Mercurio, and distributor for the Pepisco Co., Agustin Edwars, as the catalyst of Richard Nixon’s September 15 [1970] orders for a coup. ‘By then Nixon had taken personal role’, he writes in White House years. He had triggered into action on September 14 by Agustin Edwards, the publisher of El Mercurio, the most respected Chilean daily newspaper, who had come to Washington to war of the consequences of an Allende takeover”. (page 6). This book is recommended for all kind of people that which to understand the period before and during the Pinochet regime