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The Separation of Power in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez

A Critical Review

Seminararbeit 2015 33 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Mittel- und Südamerika




Chapter One: Introduction

Chapter Two: Conceptual definition of Democracy

Chapter Three: Horizontal Accountability in the separation of powers.

Chapter Four: The military in politics

Chapter Five: Freedom of expression.

Chapter six: Conclusion



This Essay will focus on how the state of democracy in the country has weakened since Hugo Chávez became the president of Venezuela in 1998. I will focus on three areas of democracy which serve to highlight this deterioration. First, there had been a significant increase in the executive´s power at the same time as the capacity of judiciary and legislature to hold the executive to account had weakened, therefore limiting horizontal accountability in the separation of powers. Second, the military had become more politicised, and the lessening of civilian control over the armed forces had implications not only for the status of the profession itself, but also in the areas of human rights and corruption. Third, and last, freedom of expression had been curtailed in the news media, through sanctions imposed on the broadcasting agencies and the harassment of journalists.

Chapter One: Introduction

Hugo Chávez actions, the last Venezuelan president, had actually impeded Democracy, rather than reinvigorating democracy in Venezuela. For four decades Venezuela was upheld as one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. The stability was rooted in the pact Punto Fijo signed in 1958[1] by the two parties Acción Democrática (AD), and El Comité de Organización electoral Independiente. (COPEI)[2]. These parties came to dominate the governance of Venezuela in an alternating alliance. However, such stability came at a cost. Deep seated discontent with the ruling parties, which had been simmering for over a decade, truly manifested itself with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.

There are several reasons underlying this discontent. Michael Shifter describes that the Punto Fijo system was corrupt, badly managed and “the exclusionary political system […] was wholly divorced from the central concern of most Venezuelans.” [3] It was a system that had a distinctly clientelisitc nature.[4] In essence, Venezuela was governed by élites who did not act, or did not need to act in the interest of the people. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil producer in the world, but under the ruling of the AD and COPEI parties, poverty rose from “18% of the population in 1980 to over 65% in 1996” [5]. This disparity only acted further to aggravate the discontent felt within the populace.

Hugo Chávez successfully capitalised upon the failings of the AD and COPEI parties and was democratically elected as president in 1998, “with a mandate for radical political reform”[6]. Some of the major changes to which Chávez committed himself were “ to hold a referendum on constitutional reform, to convene a constituent assembly and to rewrite Venezuela´s constitution of 1961 to create a more participatory democracy”[7]. He wanted the Venezuelan people to be involved in creating a more inclusive and equitable society through his `Bolivarian Revolution`, encapsulated in the slogan used in his campaign for office. “ Con Chávez manda el pueblo”[8]

Chapter Two: Conceptual definition of Democracy

“Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives”.[9] It is important to mention, that while criticism can be levied against the concept of a liberal democracy for its normative idealism, it is not the worst form of governance. As Churchill stated in 1947, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.[10]

Central to the concept of an institutionalised liberal democracy as applied to Latin American republics is the premise that there must be a separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Such a separation guarantees that there is system of checks and balances on power. Further, it ensures that vertical accountability, between the citizens and their elected representatives, there is also accountability among those who govern horizontal accountability.[11] The reason why this is so important is that it legitimises the exercise of power and ensures that power is used in accordance with the law.[12]

It is extremely important that the power of the executive is constrained via the oversight of the legislature and judiciary. Through making the executive accountable to the legislature it “implies accountability to the people,”[13] therefore horizontal accountability reinforces vertical accountability.

If, however, the legislature is weak then the “executive will have free rein to enact policy changes”,[14] which could endanger a country’s democratic state. The oft-cited example of the last president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, provides a stark example of the dangers of allowing too much power to be concentrated in the executive.[15]

By ensuring that the executive is also subjected to the scrutiny of the judiciary, the executive’s exercise of power is given the credence of legitimacy for it has to act within the limits of the law, enshrined in the constitution.[16] If the executive fails to act within the limits of constitutional law then the judiciary is mandated to “enforce restrictions”[17] on executive action. For the judiciary effectively and efficiently to conduct its role in a democracy it must be independent and impartial.[18] There are a number of ways in which this independence can be guaranteed. The two ways this thesis will look at are: the method by which judges are appointed and dismissed from their positions, and the tenure of their office.

