Dexter Boniface

Posts Tagged ‘Correa’

Bolivarian Populism and Democratic Governance: A Poor Record

In Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela on June 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

The recent election of Ollanta Humala as President of Peru has once again raised the spectre of Hugo Chavez’s brand of Bolivarian Populism spreading to yet another South American country. Similarly, the recent release of a secret diplomatic cable outlining a pact between Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and Chavez has rekindled fears that Venezuela continues to exert powerful influence in Central America. Critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez frequently claim that his brand of left-wing populism is incompatible with democracy. In this blogpost, I examine some preliminary evidence in support of this claim.

Source: Arnulfo Franco / AP

The Bolivarian Blueprint

I use the term “Bolivarian Populism” to denote a particular process of political change exemplified by Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez and imitated to different degrees by other left-leaning Latin American presidents, especially Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) as well as Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Manuel Zelaya (Honduras). This process of political change typically begins, first, with the election of a political outsider who rails against the traditional political party establishment. Once elected into power, the president next calls for the creation of a constituent assembly to re-write the country’s constitution, a process inevitably marked by substantial partisan conflict (particularly between the president and the legislative and judicial branches of government), increased social polarization, and often a serious breakdown in the rule of law. The new constitutions, approved in more or less democratic plebiscites (or, in Nicaragua’s case, modified by dubious procedures), typically enhance the executive’s power by reducing checks and balances and abolishing presidential term limits. Once the new constitution is in place, finally, the president holds new elections to refresh their mandate. This pattern is particularly evident in Venezuela under Chavez (elected 1998, new constitution 1999, new mandates 2000, 2006 and possibly 2012), Bolivia under Morales (elected 2005, constituent assembly 2006-2007, new constitution and mandate 2009, and possible future mandate in 2014) and Ecuador under Correa (elected 2006, constituent assembly 2007, new constitution 2008, new mandate in 2009 and possibly 2013).

The Decline of Freedom

Chavez and other followers of “Bolivarian Populism” frequently claim that radical changes in political structure are required to make their countries more democratic. Yet recent data from Freedom House (an NGO specializing in measuring freedom around the world) suggests that the results of such changes are typically just the opposite. As the chart below indicates, aggregate measures of political rights and civil liberties have dropped (in some cases precipitously) during the tenure of all five of the leaders most closely associated with Bolivarian Populism. Although the Freedom House data is not a perfect measure of democracy (it is, more precisely, a measure of freedom), the gradual decline in political and civil rights in these countries is unambiguous. The decline has arguably been most striking in Venezuela, a case that has been extensively documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Source: author's computations based on Freedom House data published in 2011.

The Rise of Corruption 

In addition to championing democracy, the Bolivarian Populists often rail against the endemic corruption of their societies and advocate radical political changes as a key part of the solution. Yet recent evidence from Transparency International (an NGO specializing in measuring perceptions of corruption around the world) suggests that the results of such efforts have been disappointing. In the most recent 2010 survey, for example, Venezuela was found to be the most corrupt country in all of Latin America, followed by Paraguay, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia. The results, as Andres Oppenheimer has argued, are not all that surprising. Indeed, as Transparency International’s Alejandro Salas has noted, “In countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, government leaders have shattered the system of checks and balances. And when there are no watchdogs, you tend to have more arbitrary allocations of funds, and fewer transparent bids for government contracts” (quoted by Oppenheimer).

Conclusion

Although the evidence I have presented here is far from definitive, and the standards by which we should measure the success or failure of the “Bolivarian Revolution” are hotly disputed (a more complete analysis would need, minimally, to include a wide variety of socioeconomic data), recent data support the claim that Chavez’s style of Bolivarian Populism has consistently undermined democratic governance in Latin America.