Venezuela’s Democracy: Killed By Ideological Purity

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

The location of Venezuela in South America

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?

Maduro’s authoritarian policies have prompted millions to take to the streets.

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.

Violent confrontations have become more and more common in Venezuelan cities.

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.

China-India Border Standoff: Why Do They Care About Doklam?

Sometimes countries do things that, at first, don’t seem to make much sense. Take the initially bewildering case of the Doklam standoff, for example. Since June 16, a few hundred troops from the world’s two largest countries, both of which are nuclear powers, have been engaged in a standoff, camping out just 100 meters apart on a remote mountainside in the heart of the Himalayas. Doklam is a tiny, mountainous area located near where the borders of Bhutan, China, and India come together. The area is generally considered to be a part of Bhutan, although China also claims it. The crisis began when the Chinese army started building a road through Doklam, and Indian troops, acting on Bhutan’s behalf, halted the construction of the road. Since then, the crisis has only escalated, and just yesterday India put an additional 50,000 troops on alert as a result of the standoff. So why do two of the world’s most powerful countries care so much about an insignificant piece of land?

The location of Bhutan in Asia
The location of Doklam in Bhutan






The answer, of course, is that Doklam is not as insignificant as it seems. Not only is it the latest chapter in a long, historical dispute, but it is also representative of China’s foreign policy and strategically significant to India’s security. China and India have had tense relations throughout much of their modern history. Before 1950, there were no border disputes between China and India because they did not share a very long border. At that time, Tibet, a vast region north of the Himalayas, was an independent kingdom. It was not until 1950 that China annexed Tibet and gained its long Himalayan frontier with India. After China’s annexation of Tibet, the region’s religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India. India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama constituted the first source of tension between China and India, and the diplomatic rift it caused has endured until today.

Besides India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama, the poorly demarcated border between the two countries has sparked conflict between them. They both claim the region of Aksai Chin, a Chinese-administered part of what was once the Indian princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, China claims an entire state of India, Arunachal Pradesh. These conflicts led to the Sino-Indian war in 1962, which, although not resulting in a change in territory, led to an Indian military defeat and an abandonment of Indian expansion. Another armed skirmish occurred in 1967, and the two countries nearly went to war once again in 1987. Since then, however, diplomatic tensions have never involved the military as much as they have in recent months. So what changed?

The current conflict is largely the result of an expansionist tendency that has defined China’s foreign policy in recent years. China has the world’s largest population, second largest economy, and largest standing army. It is becoming an increasingly influential global power, allowing it to pursue foreign policy objectives against smaller, less influential countries. It has attempted to project its power in the South China Sea and used its economic might to expand its influence in Africa. It has also attempted to intimidate one of its neighbors: Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between China and India. China has numerous border disputes with Bhutan, including a dispute over Doklam. Thus, when it began building a road through Doklam, China was essentially re-creating the strategy that it uses when it builds artificial islands in the South China Sea: using its economic advantage to legitimize its control over areas claimed by countries with considerably shallower pockets.

It is now clear why China is so invested in the Doklam dispute: in keeping with a recent trend in its foreign policy, it is attempting to project its relatively newfound global influence. Why, though, is India involved in a dispute over Bhutanese territory? India and Bhutan have long had a special relationship, with India largely responsible for Bhutan’s foreign policy and defense. The Doklam standoff perfectly illustrates Bhutan’s motives for entering into such a relationship: fear of Chinese expansionism. India’s motives are more geopolitical: Bhutan acts as a buffer between China and one of India’s most fragile strategic weaknesses.

After Bangladesh was separated from India during the partition, India was left with seven Northeastern states almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. The only thing connecting those seven states to the rest of India is a narrow strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor. Bhutan lies very close to the Siliguri corridor, and the construction of a road in Doklam puts the Chinese military even closer to the strategic area. In the event of a war, China could march over the border and isolate the Northeast entirely. Thus India is fiercely protective of Bhutan and, by extension, Doklam; it must protect its territorial integrity. 

With troops on high alert and fierce diplomatic rhetoric, a resolution to the Doklam standoff does not appear imminent. A remote plateau in Bhutan may seem trivial to observers, but, given the context of recent trends in China’s foreign policy and its strategic importance to India’s territorial integrity, it is extremely consequential to two of the world’s most powerful countries. As a result, while the chance of war between the two countries is extremely slim, they will likely expend a massive amount of resources maintaining the standoff and seeking to resolve it. Now, at least, it’s clear that those resources will not be wasted.