The reason why the procedure is significant for democracy is because “the ways in which judges are chosen affects the extent to which judges are motivated to apply the law independently and impartially and to perform their role efficiently”.[19] Similarly, providing stability of tenure for judges means that they are focused on the highly important role that they play in governance rather than concentrating on retaining their office, which could act to hamper their judgment.[20]

The judiciary is not only important in ensuring that the government of the day behaves in a constitutional manner, but it also contributes towards “establishing greater civilian authority over the military”, [21] for, in a functioning democracy, it is of the utmost importance that the military be subjected to “civilian control”.[22] Essentially civilian control is achieved through “militarizing the military, making [it]…a tool of the state”[23] rather than politicising it. By ensuring that the military has a professional rather than political role it separates it from political society and prevents military interference in governance.[24] Civilian control is integral to democracy because the military are unelected and unaccountable.[25] If they then play a role in political decision-making they are acting in a wholly illegitimate manner.[26] Intertwined in the notion of the military retaining their professionalism is that the military must be kept away from adopting “non military responsibilities”.[27] These non-military competencies are, for example, duties traditionally assigned to the police or, as Diamond notes, developing the countryside. He suggests that while both these responsibilities might be considered commendable, they detract from “the military’s distinct role as a defence force”.[28] In addition, if the military is not kept out of the political and social realm then there can be other implications for the credibility of democracy, for instance, with regard to human rights. As the military often possess “immunity and impunity”[29] then the judiciary’s capability in reprimanding those who have committed crimes is seriously limited, and does not therefore guarantee that justice will be secured for wronged individuals.

The third and final facet of democracy will look at, is that of freedom of expression, specifically with regard to the news media. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) notes that “freedom of expression and the press are essential components…of democracy”.[30] Access to “alternative sources of information”[31] empowers citizens to make reasoned and informed decisions[32] when choosing to vote in elections and, in between elections, assessing the performance of the government and the opposition parties. The media in a democracy acts as a “connective tissue” between politicians and the electorate.[33] The credibility of these alternate information sources is provided by the impartiality of the press, “the balanced reporting of competing views”.[34] Gunther and Mughan explain that impartiality can be achieved in two ways, either via there being a multiplicity of news sources, “media pluralism”,[35] or through “non partisan”[36] reporting. Without either of these being present, impartiality is degraded and consequently so is the nature of democracy.[37] The media does not only provide the polity with information, it can also act as a “potential check of the abuse of state power”[38] via investigative journalism. The press effectively acts as a “watchdog”[39] which is significant as it means that politicians can be held to account for their behaviour, and protects the probity of democracy.[40]

In order for there to be a free and flourishing press in a democracy there needs to be an absence of intervention or manipulation on the part of the government,[41] and journalists need to be able to undertake investigation without the fear of intimidation or personal harm. The IACHR has stated that it feels “the intimidation of journalists has a devastating effect on democracy”,[42] as it impedes them in their role as providers of information and opinion.

To sum up: for a vigorous and thriving democracy to flourish, alongside other factors there needs to be a separation of institutional powers, including an independent judiciary, an apolitical military which preserves its professional role as the state guardian, and freedom of expression provided by the media. The following analysis will address these aspects of democracy in the context of Venezuela under the leadership of Hugo Chávez. It will demonstrate how, since Chávez has assumed power, each of these democratic criteria has deteriorated.

Chapter Three: Horizontal Accountability in the separation of powers.

The horizontal accountability in Venezuela between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary has diminished because of the actions of Hugo Chávez and his political affiliates. As Coppedge has noted: “Democratic governance requires an executive that faithfully executes the law, maintains its autonomy from the influence of unelected actors, and yet remains accountable to other democratic actors such as a legislature and an independent judiciary”.[43]

The subject of concern with regard to the institutions of governance in Venezuela was that the executive had progressively accumulated power at the same time as the capacity of the legislature and judiciary to keep a check on the executive has diminished. Therefore, implying that the institutions integral to the maintenance of a liberal democracy were being significantly weakened, the weakness of these institutions and their lack of oversight facilitate greater “de facto concentration of power” in the president’s hands[44], thus enabling the president to wield unchecked power, which does not bode well for a country’s democratic status.


[1] Cf. McCoy, Jennifer L (1999): Chavez and the End of “Patriarchy “ in Venezuela“, Journal of Democracy ,10 (3): p.64

[2] Cf. The Economist, “Venezuela: Fact sheet,” (2007): 29.01.2015.

[3] Shifter, Michael (2006) : In Search of Hugo Chávez, Foreign Affairs, , 29.01.2015

[4] Cf. Hellinger, Daniel (2003): The Breakdown of Puntofijismo and the Rise of Chavismo,In: Ellner, Steve/ Hellinger, Daniel; Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class Polarization and Conflict, Lynne Reinner Publishers, London p. 27.

