Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College, studies democratization and political economy and has published extensive research on Venezuela. In the last month, that country’s Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers. After condemnation from Attorney General Luisa Ortega, the president reconsidered the case and called for the Supreme Court to reverse its decision, which it did. Following this muddling of the separation of powers, protests have overtaken the country.
When Professor Corrales visited Stanford this week for a lecture on the state of LGBT rights in Latin America, The Stanford Daily sat down with him to discuss Venezuela’s move toward autocracy and the ongoing protests.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why are these protests happening now? President Nicolás Maduro’s regime has been seen as a continuation of Hugo Chavez, but what has changed in recent years that has caused it to become such a difficult situation?
Javier Corrales (JC): Generating protest is very hard to do. Sustaining protest is very hard to do, and Venezuela has a type of protest fatigue. Since the very beginning of Chavez, there have been moments in which big protests happen and, for one reason or another, fizzle down until a new cycle begins. But all this generates protest fatigue.
So why do we get another round of protests now? Why not before? Well, you have two conditions that predict these instances of protests. You have a horrible economic crisis that is not getting better — probably the worst crisis in the world at the moment — almost as if Venezuela had gone through a civil war… But that’s typically not enough to generate these protests. Many times, economic hardships actually make protests subside, because people are just too tired, too hungry or in too dire straits to go out and protest.
But you also have the fact that the government has interrupted elections in Venezuela. The government suspended the recall referendum [in 2016], postponed elections for governors that were scheduled to happen in December and also postponed elections for mayors that were supposed to happen in early 2017. We know from the color revolutions of the 2000s that took place in many former Soviet republics that when you have electoral irregularities like this, you are likely to have protests. They’re not automatic, but they can happen. So that’s what’s new.
Additionally, the international reaction together with the domestic reaction to this Supreme Court incident served as a big trigger. The fact that Ortega essentially took the side of the opposition was an amazing form of political backing which, together with international support, kind of pushed the opposition into protest. So that’s the situation now. I don’t know how long the protests are going to last. The government is repressing them… I imagine there are going to be more protests. But I don’t know if they’re going to be effective in getting the government to change course or even to step down. But who knows.
TSD: Can you talk more about the international reaction to the situation and what the role of the United States has been and could become?
JC: Historically, under Chavez, very few governments in the Americas were interested in condemning Venezuela. [However], in the past two years, the number of countries willing to condemn Venezuela has increased. The Organization of American States — which includes Venezuela and the United States — has become increasingly critical. The Secretary-General, in particular, has pretty much declared that Venezuela is now a dictatorship that systematically violates human and political rights. And many of the member states have taken the same stance and tried to pressure the government.
The Trump administration started out being very belligerent, taking a sort of “we’re not going to tolerate this” approach with Venezuela. They targeted the [Venezuelan] vice president and imposed some important sanctions on him. But since then, the United States government has taken a calmer approach. The United States is very critical of Venezuela, but it’s not taking a lead in pushing Venezuela into a corner. And maybe that’s good news — the best thing that could happen to the government of Venezuela now is if it could convert the struggles in Venezuela into a David versus Goliath conflict. It wants desperately to have the United States become involved so it could argue that once again it’s a small country fighting the empire.
So perhaps this relative calm that we’re seeing from the Trump administration is good news. It’s also closer to the kind of policies that existed under Obama. Who knows how long this will last; there are important groups that would like a much more hard-line approach to Venezuela. Those people are in influential in the Trump administration, but for now they’re not seeing their views being reflected in our policy.
TSD: Your research recently has focused on LGBT rights in Latin America. How can we think about the relation of LGBT rights in Venezuela to the state of its democracy?
JC: One of the remarkable things about Venezuela is that it has a government that claims to be progressive, leftist and a defender of human rights. Yet one of the things I’m able to show through my research and by synthesizing work that others have done is that — comparatively speaking — the status of LGBT rights in Venezuela is dismal. Other Latin American countries have produced far more progressive LGBT rights legislation than Venezuela has. Even close allies of Venezuela — ideological allies like Ecuador — have far more progressive laws.
So one way to gauge the hypocrisy of the government is to look at LGBT rights and see how bad the performance has been. Here you have a government that claims not to be connected to capitalism, that claims to be defending human rights, that claims to be defending a new form of diversity — but on the important test of LGBT rights, it is pretty much stuck in the 1970s.
TSD: Is there anything else you think is important for people to understand about what’s happening in Venezuela?
JC: There is a debate among scholars on whether the world is undergoing what some have called a democratic backsliding [in which countries’] democratic institutions get eroded as a result of presidents who undermine checks and balances. Some scholars argue that this is a global phenomenon… and that it might even happen in the United States with the current administration.
Venezuela is definitely considered one of the most amazing and surprising cases of democratic backsliding. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, Venezuela became a very strong democracy. It had many flaws, but for Latin American standards, it was really impressive. Yet Venezuela has undergone the most significant form of democratic backsliding… and so it’s a very important case for those who believe that strong democracies can actually become dictatorships.
Studying how this process happened in Venezuela is worth doing simply because there are some folks who argue that if this happened to Venezuela, it could happen to other strong democracies. There are no identical cases, but it is good for people to know that today, Venezuela has become a very major case for those people who are curious about the status of democracy globally. It started out being fairly democratic and underwent a process of gradual transitioning to autocracy that in my opinion is replicable elsewhere.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.
Contact Alec Glassford at gla ‘at’ stanford.edu.