Progress and Fear Coexist in Rwanda—For Now

Last Friday, incumbent Paul Kagame of Rwanda won 98.79% of the vote in his country’s presidential election. In most countries, leaders who win such a staggeringly huge share of the vote must be either incredibly popular or, more commonly, extremely repressive. At first, it is difficult to tell which of these best describes Kagame’s rule—his proponents point to the progress that Rwanda has witnessed under his guidance while his opponents point to the harassment of the opposition. So how did Kagame do it? Is he loved or is he feared? In short, the answer is both.

Located in the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda is continental Africa’s most densely populated nation. Its roughly 12 million inhabitants live in an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts and Belgium. Despite its small size, Rwanda’s troubled history has played an outsized role in international affairs. At the time of its independence, it had been controlled for years by an elite ethnic group called the Tutsi. Shortly before independence, however, Rwanda’s ethnic majority, the Hutu, took control of the country and prompted thousands of Tutsis to flee. Paul Kagame’s family was one of those that fled to Uganda during this time.

The location of Rwanda in Africa

After years of tensions between the Hutu-dominated government and the Tutsi minority, hostility finally turned to outright war. By 1990, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had been formed, and it launched an invasion of Rwanda from Uganda. After the leader of the RPF was killed, Kagame took control of the group. The war began to stagnate until April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing them both. Extremists in the military, the police, and various militias used this as pretext to initiate a systematic massacre of Rwanda’s Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus. Over the course of 100 days of slaughter, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 civilians were murdered. Led by Kagame, the RPF resumed its offensive and took control of the country, putting an end to the genocide.

Rwanda’s GDP has taken off in recent years.

This is the first reason why Kagame is so well-respected in Rwanda. He is rightly credited with bringing stability and peace back to Rwanda. But he didn’t just bring peace. He brought prosperity. Despite the horror of genocide and the destruction of much of Rwanda’s infrastructure, the country has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with an average GDP growth rate of 8% per year between 2001 and 2014. Kagame introduced an ambitious development program that has reduced poverty, tackled corruption, minimized wealth and gender inequality, improved health and education outcomes, and restructured the economy to reduce dependence on agriculture. Glittering new high-rises now grace the skyline of the capital, Kigali. Kagame himself has said that his goal is to turn Rwanda into the “Singapore of Africa,” and he has certainly made progress in doing so.

Shiny new skyscrapers grace the Kigali skyline.

Thus Kagame is not a corrupt dictator whose hold on power is reliant only on repression. He genuinely wishes to improve the lives of Rwandans and has already done so, making him very popular. That said, he has been harshly criticized for his government’s dictatorial tendencies and human rights violations. One warning sign appeared in 2015, when his government held a constitutional referendum that removed term limits, indicating his intent to stay in power. Furthermore, according to the Freedom House, “journalists and members of banned opposition groups reportedly faced arbitrary arrests, beatings, politicized prosecutions, and enforced disappearances during the year.” He is also accused of creating an environment of political intimidation and surveillance.

Ultimately, therefore, Kagame’s victory in last week’s election is likely a combination of the two hallmarks of his government—huge improvements in development and repressive authoritarianism. These two characteristics, crucial in determining the outcome of the election, will similarly be crucial in determining Rwanda’s future progress. A wealth of historical and economic evidence indicates that Kagame’s authoritarianism is what his country needs to sustain its high level of development. Numerous Asian governments, including Kagame’s Singaporean inspiration, oversaw breathtaking development by implementing authoritarian regimes. Developmental states require strong government intervention, which means that complete democracy may not be the best political system for the job. As a result, changing the constitution to allow Kagame to run for a third term was likely the best course for the country.

It will not, however, be the best course for the country forever. African history is replete with stories of leaders who, although initially appearing promising, neglected their countries for the sake of maintaining power. Authoritarian regimes are notoriously bad at planning ahead for after the end of their rule. Progress becomes entirely dependent on the skills of the government, meaning progress stops when the next government takes power. Or worse, progress reverses in the ensuing power vacuum. Thus Rwanda’s development must not become dependent on Kagame. He must build the institutions necessary to facilitate long-term development, just like the countries of East Asia did.

Kagame’s victory is, ultimately, a positive reflection on his track-record for development. His re-election is a good thing for Rwanda because the country’s prosperity is dependent on him and, to a certain degree, on his authoritarianism. Someday, however, he won’t be around. When that day comes, it is imperative that Rwanda no longer be dependent on him. In order to build a future in which his country can develop on its own, Kagame must shift his attention from reinforcing his own power to reinforcing Rwanda’s institutions.