Venezuela is putting democracy and its legitimacy to test

By Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics, University of Southampton

 

Long before the current crisis in Venezuela, democracy in Latin America was a damaged project. Military coups d’etat and other violent seizures of power in the 1960s and 1970s were followed by weak attempts at redemocratisation. Efforts to institutionalise social rights, particularly those based on state intervention in the economy, provoked hostile reaction from domestic and foreign markets.

 

Democratic attempts often faced hurdles caused by profound socio-economic restructuring and severe cuts in public spending – with national budgets linked closely to the global economy. Democracy was also highly dependent on markets.

 

During the 1980s, oil prices fell dramatically. In Venezuela, debt then skyrocketed, giving way to a dramatic political and economic crisis that was exacerbated by blatant corruption.

 

Then in 1998 Hugo Chávez was elected president – but with no fixed strategy of what an “anti-capitalist project” might entail. Instead, he took power at the end of a decade that had seen a catastrophic deterioration in living standards and the monopoly of conservative political parties.

 

Chávez was elected on his pledge to refound the republic in line with the vision of Simon Bolivar, who had liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule in the early 19th century. And for Chávez, over more than a decade his experiments seemed to work.

 

According to the World Bank, his social, political and economic reforms led to a spectacular 50% reduction of poverty, and a 65% drop in “extreme poverty” between 1998 and 2012.

 

These gains were mirrored by Venezuela’s neighbours, with Latin America successfully reducing poverty and promoting shared prosperity. The proportion of the region’s 600m people living in extreme poverty (defined as a daily income of less than US$2.50) was cut in half between 2003 and 2012 to around 12%.

 

In Venezuela, post-neoliberalism as a project (committed to the creation of non-market societies, economies and cultures) remained highly dependent on the oil bonanza, accumulating reserves which supported the use (and abuse) of social welfare regimes. Yet as it became increasingly caught in the international oil industry downturn, so too did the post-neoliberal project.

 

A state that failed the people

The halving of the oil price in 2014 sharply reversed the advances made in reducing poverty and inequality. Fatal food and medicines shortages, disease outbreaks and widespread social deprivation spiralled into an unprecedented social and economic crisis.

 

Now, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), nearly 90% of Venezuelans live in poverty – a dramatic increase from an already alarming 48% in 2014.

 

It would be politically naive to think that the promise of democracy in Venezuela was vulnerable purely because of an over-reliance on a volatile oil industry. That was undoubtedly a fatal flaw, but Venezuela also failed to reconcile a deeply polarised society.

 

Since his election as president in 2013, Nicolás Maduro has failed to address chronic problems of economic mismanagement, poor planning, increasing social discontent, and corruption. His country has since undergone cycles of protest and repression that reinforced the social divide.

 

Human rights violations became systematic. There have been well documented restrictions on social protest and freedom of expression, with extrajudicial detentions and arbitrary arrests of opponents. On top of this, a devastating humanitarian crisis has seen an exodus to neighbouring countries – Brazil and Colombia – in a scale never seen before. The number of arrivals from Venezuela to neighbouring countries has steadily increased, reaching 5,000 per day in early 2018.

 

To some, Venezuela had become a failed state, without the basic norms of democratic governance. Then on January 23 2019, Juan Guaidó, leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself president of the republic.

 

Guaidó has long been an anti-government activist, but until recently was little known around the world – or even in Venezuela. Yet his move was quickly endorsed by several Latin American countries, as well as Canada and the United States. His self-claim to the presidency is quite problematic too: it draws legitimacy from “assertive politics” rather than from a direct democratic ballot. The end apparently justifies the means.

 

Power grab?

The argument seems to be that Maduro has ruined the Venezuelan economy, violated human rights of all sorts, repeatedly challenged the Venezuelan constitution himself, and was not freely or fairly re-elected in 2018.

 

Guaidó therefore alleges that that Maduro “stole” power and the role of president has therefore been left vacant.

 

Meanwhile, the president of the European parliament, Antonio Tajani, said the Venezuelan people have had “enough of the hunger and abuse suffered at the hands of Maduro”. And the Trump administration asserts that all countries must “pick a side” and back the “forces of freedom”.

 

 

But can an opposition leader – albeit with the support of foreign powers – simply state that the president of the country is not actually the president, and take power himself? If he can, how would Venezuelans be reassured that removing the “bad” president will not simply legitimise more politics of this “assertive” kind.

 

So for the moment, the country has been plunged into a situation whereby it has an internationally recognised government which has no democratic mandate from the people or control over state functions – yet it runs parallel to Maduro’s parliament, with a de facto presidential mandate yet a delusional and dangerous sense of authority.

 

This is not democracy. What Venezuela urgently needs is to reconstruct the foundations of political legitimacy beyond declarations. It requires electoral democracy and political consensus that can genuinely represent the people, deliver development, and reconstruct a sense of citizenship and belonging for its people.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/venezuela-is-putting-democracy-and-its-legitimacy-to-test-111466.

How can Locke help with today’s crises?

By Dr. Eloise Harding, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton

 

John Locke might seem like an unlikely historical figure to turn to for help with environmental and social crises: after all, many popular interpretations of his arguments posit him as the theoretical ancestor of unfettered accumulation, dedicated to extracting the maximum productive use from natural resources. However, these readings don’t tell the full story.

 

The key point here is the interpretation of Locke’s normative argument that humans must derive from the nonhuman world ‘the greatest conveniences of life they were capable’ (2nd Treatise section 34), and ‘make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience’ (2nd Treatise section 26). This has often been read as a call for unfettered exploitation of natural resources: in other words, for the most extensive use as the ‘best’ use. Alternatively, if applied to current events, there is a compelling case for construing a sustainable, zero-waste mode of living as a path to the ‘greatest conveniences of life’, assuming that these include a continued healthy existence.

 

Of particular interest is the ‘spoilage proviso’, one of the limitations Locke places on the initial appropriation of resources. On this point, Locke argues that ‘as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils: so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others’ (2nd Treatise section 31). In other words, while it is not in his view wrong to acquire more property than you strictly need, it becomes a problem when resources are wasted. Recent French legislation (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/04/french-law-forbids-food-waste-by-supermarkets) to force supermarkets to give away their unsold food rather than sending it to landfill is consistent with this principle.

 

The spoilage proviso is generally invoked alongside the principle of ‘enough and as good left for others’ (2nd Treatise, various points), which can be read as a further restriction on the acquisition of property in times of scarcity. Taken as a prescription for action today (which I admit would be a controversial use of Locke’s theory), this could have radical implications for solving the austerity crisis. For example, what if there were limits on how many domestic properties could be purchased and left resolutely empty in a city with a high population of homeless and vulnerably housed people?

 

It is not a new phenomenon to interpret Locke’s arguments as grounded in concern for overall human wellbeing, or to argue as James Tully does that ‘Locke’s two natural rights, of preservation and to preserve oneself and others, are not liberties. They are natural rights directly resulting from, or entailed by, the natural duty to preserve mankind.’ (Tully 1993 112)  It is mildly controversial, thanks largely to C.B. Macpherson, to read this as including the whole of humanity rather than merely the segment who have successfully appropriated property. However, as Kristin Shrader-Frechette argues, ‘one could imagine a contemporary Locke arguing for extensive restrictions on property rights in land (e.g., prohibiting filling in wetlands) and for agricultural zoning or preservation, for example to prevent fertile land from being developed or paved.’ (Shrader-Frechette: 1993 217) We can imagine this, on conceptual if not historical grounds, since Locke’s overall prescription that we must make the best use of natural resources is not thoroughly filled out. However, there are indications in the two provisos discussed above which suggest that sustainable use could constitute the ‘best’ use long term. For example, excesses that impinge on the wellbeing of others are frowned upon: while Locke relates this to the immediate present and future, it can be argued that jeopardising people’s long-term prospects for clean air and water or for food security might also fall within this category. The spoilage proviso, meanwhile, rules overtly wasteful uses of resources out of being considered ‘to the best advantage of life’.

 

With that in mind, what would a Lockean solution to austerity and environmental crisis look like in practice? In the first instance, there would be significantly less waste than there is currently: for example, inessential single use plastics and throwaway fashion would be less prevalent. Emphasis would be placed on repairing and reusing rather than constantly replacing. Furthermore, there would be a requirement to share what would otherwise go to waste: for example, supermarkets would be urged to donate their surplus perishables to a food bank or other community project where it can be put to good use, rather than rendering it inedible in a skip. Practical guidance on living up to these principles can be found in the work of a number of projects currently operating around Southampton, for example CURB – The Real Junk Food Project (https://curbkitchen.wordpress.com/), Southampton Repair Café (http://freemantleurc.org.uk/southampton-repair-cafe/) and Southampton Clothes Swaps (https://www.facebook.com/SouthamptonClothesSwaps/). The issue of property ownership – specifically land and buildings – is more contentious, since Locke imposed no outright limits on how much of each resource an individual could own. However, there would likely be de facto limits on how far an individual’s or company’s holdings could impinge on the surrounding community: of particular concern here are ‘investment’ properties which are left deliberately empty in situations where house prices are unnecessarily inflated and housing shortages are rife as a result.

 

In short, although there is a significant gap between Locke’s political views and those of many people actively resisting environmental and austerity-related crises, he can nonetheless provide some useful principles for improving the situation.