June 23, 2020

Hugo Chavez’s Populism led to Venezuela’s Decline, Could Singapore’s Framework for Effective Technocracy be the Answer?

By Ikenna Obonna

Populism refers to someone, especially a politician, whose political stances emphasise ‘ordinary people’ and often juxtapose this group against the elite. However, a by-product of modern-day populism is the individual facilitating power for themselves thus creating a leadership based on the ‘cult of personality’ leading to authoritarian rule. As this develops it acts in opposition to democracy, Weyland (2013) underlined this by stating “Populism will always stand in tension with democracy.” Rogow (1963) describes how power can be abused by authoritarian governments through Lord Acton’s quotation suggesting ‘power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

This perfectly embodies the problem with populism, it allows ‘charismatic’ leaders to pander to a majority who are frustrated with the status quo giving them a legitimate position to abuse power. This was a problem during Hugo Chavez’s premiership in Venezuela, although their decline was also due to a plethora of other factors such as the oil market’s crash in 2014. This being said, Chavez’s approach to government was the embodiment of populist principles, his advocation for the Bolivarian revolution was a call for a ‘rejection of imperialism that sought to establish democratic socialism for the 21st century’ (The Conversation, 2016).

This displays a clear alignment with populist ideals. His intentions to abuse power became transparent when he created and controlled a new National Assembly meaning he could implement laws that gave him six-year terms and unlimited re-elections. This provided Chavez with a framework for the abuse of authority. He combined these laws with an attack on the private sector through ‘nationalizing firms and promising to strip the central bank of its autonomy’ (Reuters, 2007) which represented Venezuela’s deep-seated issue with capitalism. Chavez’s legacy partly lies with this erosion of the private sector due to nationalization which has contributed to the stagnation of their economic growth.

Chavez’s silencing of the opposition prevented constructive scrutiny of his government which accelerated his abuse of power. He did this effectively by shutting down opposition media as a way to ‘silence the voice of protest of the Venezuelan people in the face of the failure of the government’s administration’ (Financial Times, 2010). This isn’t to suggest that all of Chavez’s actions were focused on engineering a robust dictatorial institution. His economic policy involved devaluing the Bolivar to promote Venezuela exports and stimulate economic growth, this was done by cutting their currency by ‘half down from 4.3 dollars to 2.15 dollars’ (WSJ, 2010). Whilst this improved export revenues it also led to pressure on domestic prices which contributed to the inflation which has plagued Venezuela over the past decade.

Venezuela’s dependence on oil export revenue left them at the mercy of the oil market, therefore when the market crashed in 2014 so did the demand for Venezuelan oil. With the pressure on domestic prices continuing to increase we saw the seeds sown for hyperinflation which in turn contributed to the country’s poverty crisis. This shows how Chavez’s decision to devalue their own currency to take advantage of their factor endowments had the adverse effects on what it intended. The effects of Chavez’s policies on GDP and inflation can be seen on the graph below:

The effects of Chavez managing the Bolivar are clear considering from 2012 to 2013 inflation increased from 21.07% to 40.64%. which was the highest it had been in the last 15 years. The effects of Chavez’s policies were still present after his death as inflation rose to 62.17% in 2014. This coincided with the fall in Venezuela’s GDP per capita. As Chavez and his ministers continued to funnel billions of dollars to foreign accounts via Venezuelan oil firm PDVSA, their GDP per capita suffered with it falling from $11548.91 (2011) to $7029.89 (2014).

There’s no simple solution for Venezuela’s problems however the recent effects of populism show change is needed. I believe a mixture of technocracy and democracy based on Singapore’s framework would benefit Venezuela substantially.

In its purist form technocracy is a government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts. The concept is a Platonic idea that was embodied by his Philosopher Kings, however in the case of Singapore specialist knowledge is needed to run a government in combination with ‘knowledge of the good’. Technocracies act as a critique to democracies by removing self-interested career politicians who use majority rule to abuse power. Instead, Venezuela should look towards experts who can use parts of Edmund Burke’s (1765) ‘trustee model’, providing experts with the autonomy to act as they must without the pressure of the electorate.

This has been done expertly by Singapore through a government which Parag Khanna describes as ‘verifiably democratic and rigorously technocratic’. Khanna describes this as direct technocracy which focuses on ‘data analysis to capture the specific desires of the people, while expert committees balance short term needs and long-term objectives’, removing the myopic thinking that plagued Chavez’s presidency. Technocratic governments have been used as an answer to economic crisis within Europe as well, after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2011 Mario Monti was appointed to lead a government made up of unelected experts. This allowed him to implement radical legislation to reduce Italy’s national debt alongside ‘structural reforms to liberate internal markets from the stronghold of state dependence’ (Aljazeera, 2013).

Monti’s ability to use austerity measures was due to what sociologist Luigi Pellizoni described as the ability for elites to be ‘suitably protected against the rest of society [..] to perform tasks efficiently’. Pellizoni’s views mirror the words of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who said their system ‘shielded civil servants from political interference, (giving them) the space to work out rational, effective solutions for our problems [so they can] practise public administration in almost laboratory conditions.” This perfectly underlines the answer to self-interested career politicians which in populist environments abuse power leading to the breakdown of social cohesion alongside the decline of a country’s economy as seen in Venezuela.

Bibliography

Carillo, P. 2016. How today’s crisis in Venezuela was created by Hugo Chávez’s ‘revolutionary’ plan. https://theconversation.com/how-todays-crisis-in-venezuela-was-created-by-hugo-chavezs-revolutionary-plan-61474

Crowe, D. 2010. Chavez Devalues Venezuela’s Currency https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB126305109903923235

Ellsworth, B. 2007. Chavez ups leftist drive with private sector attack https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chavez-powers/chavez-ups-leftist-drive-with-private-sector-attack-idUSN0839717420070108

Khanna, P., 2017. Technocracy in America: rise of the info-state. CreateSpace.

Mander, B. 2010. Chavez closes down opposition media outlets. https://www.ft.com/content/5b28989a-0905-11df-ba88-00144feabdc0

Rogow, A.A. and Lasswell, H.D., 1963. Power, corruption, and rectitude (p. 67). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Vito. L, 2013. Technocracy’s new bet: Mario Monti runs for premiership https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/20131284454410239.html

Weyland, K., 1999. Neoliberal populism in Latin America and eastern Europe. Comparative Politics, pp.379-401.

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