Erosion of a Democratic Promise
By Jared Abbott
(This is an updated version of an article that appears in the Spring 2014 Democratic Left magazine. Part I was posted yesterday. – Editor)
Today, well over a year after the death of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela is being governed by a leader who lacks the charisma, political skill, and legitimacy that allowed Chávez to hold the Bolivarian movement together. On top of that, the country suffers from extremely high inflation that has produced exorbitant consumer prices and widespread shortages of basic consumer goods, and has an oil industry that is not operating at full capacity even as the country looks at a massive fiscal deficit. These factors, in addition to a still soaring crime rate (with over 24,000 murders in the country in 2013) have produced a wave of protest activity that has rocked the country since February of this year, in which over 40 people have been killed (both opposition and government supporters), hundreds have been injured, and thousands detained.
While the protests against the government have been dominated by the opposition’s radical wing, which openly calls for the ouster of Maduro, and while many of the opposition protests have been violent and have left numerous government supporters and functionaries dead or injured, the government’s response has been heavy-handed by nearly any measure. Additionally, political repression and media suppression have not served the interests of the government, as they have more than anything lead to an intensification of the protests and to a broadening of their bases of support.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, the recent protests have not undermined popular support for the Maduro government, which still enjoys approval ratings in the mid-50s. Accounting for this relatively high approval rating isn’t difficult: despite the hardships they’re currently facing, ordinary Venezuelans have not forgotten the gains in living standards they’ve made over the last decade thanks to the Bolivarian process. Additionally, the protest movement’s predominantly middle and upper-middle class composition has produced a lack of emphasis on issues of poverty and social equality which has alienated the mass of Venezuela’s population – who have suffered most from inflation and food shortages – from the protestors.
Maduro initiated negotiations with the opposition in early May, but these have subsequently broken down, and it is not clear how the current crisis will be resolved. Without some kind of rapprochement between the government and moderate sectors of the opposition, however, it is difficult to see how the country can avoid either increased civil unrest or a slide into authoritarianism. On the economic front, the Venezuelan government has recently instituted reforms to address inflation and price increases and to curtail hoarding of commodities by private firms, but barring another major commodity boom that would boost government revenues, and/or a major shift in economic policy to strengthen non-oil related industries and to decrease Venezuela’s dependence on imports, no sustainable solution seems likely.
Although the situation in Brazil is not as dire, last summer the country experienced unprecedented mass protests that stunned the Brazilian political elite. The protesters – of whom there were over a million in hundreds of cities across Brazil – were in the streets for many reasons, including state inefficiency and corruption, but chief among them was dissatisfaction with what many saw as the state’s unsatisfactory rate of progress in improving the provision of social services and improving living standards. This dissatisfaction is hardly surprising given that Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in Latin America (and therefore the world), at the same time as its citizens have sharply higher expectations than their parents. While the protests were mostly over by the end of June 2013, due in part to the government’s reversal of transport fare hikes (which had been the initial impetus of the protests) and to Dilma’s commitment to several other reforms, the fundamental issues that caused the protests have yet to be addressed. Evidence of this fact can be seen in the wave of strikes and protests currently underway across Brazil in response to unprecedented government spending on the 2014 World Cup taking place in the country this month.
The Brazilian government’s ability to maintain, let alone expand, its current rate of social provision depends upon a propitious international economic climate that is unlikely to continue. Indeed, with a projected growth rate of less than 2% this year it would seem these conditions might already be on the decline. Additionally, the PT’s electoral support is based more on evaluations of past government performance than on any strong political or ideological commitments to the PT. These factors suggest that continued economic stagnation could put an end to the government’s delicate balancing act of sustaining relatively high levels of public spending in the context of a neoliberal economic program, which could in turn find the PT out of power later this year. Evidence for this prognosis is already mounting, as Dilma’s numbers in the polls continue to decline ahead of the upcoming October elections. (While Dilma still leads the race, some firms have recently predicted that she will not receive a plurality in the first round of elections).
In short, neither the moderate social democratic nor the socialist-radical-democratic route may be viable in the medium-to-long term. Both models have bucked the decades-long trend of savage neoliberalism across the continent and provided a much-needed source of inspiration to the world. But can they continue?
Without stronger autonomous social movements capable of deepening democracy and pushing these governments in a more socially inclusive and democratic direction, as well as more rational economic policies that can decrease dependence on the vagaries of the global economic system, neither option provides a viable model of a post-neoliberal and/or post-capitalist future.
Jared Abbott is a member of DSA’s national political committee, and a graduate student in Government at Harvard University.
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