[5] Wilpert,Gregory (2010): Venezuela: participatory democracy or government as usual?, Socialism and Democracy,, 29. 01.2015, 19 (1): p. 8

[6] The Economist, “Venezuela: Fact sheet,” (2007): 29.01.2015.

[7] Cameron, Maxwell A. / Major, Flavie (2001): Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez: Savior or Threat to Democracy?,”Latin American Research Review, 36 (3): p. 256.

[8] Ibid., p. 262. (eng.: with Chávez, the people rule)

[9] Schmitter, Phillipe C/ Karl, Terry Lynn (1996): What Democracy is…and is Not, In: Diamond,Larry/ Plattner, Marc F. u.a (h.g), The Global Resurgence of Democracy,Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, p. 50.

[10] World Association of International Studies, Stanford University (2003):, 27.01.2015,

[11] Cf. Foweraker,Joe/ Landman, Todd and Harvey, Neil (2003): Governing Latin America,Oxford, Oxford University Press p. 45,

[12] Cf.. Diamond, Larry (1999): Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, p. 10.

[13] Kohn, Richard H. (1997): How Democracies Control the Military, Journal of Democracy , 8 (4), p. 145.

[14] Inter-American Development Bank, “The Politics of Policies: Economic and Social Progress in Latin America,” (2006), : , 17.01 2015, Ch. 3, p. 42

[15] Cf. Levitsky, Steven (1999): Fujimori and Post-Party Politics in Peru, Journal of democracy, 10 (3): pp.78-80.

[16] Cf. Diamond, Larry (1999): Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, , pp. 11-12.

[17] Ibid., p. 12.

[18] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Report on the situation of Human Rights in Venezuela: Conclusions - The Status of the Rule of Law in Venezuela,” (2003), Available at:, Accessed on: 8th March 2015, at: 18:05, Article 527.

[19] Inter-American Development Bank, “The Politics of Policies: Economic and Social Progress in Latin America,” (2006), : 17.01 2015,Ch. 4, p. 85.

[20] Ibid., p. 86.

[21] Foweraker,Joe/ Landman, Todd and Harvey, Neil (2003): Governing Latin America,Oxford, Oxford University Press p. 55.

[22] Huntington, Samuel P. (1967): The Soldier and the State , Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 82.

[23] Ibid., p. 83.

[24] Cf. Huntington, Samuel P. (1967): The Soldier and the State , Mfassachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press p. 82

[25] Cf. Diamond, Larry (1999): Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, p. 47.

[26] Cf. Schmitter, Phillipe C/ Karl, Terry Lynn (1996): What Democracy is…and is Not, In: Diamond,Larry/ Plattner, Marc F. u.a (h.g), The Global Resurgence of Democracy,Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, p. 55.

[27] Ibid., p. 113.

[28] Ibid., pp. 113-114.

[29] Kruijt, Dirk / Kees Koonings, “Introduction: Violence and Fear in Latin America,” in Kees Koonings, and Dirk Kruijt eds., Societies of Fear: The Legacy of Civil War, Violence and Terror in Latin America (London: Zed Books, 1999), p. 18.

[30] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Report on the situation of human rights in Venezuela,” (2003), Article 531.

[31] Peter H. Smith, Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 11.

[32] Cf .Richard Gunther, and Anthony Mughan, “The Political Impact of the Media: A Reassessment,” in Richard Gunther, and Anthony Mughan eds., Democracy and the Media: A Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 421.

[33] Cf. Ibid., p. 420.

[34] Ibid., p. 422.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Cf. Ibid., p. 423

[38] Larry Diamond, Jonathan Hartlyn, and Juan J. Linz, “Introduction: Politics, Society and Democracy in Latin America,” in Larry Diamond, Jonathan Hartlyn, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset eds., Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America 2nd ed., (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), p. 56.

[39] Gunther and Mughan, “The Political Impact of the Media,” p. 425.

[40] Cf. Ibid.

[41] Cf. Ibid., p. 436.

[42] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Report on the situation of human rights in Venezuela,” (2003), Article 567.

[43] Coppedge, Michael (2002): “Venezuela: Popular Sovereignty Versus Liberal Democracy,”,: 16.01 2015, p. 24.

[44] Cf. The Economist, “Venezuela: Fact sheet,” (2007): 29.Jänner.2015


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Titel: The Separation of Power in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez