The Authoritarian Resurgence

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  • April 2015, Volume 26, Number 2 $13.00

    The Authoritarian ResurgenceLilia Shevtsova on Russia Javier Corrales on Venezuela

    Abbas Milani/Alex Vatanka on Iran Frederic Wehrey on Saudi Arabia

    Hong Kongs Umbrella MovementMichael C. Davis Victoria Tin-bor Hui

    The Freedom House Survey for 2014Arch Puddington

    Zoltan Barany on Transitions from Military RuleYun-han Chu & Bridget Welsh on East Asias Millennials

    Elisabete Azevedo-Harman on MozambiquePierre Englebert on Zimbabwe

    Harley Balzer on Vladimir Putin

    Transitional Justice and Its DiscontentsDuncan McCargo

  • AutocrAtic LegALism in VenezueLA

    Javier Corrales

    Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Sci-ence at Amherst College. He is the coauthor of Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chvez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela (with Michael Penfold, 2011). A second edition with a new subtitle, The Legacy of Hugo Chvez, will appear in 2015. Portions of this essay draw from these books.

    The concept of hybrid regimesthose that exhibit both democratic and authoritarian features simultaneouslyis by now well established in the field of comparative politics. Hybrid regimes are sometimes called competitive authoritarian because, while the ruling party competes in elections (usually winning), the president is granted an array of au-tocratic powers that erode checks and balances. Such regimes are now common across the developing world. If we use Freedom Houses clas-sification of Partly Free as a proxy for hybrid regimes, then in 2014 they were slightly more common than classic authoritarian regimes.

    The dynamics of hybrid regimeswhy some remain stable over time while others become either more democratic or more autocraticare less well understood. Venezuela under Hugo Chvez (19992013) is a case of a hybrid regime that rapidly moved toward increasing authoritarianism. In the Freedom in the World report for 19992000, Freedom House low-ered Venezuelas rating from Free to Partly Free. Venezuelas turn toward greater autocracy accelerated over the years, reaching new levels under Chvezs successor Nicols Maduro (2013present). Today, Venezuela ranks as the least free of all Partly Free regimes in Latin America.

    This raises two questions. First, what are the mechanisms by which a competitive authoritarian regime turns more autocratic? By definition, a hybrid regime is one in which the executive branch concentrates powers to the detriment of nonstate and opposition actors. But what else needs to happen for us to say that it has turned more autocratic? This essay examines Venezuela since 1999 to show how such a transformation can

    Journal of Democracy Volume 26, Number 2 April 2015 2015 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

    The Authoritarian Resurgence

  • 38 Journal of Democracy

    take place. My argument focuses on the use, abuse, and non-use of the rule of law.

    Second, what were the causes of Venezuelas rapid move toward greater authoritarianism, especially in the last five years of chavismo? Drawing from my previous work (often in collaboration with other authors), I offer two basic arguments. One focuses on domestic fac-tors: The ruling partys declining electoral competitiveness since the late 2000s, together with path dependence, helps to explain Venezu-elas turn toward greater authoritarianism. The other focuses on for-eign policy: By 2010, Venezuela had succeeded in creating a foreign policy that shielded it from international pressures. Although other factors were no doubt at play, these two served as the most essential drivers.

    During Chvezs presidency, Venezuela became the paradigmatic Latin American case of competitive authoritarianism. The ruling party, known since 2007 as the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), competes in elections against a legal multiparty opposition, as one would expect in a democracy. At the same time, the PSUV helps the executive branch to weaken checks and balances, treat the opposition unfavorably, and reduce the autonomy of civil society. Over the years, the regimes autocratic practices have become more pronounced.

    Three Key Elements

    The primary mechanism facilitating Venezuelas increasing authori-tarianism could be termed autocratic legalism. Autocratic legalism has three key elements: the use, abuse, and non-use (in Spanish, desuso) of the law in service of the executive branch.

