San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Venezuela and mature democracies

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For decades, political leaders repeated the phrase that Latin America had finally reached democracy, except for the case of Cuba: “the only dictatorship in the region.” This has changed drastically during the last decade, mainly due to the notable case of Venezuela.

Hundreds of essays and books can be written to define conceptually whether Venezuela is a democracy or not, and what type of democracy it might be. Although this theoretical discussion is important, mainly because it drives to a great extent the positions of states towards the regime of President Nicolás Maduro – and previously to that of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez – it seems that the increasing imprisonment of political actors, aggravated by the country’s deep economic crisis, has wiped out the few democratic credentials that Venezuela had left. Venezuela may not be a dictatorship in formal terms, but, as the saying in Spanish goes: If it barks, walks and looks like a dog, it’s a dog. Well, Venezuela barks, walks and looks like a dictatorship.

It’s a fact that the Venezuelan people voted both Maduro and Chávez into office. However, after Chávez’s first election, the fairness of the following elections is debatable. It is also a fact that during Chávez’s first terms, Venezuela experimented a positive change in its social conditions; poverty and inequality were reduced considerably, as many regional indices showed. However, many studies also warned of the fragility of those achievements based on oil cash flows and the absence of long-term policies.

The consequences of those bad public choices are evident today. Poverty and inequality were fought not with economic growth, job creation or better socioeconomic policies, but rather with populism and oil money. It is not hyperbolic to say that the economic crisis Venezuela is experiencing today has pulled the country back in time at least 20 years, and it will take time to recover. It can take a few years to sink a country, but decades to get it back.

Defenders of the regime may claim that no economic crisis justifies ousting President Maduro, elected by the people. They may be right. Democracy is not a popularity contest. Its development and stability depends to a great extent on the capacity to withstand bad presidents and bad governments. If democracy had depended on the popularity of political leaders, democracy would never have existed. It is during elections – and only during elections – that citizens have the opportunity to elect new ideas and new governments.

Although this is relative in parliamentary systems, where the prime minister can step down and the democratic system will endure, unfortunately, in the case of presidential regimes – including all Latin American countries – the fall of a president entails a democratic breakup. However, I believe that there is one case that also entails a democratic breakup even though the president remains in power: the imprisonment of political opponents. As former Costa Rican President Óscar Arias has rightly put it, there are no political prisoners in a democracy.

The sacked congressional opponents on one hand, such as María Corina Machado, and the imprisonment of others, such as Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, to mention just a few, mean only one thing: Venezuela has ceased to be a democracy. It’s not possible to imagine a democratic regime where people are imprisoned for their political opinions. The imposition of just one political view is the denial of democracy. You can add the term “socialist,” “Bolivarian,” “revolutionary” or “popular” next to “democracy,” but none of these make Maduro’s regime democratic. Even worse, political imprisonment has been a systematic practice since the days of Chávez. People can blame the political opposition in Venezuela for being disorganized, filled with internal power struggles, or lacking proposals for Venezuelans. But they cannot be blamed for their beliefs. If we have to choose between conditions for democracy to exist, freedom of political belief is absolutely necessary.

It’s surprising how much of the international community has remained silent about recent political imprisonments in Venezuela. No commitment to democracy is meaningful if political imprisonment is tolerated anywhere. In the case of Costa Rica, the silence is shameful. I understand that foreign policy is complex. That there are “internal” affairs in each country that must take priority. That Venezuela may retaliate in some way. But if Costa Rica’s foreign policy has to have a label, I would say that it is a foreign policy “of principles.” It’s not based on economic or military power, but on moral power. The government has to find the way to condemn what’s happening in Venezuela, as it did with Cuba in the past. This is also where the United States should start with its new approach to U.S.-Cuba relations. The liberation of political prisoners should be the start of any conversation. Otherwise, in this case the U.S. government will be listening to what the autocrats want them to hear.

A democracia madura, or mature democracy, is one in which democracy has reached advanced stages of institutionality, respect for freedoms, consolidation of the rule of law and, above all, protection of political beliefs. The democracia Madura in Venezuela, however, is very far from that ideal. It’s the systematic project of imposing the voice of one.

Read more Politic(o)s columns here.

Tomás Quesada-Alpízar is pursuing his doctoral degree in politics at the University of Oxford. In “Politic(o)s,” published at the start of every month, he explores current events and political issues in Costa Rica and around the world. He welcomes reader questions and comments at


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My first thought was that the author of this article was simply breathtakingly naive about world affairs to suggest that the test for the existence of the condition of democracy was the absence of political prisoners. I gave him the benefit of the doubt for simply being unaware of the thousands of political prisoners in the United States. But Mr. Quesada-Alpízar never claims that the U.S. is a democracy. I am glad he cleared that up.

By his own folksy, less-than-critical test of barking, walking, and looking like a dog in order to be a dog as the metaphoric test of the kind of a political system in place, then the author himself is barking, walking, and looking like a shill for the U. S. State Department, or the so-called National Endowment for Democracy, or surely at heart, the Central Intelligence Agency with their profoundly anti-democratic attempts to overthrow the government of Venezuela. The preferred U.S. way to remove non-compliant governments in Latin America is, of course, the out and out coup d’etat, perfected over the years through dozens of government overthrows of elected democracies in Latin America and the rest of the world. The CIA tried and failed to assassinate José Figueres, to bring this a little close to home. The same kinds of actors are at it again today in Venezuela, and Mr. Quesada-Alpizar is barking, walking, and looking like he is part of the disinformation section of Operation Jericho, the CIA plan to oust Maduro (see Thierry Meysan’s article,

I hope I am wrong, and Quesada-Alpízar has nothing to do with support for the overthrow of the government of Venezuela. There are enough operatives working day and night to do just that, so I will be happy to find out he is not part of it.

There might still be hope for democracies, but it takes vigilance regarding the activities of those in governments who do not care about government by and for the people.

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Over the last 15 years the US goverment has used everything they can to undermind the Venezuela goverment. They tried in 2002 to overthrow Hugo Chavez and used the rich in Venezuela to help. The media in the US like CNN and FOX say mostly lies about Venezuela. I have traveled many time to Venezuela and even do some business there and the people in Venezuela say good thing about there goverment but the super rich in Venezuela hate there goverment and hate the poor. This writer never talks about all the poor people in Venezuela before Hugo Chavez and the fact poor could not even see a doctors and only rich people could see doctors. The US goverment hates the fact they lost control of OIL in Venezuela and the rich in Venezuela really hate that fact. This writer of the article has never been to Venezuela and never talks about the poor. To TOMÁS QUESADA-ALPÍZAR you write about President Oscar Arias but did you know he was paid by the CIA and stole lots of money from Costa Rica with the help of his brother. Some people say Oscar Arias is underminding the people of Costa Rica by never bring wages up for the poor. Tomas maybe you should go to Venezuela and see the protest for Mudura. As for María Corina Machado, her family is very rich and she been linked to George Bush big time enough said on that. I hope Venezuela kicks all the US goverment out.

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Ken Morris

To quote Sherlock Holmes for our currently UK-based contributor, the “dog that didn’t bark” may be the most salient. Democracy is held up as the frankly nebulous standard of political legitimacy in this article, though it is never defined in ways other than winning elections and not having political prisoners. This raises the questions of whether we want democracy, and if so what we mean by it. Indeed, forget the US, where money coupled with connections wins elections and by some definitions political prisoners exist in droves, the same things are true of Costa Rica. The party structures in Costa Rica do what they can to block others from access to governance, and typically succeed, while a quick just of the prisons will turn up a lot of immigrants who are by definition political prisoners, because they are there for their nationalities not for any crimes they committed.

All this said, I actually agree with Tomás about Maduro in Venezuela, as well as possibly with his faulting Costa Rica for not taking a firmer stand against him. I too find myself hard-pressed to defend my prejudice, but for me Chávez maintained popular support throughout while Maduro polls only in the low 20% or so of popular support. Granted, there is a “tyranny of the majority,” and simply because Chávez maintained popular support doesn’t mean that he was necessarily the right president (although according to most democratic theories he was), but I personally was willing to grant him a wide berth because of his ongoing popular support. I can’t though do the same for Maduro, who not only hasn’t maintained significant popular support but also strikes me as a skunk. I think Maduro has to go, and the quicker the better.

My disappointment is that Maduro doesn’t seem to recognize this. In the US, two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, both left voluntarily when they realized that they could no longer serve effectively. Of the two, Johnson may be the more heroic, since his popular support wasn’t as I recall terribly low, but then his situation was different in that he merely chose not to run for reelection. Even so, there was honor in his abdication. He just realized that he personally could no longer govern effectively and that it was time for him to go. There was also honor in Nixon’s resignation. Granted, he was dealing with a scandal, but he was also looking at approval ratings about where Maduro’s are and concluded that his continuing as president was not in the best interest of the country.

The disappointment is that Maduro isn’t reasoning the way Johnson or Nixon did, when he should be. He may actually be a great guy–I don’t know–but he is a failure as a president at this point in his country’s history, and if he were patriotic he would resign.

That he doesn’t puts me on the side of Tomás. I’m not sure how exactly to justify this according to democratic theory, or whether I believe any of those theories anyway, but I’m convinced that Maduro is now a hindrance rather than a help to Venezuela. For this reason he should go. Indeed, the longer he prolongs it the more he grasps at straws like incarcerating more political opponents. Not good. Maduro has to go, and at this point it looks like it will have to be by force.

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Thank you for publishing this article.
I believe it was well researched and conclusions were aptly stated.
I am surprised there were no negative comments……………yet.

My hat is off to Tomás Quesada-Alpízar

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