May 25, 2024


Law, This Is It!

Venezuela: From Democratic Erosion to Failed State?

7 min read
Venezuela: From Democratic Erosion to Failed State?
Failed State
Smoke billows throughout Caracas during the Caracazo riots. Photo from Prensa Presidencial – Government of Venezuela.

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

This is an updated version of the Spanish article published by Agenda Pública.

Venezuela in Crisis

Venezuela’s crisis has ceased to be a domestic problem, giving way to a regional concern with global implications. The country’s deterioration has triggered one of the most severe humanitarian crises of the last decade, with forced migration surpassing 7 million Venezuelans and a spillover into host countries in Latin America. The political, social, and economic repercussions of this crisis have led governments in the region most affected by the wave of refugees to promote negotiated solutions, like the one initiated by the Lima Group and, more recently, in Mexico, where conversation once interrupted has been renewed. In contrast, others have supported a more intricate route, with unfavorable consequences for the most vulnerable part of the situation: Venezuelans.

On the other hand, the domestic crisis in Venezuela continues to worsen with the struggle between a government without legitimacy and an interim representation losing relevance amid constant friction between the different members of the Opposition. The economic deterioration is the backdrop to the profound disintegration of the social fabric of a country where a minority with access to privileges manages to exist. At the same time, the vast majority is condemned to suffer the consequences of inefficiency in government management. Negligence in the distribution of goods, to which is added political persecution, without distinction between innocent and guilty.

A Failed State?

After two failed attempts to overthrow Maduro through military uprisings in 2019  and  2020, the political situation in the country has given way to an intensification of political persecution and human rights violations, further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. In September 2022, an updated report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigating the allegations against the government of Venezuela for crimes against humanity was released, recounting the numerous violations perpetrated by government forces. An on-site investigation with the task to corroborate the commission of these crimes, which the regime of Nicolás Maduro rejects.

The discussion of the Venezuelan crisis has gone from Maduro’s increasingly unlikely departure from power to focusing on the consequences of the consolidation of his authoritarian regime and the subsequent opposition dilemma of participating in conversations that legitimize Maduro. The debate over whether it is strengthening the regime in power or represents an opportunity for negotiating a transition inevitably ends with the question if Venezuela is a state in crisis, weak, collapsed or failed?

Weak States and Failed States

In Rotberg’s work on the failures and collapse of nation-states, the author differentiates the Failed State from the Weak State. Rotberg argues that Strong States are those that offer high levels of security against political and criminal violence, in which there is respect for political and civil liberties; evidence of economic growth; guarantees of the rule of law and independence of the Judiciary; quality of infrastructure, public services, education, public health, and promotion of peace and social order. In contrast, Weak States are States in crisis, which may present structural weaknesses: geographical, physical, or economic limitations; as can also be strong States that go through temporary crises due to internal conflicts, failures in the management of the government, greed, despotism, or external attacks, but which have not yet been consumed in violence.

The failed State is seen as one whose authority has disintegrated, making it impossible to fulfill its fundamental tasks, according to Bressan; for its part,  Rotberg describes it as a chaotic situation where anomie is combined with the need for humanitarian relief, that is, when they are “consumed by internal violence and cease to provide positive political goods to their inhabitants”. The collapsed State, according to Rotberg, is an extreme version of the failed State, where political interests are satisfied by private or improvised means, accentuating the power vacuum. The  Crisis States Research Network of the London School of Economics offers another classification. In addition to fragile and failed States, it also defines the State in crisis as one under acute stress, where the institutional system faces serious challenges without the possibility of responding to conflicts.

Venezuela is a Weak State

The definition of the weak State seems closer to the contemporary reality of Venezuela, which according to the Classification of Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations of the World Bank, is in the category of high institutional and social fragility. The World Bank defines weak States as those with one or more of the following characteristics: (a) the institutional and policy environment is weakened, (b) it has a United Nations peacekeeping operation; (c) it has a migration of 2,000 or more per 100,000 inhabitants, considered internationally as refugees in need of international protection; and/or those who are not in conflict of medium or high intensity.

Despite the difficulty of achieving a more homogeneous definition of a failed state, there is consensus as to the essential functions by which the performance of the State can be measured, as summarized by Moritz, which are representation, security, and well-being of the population. Now, for the State to develop the capacity to respond to these expectations, its actual construction process will influence its subsequent ability for governance because these functions, according to Moritz, are more a product of the process of State formation than its consequence. On the other hand, and in contrast to the notion of a power vacuum as a consequence of the collapse of the State, Titeca and de Herdt have found no power vacuum in the absence of the State because when this happens, other non-state actors satisfy the demand for public goods.

Classifying Venezuela

The discussion about whether the crisis in Venezuela should be raised from the nature of a failed state still needs to find consensus. On the one hand, Naím and Toro, and  Torres consider that the country is already going down that road; in another approach, it is discussed in conditional terms, or it is defined as a breakdown of the State, avoiding reaching the classification of failed state. The issue is not only the label but rather the conditions for developing a viable methodological basis for democratization.

The deterioration of the institutions, and with it, of their capacity to provide public goods is unquestionable in the case of Venezuela. Material living conditions have been suppressed to subhuman extremes, adding to the high crime rate and political violence rate. If socio-economic and human development indicators are sufficient to decide whether a state is operationally viable, there is no doubt that Venezuela does not meet these criteria.

However, Venezuelans have responded to the incompetence of the State in providing public services with private initiative, from purchasing power plants to constructing water wells to meeting public service demand. However, the issue of security is more complicated given that it is a phenomenon where the Venezuelan State and its political regime have been pointed out by international organizations as the leading promoters of violence, making it practically impossible to guarantee it by outsourcing, which would be the prelude to a civil conflict.

Venezuela: A Fragile State

Finally, the consolidation of Post-chavismo has been linked to the preponderance of military power in the country’s political leadership, whose functions of monitoring public order and defending sovereignty have been linked to the commission of crimes against humanity. With the creation of the Military Economic Spatial Zones, under the argument of strengthening the productive capacity in the country, the predominant role of the military power in the management of the country’s economy, which began with Chávez and its preference for appointing military personnel in high bureaucratic positions deepened through legislative reforms, is associated with the coup-proofing strategy, especially after the attempted coup d’état of 2002. Far from the disintegration of the State, what has happened with the legitimate monopoly of physical violence has been the diversification of its portfolio of functions, where State and non-state actors serve the purposes of political power.

The Venezuelan State may not yet fit the definition of failed, but its inability to represent and provide material and security that would justify its existence is no less accurate. The fragility of the Venezuelan State, in any case, suggests that if there are no corrections, there will be more significant reasons to justify the first characterization.

About the Author

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics.

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