Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends

  • By
  • Anne Applebaum

For absolute proof that the ideological language of the 20th century is insufficient to describe the political realities of the 21st century, look no further than the international alliances that have formed around Venezuela. In the past few days, Venezuela has functioned as a kind of a Rorschach test, a black blob upon which many people want to project their own political views.

Some insist on placing the country on a left/right axis, either loudly defending the “Bolivarian socialist” rhetoric used by its former leader, Hugo Chávez, as well as its current failed president, Nicolás Maduro, or clearly denouncing it. Others have declared that any foreign support for Juan Guaidó — the president of the National Assembly, who has declared himself interim president of the country until elections can be held — amounts to “American imperialism” or a “right-wing coup.” This nonsensical claim ignores the facts that many of Guaidó’s foreign supporters are on the center-left — Canada, Spain, Peru — and most of them are European or Latin American.

More to the point, Venezuela is not a black blob: It’s a state that has collapsed. And this collapse has been caused not merely by a rapacious form of ideological “socialism” (and not at all by “American imperialism”) but also by political leaders who privatized and colonized the institutions of the state. Two distinguished Venezuelan journalists, Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, recently wrote a powerful Foreign Affairs article contrasting the Venezuela of the 1970s — one of Latin America’s “oldest and strongest democracies,” a country with good infrastructure, real social mobility and less inequality than its neighbors — with the Venezuela of today: “one of Latin America’s most impoverished nations,” a land of food shortages, extreme poverty and hyperinflation. What happened in between? The answer is Chávez and Maduro’s kleptocratic one-party system, which robbed the country in the name of “the people.”

Venezuela has not just suffered from ideology, it also has suffered from false ideology, from a “socialism” that gave up on health care and education, from a “populism” that put drug dealers in power, and from ordinary greed. The Venezuelan tragedy is the end game of a certain form of politics, the place where so many of today’s “illiberal democrats” may also eventually end up. Charismatic leaders who tell elaborate lies, politicize their courts, restrict media and repress opposition usually have a solid logic behind their actions: If nothing else, the absence of liberal democratic checks and balances makes it very easy for powerful politicians to steal.

This was the road taken by Vladimir Putin in Russia and by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, neither of whom is a socialist, and both of whom are loudly supporting Maduro. This is the road down which many others, for example Viktor Orban of Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines — both committed anti-communists — are heading as well. These kinds of leaders are hard to place on an old-fashioned left/right or pro-American/anti-American axis, but they clearly conform to an important contemporary pattern, and it’s important that we recognize them for who they are.

Invariably, these charismatic leaders with their distaste for the rule of law also end up with constitutional crises. This is where Venezuela finds itself, and this is what Guaidó’s declaration is intended to end. Outsiders can help: European-American-Latin American recognition for Guaidó might help him achieve the legitimacy he needs to rid the country of Chavista domination. And if he succeeds, he will also find it useful to have some supportive friends who can help restore democracy, repair civic institutions and rebuild what has been destroyed — everything from basic services to the oil industry to the courts.

Precisely because its members range from the center-left to the center-right, there is a small chance that the transatlantic coalition supporting Guaidó could play that kind of role. But it will succeed only if all of its members understand that what Venezuela will eventually need is not another ideological crusade but a long-term commitment to reconstruction, to democratic legitimacy and to the rule of law, as well as to a healthy, workable economic system. “It won’t be simple, and it won’t be quick,” write Toro and Naím. Rescuing a failed state never is.