In a recent visit to Venezuela I had the privilege of giving a presentation at the conference “Participative Democracy in Latin America” sponsored by the Center for Development Studies (CENDES) of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), the flagship institution of teaching and social research in that nation.
My presentation generated a lively debate with (and between) my colleagues present, an exchange that fortunately avoided falling into the extreme polarization that is rocking the country, clouding understandings and caricaturing political reflections and positions.
The colleague in charge of coordinating my visit to CENDES was Thais Maingon, who agreed to respond to some questions and share her reflections with the readers of Havana Times concerning the country’s sociopolitical situation.
Tahis left me with a good impression because during the whole time she conducted herself as an attentive professional whose participation in the forum was characterized by precision and balance, thus contributing to the value of the gathering and its possible concrete repercussions.
She has a master’s degree in the sociology of education (Stanford University) and a doctorate in political science (UCV). In addition she is a specialist in development studies and social politics, as well as an expert in the analysis of the Venezuelan socio-political conjuncture. She has studied electoral processes and results and has looked as referendums as involving relationships between government and society, democracy, citizenship and institutionalism, as well as political parties and participation in Venezuela.
Those issues were dealt with in our conversation and are presented here.
HT: This year marks the twelfth year since Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias assumed the presidency of Venezuela with a commitment full of promises of reform. What in your opinion are the reasons that explain the ascent and continuation in power of this figure for more than a decade?
THAIS MAINGON: As always happens in the social sciences and politics, there are multiple reasons that could explain this matter. Among the most important we find:
1. The deep crisis of representation that undermined the bases of the system of parties founded in the 1960s, reaching the point of even causing their disappearance.
2. The crisis of legitimacy faced by political parties, not only that of the traditional parties that suffered such strong disaffection on the part of voters, but of all political parties.
3. Disenchantment with the system of political democracy for not fulfilling its promises.
4. People’s weariness with the ruling class/elite. Since the middle of 1980s, people have demanded a drastic change in the leadership of the government and in the design of public policy.
5. The hope that the current government responds democratically to social and political demands; though the last few years have been characterized by sharp reductions in institutionalism, integration and social and political cohesion on the part of Venezuelans.
HT: To what degree does the current government correspond to the criticisms and expectations that the Venezuelan population had regarding the so-call Fourth Republic (1958-1998)?
TM: The present government is continuing to commit the same errors that the governments of the past committed – but with a different style. The matter is in the way of its doing things, which we could describe as authoritarian; in the “why” things are done, which we could say are done to stay in power; and in the “how things are done,” where we could say that most things done by the government are done with much inefficiency and inefficacy.
HT: Bolivarian ideology, socialism of the 21st century, militarist and authoritarian populism are terms used indistinctly to define the Venezuelan regime and process. What are the central elements that characterize the political initiative that arrived at the Miraflores presidential palace in 1999 and what continuities or contradictions does it possess regarding the liberal democratic governments of the region and its own historical evolution?
TM: Since the current government won its first election in 1998, it has had two visions of how to affect changes through a peaceful revolutionary process (I don’t believe they could be called political projects). One of these visions was the one called Revolucion Civico Militar, promoted by the civilian and military supporters of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 [the political and social movement founded by President Chavez in 1982].
The other one was the Progressive Democratic Reform, supported by sectors that are critical of the traditional political system but are believers in democratic institutionalism. In any case, and independently of the visions indicated above, from the very beginning this project of Bolivarian change had the military as its central element, and therefore it was based on authoritarianism as its form of governing.
Other central elements that currently characterize the political project are autocratic centralism, distinct forms of a system of social assistance and direct control over the majority of social initiatives. The most visible consequences are limited social inclusion, the disappearance of public policies to attend to structural social problems and a growing decomposition of social coexistence.
HT: In the constitution of 1999, in legislation later approved, in the political rhetoric of government officials, and more recently in the language of opponents, much is spoken about “participative and advocatory democracy.” To what degree does this representation correspond to reality? What have been the advances and setbacks in that sense over the past twelve years?
TM: In terms of this “theme,” from my way of thinking there have not been setbacks but rather advances. This is one of the opportunities that Venezuelan citizens have taken advantage of the most, for better or worse. However, after twelve years of Chavez’s government we have found ourselves in a situation of restricted social inclusion. There has been deterioration and even the disappearance (in some sectors) of public policy as well as marked decomposition in social life.
HT: In 2012 we will have presidential elections where the opposition will try to achieve control over the nation and the president to be reelected to continue with his process of change. How do you foresee these upcoming elections and what consequences might they generate, looking at a victory on either side? Will there be opportunities for a third option, which would effectively reduce the polarization and include the enormous sector known as the “Ni-ni” (Neither-neither)?
TM: The president as a candidate will attempt to be reelected and to do that he’ll use all the resources within his reach – I haven’t the slightest doubt of this. He will not leave political or social opportunities for those who are not his own. For the time being I believe there’s no chance for a third option to be formed, therefore the polarization will remain quite sharp.
There will be attempts of form a third option, an example is the Frente Progresista Para el Cambio (Progressive Front for Change) that was just presented to the public but from the Mesa de la Unidad, which contains the parties PODEMOS, PPT and Bandera Roja, among its principal ones. It’s a good idea but I don’t think it will be successful, at least not in the upcoming elections. In the future perhaps, but not for the time being.