    Let us begin with the use of autocratic laws. Since it first came to power, the ruling party has taken advantage of its dominance in the countrys legislative bodies (the 1999 Constituent Assembly, the 19992000 small congress or congresillo, and the 2000present na-tional legislature), in conjunction with its total control of the Supreme Court since 2005, to enact laws that empower the executive branch at the expense of other branches of government. By the time of Hugo Chvezs death in March 2013, there were many such autocratic laws on the books:

    1) The 1999 Constitution, despite many democratic innovations, in-creased the power of the president: It eliminated the Senate (an important veto player); banned public funding for political organizations (which is interpreted to mean political parties); and empowered the president to call for referendums to recall legislators, dissolve the legislature under certain conditions, and propose constitutional amendments and rewrites.

    2) Enabling laws grant the president the right to rule by decree. The chavista-dominated legislature passed enabling laws four times under

  • 39Javier Corrales

    Chvezin 1999, 2000, 2007, and 2010and one time (so far) under Maduroin 2013.

    3) The Organic Law of Telecommunications (2000) allows the gov-ernment to suspend or revoke broadcasting concessions to private out-lets if it is convenient for the interests of the nation, or if public order and security demand it. This law was modified in 2011 to include all audiovisual production (including cable TV) and to reduce concessions to radio networks from 25 to 15 years.

    4) The Law for Social Responsibility (2004) bans the broadcasting of material that could incite or promote hatred and violence. It was ex-tended in 2010 to apply to the Internet. Accordingly, electronic media may not transmit messages that foment anxiety in the public or disturb public order, incite or promote disobedience to the current legal or-der, refuse to recognize legitimately constituted authority, or incite or promote hatred or intolerance.

    5) The 2005 penal-code reform expanded the desacato (insult) law, which makes it illegal to be disrespectful of government officials, to cover an even greater number of officials to whom this law applies. It also seriously restricted the use of public spaces for protesting.

    6) Laws governing communal councils (the Organic Law of Popu-lar Power [2010], the Organic Law of Public Planning [2010], the Or-ganic Law of Social Auditing [2010], and the Organic Law of Com-munes [2010]) provide public funding and legal prerogatives to these ill-defined bodies, which are required to work with the state to offer services, carry out public works, and participate in community develop-ment. In doing so, they often supersede the roles of elected mayors and municipal councils. None of these laws requires the councils to hold competitive elections for their representatives.

    7) The Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination (2010) blocks Venezuelan human-rights defenders from receiving international assistance. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that defend political rights or monitor the performance of public bodies are barred from receiving any foreign funding. Foreign-ers invited to Venezuela by such groups can be summarily expelled from the country if they express opinions that offend the institutions of state, top officials or attack the exercise of sovereignty. The NGOs could face stiff fines, and their directors could lose their right to run for public office for up to eight years.

    8) The Law Against Illicit Exchange Transactions (2010) grants the government a monopoly over all currency trades, including government bonds. Foreign currency from exports must be sold to the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) at the official exchange rate. The law also bans offers in foreign currency made between Venezuelan entities or indi-viduals for the sale of goods and services.

    9) The Law of Partial Reform of the Law of Political Parties, Meet-

  • 40 Journal of Democracy

    ings and Protests (2011) bans deputies from any conduct that departs from the political orientation and positions adopted by their party dur-ing election times. This law is intended to deter legislators from voting in opposition to the party line.

    10) The Organic Law of Fair Prices (2014) is an update to the 2011 Law of Fair Costs and Prices, which legalized the regimes broad sys-tem of price controls and essentially did away with the price system. The 2014 version stiffened the earlier law, expanding the number of infractions to include the reselling of essential merchandise and the commission of acts causing economic destabilization. It also bans profits over 30 percent. Sanctions include fees, imprisonment, confis-cation of assets, and the like. Furthermore, with the addition of eco-nomic destabilizationwhich can be interpreted to mean even the spreading of a rumorthe law expands the subjective justifications that the state can invoke in order to sanction private agents. Since 2011, this law has also been one of the main causes of shortages and informal markets, and an often used justification for cracking down on the private sector.

    Venezuelas arsenal of autocratic laws exhibits two features. First, the autocratic aspect