Venezuela’s slide toward dictatorship neared completion on Friday when the country’s newly-formed constituent assembly took full legislative powers, effectively rendering powerless the democratically elected National Assembly. The 545-member constituent assembly, which was formed to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, was created by Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela. Its members were elected on July 30 in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition and is largely considered fraudulent, resulting in the election of a body that is completely loyal to Maduro. As a result, the legislature is now under Maduro’s control, squashing the last check on his power. As country that, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was once South Ameica’s richest, Venezuela’s recent history is a perfect example of the danger of prioritizing ideological purity above all else
This development is merely the most recent in a litany of authoritarian moves by Maduro’s regime, especially since the opposition won control of the National Assembly in 2015. In March, Venezuela’s highest court, which is loyal to Maduro, usurped the power of the National Assembly. This sparked massive protests, which forced Maduro to reverse the court’s decision. Thus Maduro has been aiming to stifle the National Assembly for quite some time, and the creation of the constituent assembly can be seen as his latest—and most successful—attempt at doing so.
Before that, in October 2016, electoral officials loyal to Maduro blocked the opposition’s attempt to hold a recall election. According to the Venezuelan constitution, presidents cannot be impeached, but they can be removed from office by recall elections if the opposition gathers a petition with enough signatures. The government blocked the opposition’s ability to gather signatures. This shows that Maduro has acted in an authoritarian manner for quite some time, and Friday’s event is a culmination of such a trend. A few decades ago, however, Venezuela had a functional (albeit flawed) democracy and was South America’s richest country in terms of per capita GDP. So what went wrong?
The dawn of Venezuela’s modern political system came in 1998, when the Hugo Chávez was elected president. Chávez was elected on a platform of populist socialism, promising to reduce corruption and enact a series of social programs aimed at eradicating poverty. The beginning of his presidency coincided with a rise in global oil prices, allowing him to fund his populist programs and gain a large following. For awhile, he succeeded in reducing poverty and raising standards of living. As time went on, however, corruption remained rampant and Chávez began to consolidate authoritarian rule. When Chávez died in 2013, Maduro succeeded him and continued the two signature characteristics of the Chávez presidency: populist socialism and increasing authoritarianism.
When oil prices fell in 2014, Venezuela’s oil-dominant economy could no longer fund such extensive social programs, but they continued anyways, plunging the country into economic crisis. It was largely the worsening economic conditions that allowed the opposition to win control of the legislature in 2015. Since then, economic conditions have continued to deteriorate dramatically. 720% inflation has caused the prices of necessities to skyrocket. Price controls led to shortages of basic goods, including medical supplies. Malaria incidence has risen, as has infant mortality. Stores shelves are empty. Unemployment has risen considerably. People cannot afford food; they are starving. The discontent has led to rioting and street violence.
Thus Venezuela is now nearing a breaking point. Rule of law has been destroyed, the economy has nearly collapsed, and violence is escalating. The country’s path to its current precarious state is open to many interpretations and offers many lessons. This article, however, will explore only one: that Venezuela shows the danger of prioritizing ideological purity above all else. As populists, Chávez and Maduro presumably believed that their ideology, called Chavismo, represented what was best for “the people” of Venezuela. They began to value the purity and longevity of their ideology above the survival of Venezuela’s governing institutions. This had two effects: an attack against democracy and an unwillingness to modify bad policies.
One obvious characteristic of democracy is that governments (and their ideologies) can be voted out of power. Thus democracy can be seen as a threat to the survival of an ideology. To a leader whose priority is the survival of his or her ideology, democracy may naturally become a target. This is what happened in Venezuela. Chávez and Maduro are so convinced of the all-importance of their ideology that they were willing to attack democracy in order to achieve its longevity. The events of this Friday mark a culmination of this idea.
Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis stems from another characteristic of prioritizing ideological purity: an unwillingness to modify ineffective or harmful policies. Ideological purists believe that their ideology is infallible, and, as a result, are unwilling to acknowledge the shortcomings of their beliefs when things go wrong. Purity demands that believers find external blame. This is what Maduro is doing when he blames American interference for Venezuela’s woes. Unfortunately, however, Venezuela’s economic collapse is largely the result of bad policies. Price controls cause shortages, and printing too much money causes hyperinflation. Since Maduro is unable to accept the fallibility of his ideology, he is unwilling to reconsider these disastrous policies. As a result, Venezuela’s people are starving and dying.
Every day, the situation in Venezuela deteriorates further. Maduro has not compromised ideologically even as starvation, lack of healthcare, and street violence claim more and more lives every day. Democracy, too, has been sacrificed in the name of Maduro’s political longevity and the longevity of Chavismo. If he continues with his blind adherence to his ideology and desperate grasp on power, he risks plunging his country into civil war, and no amount of ideological purity can justify a civil war. Uncompromising adherence to ideology has brought disaster to Venezuela. It is time to compromise.