Perils of One Man Rule: The case of Venezuela

Clichés are with us, partly because they still have some explanatory value. Any individual with an average intelligence would agree that putting the fate of millions of citizens in the hands of a single person is a bad idea. It is a bad idea, regardless of how smart, charismatic, or qualified that single person could be. Once we genetically engineer a super human, then maybe we could revisit our opposition to one-man rule. But so far, evidence from Zimbabwe, to Libya, to Egypt shows that one-man rules do not have a happy ending.

But why would one-man rule be so bad? A basic sociology text would inform us about the evolution of societies from primitive towards complex.

Human beings gradually formed more sophisticated divisions of labour, as they established larger and more sophisticated societies. Once you have millions of people living under the same political entity, you can no longer operate the way say a feudal village does. You need to have some expertise to run the economy, feed that massive population, teach the younger generations, provide safety and security, offer basic healthcare, set up the urban infrastructure and planning, and have the trains run on time.

A single leader, no matter how exceptional, cannot singlehandedly take care of all these complex and technical issues.

The population of Venezuela today is more than 31 million. It is a relatively large country, larger than Turkey, and about twice the size of California. Its borders with Colombia and Brazil are each more than 2,000-km long. It is an OPEC member, and usually ranks among the top 10 oil producers in the world. Yet, this vast country with abundant natural resources is faced with a real meltdown. The currency is experiencing a free fall. Shelves in grocery stores are empty. More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country. There are severe shortages of medicine, food, and basic consumer goods. Children are dying in hospitals due to illnesses as simple as diarrhoea.

Since Venezuela did not suffer from any natural disaster, all of this misery is man-made. More specifically, it is the failure of the ruling class that has brought Venezuela to the brink of total collapse. U.S. Senators such as Marco Rubio are entertaining the idea of a U.S. military invasion in Venezuela, in order to prevent further deterioration.

How could an OPEC member face food shortages, malnutrition, a black market, skyrocketing violence, and an exodus of millions of its people? The answer lies in allocating too much power in the hands of a single leader. From 1999 to 2013, Venezuela was led by Hugo Chavez.

During 14 years of Chavez rule, things did not look this bad, partly because oil prices were hovering over $100 per barrel. Still, Chavez tweaked the democratic institutions, including the constitution, eliminated term limits and expanded the reach of executive power beyond democratic limits. He effectively silenced all political voices other than his, and established a steep political pyramid that had him at its peak.

Chavez was able to cover up his domestic democratic breaches with a feisty anti-establishment and anti-American rhetoric in the international arena. Many, particularly on the left, were eager to overlook the democratic flaws of Chavez at home, largely because he portrayed himself as a progressive leader figure abroad.

When Chavez got cancer and his health declined, his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro took power. Maduro was loyal to him, but was hardly the most qualified. As a truck driver, he did not have much formal education, and he owed his career to being in the right place at the right time. He was not democratically elected to his post during his first term, therefore did not really have democratic legitimacy.

With democratic power sharing mechanisms already destroyed under Chavez, Maduro further strengthened the one-man rule regime. But he was not as lucky as Chavez, to enjoy the windfall from the oil. During Maduro’s term, the price of oil dropped to around $30 per barrel. This meant the one-man regime could not cover up its incompetence in production, distribution, security and healthcare by dolling out oil money.

Like all one-man rule systems, the regime in Venezuela today relies heavily on coercion. The military and security apparatus is effectively bullying the society into subjugation. The more the Maduro regime fails to provide the basic needs of the Venezuelan society, the more it resorts to coercion. While a significant portion of the society is suffering from hunger and malnutrition, the regime is wasting money on elaborate military parades.

The situation in Venezuela might inevitably bring to mind other similar cases. For the Turkish readers, the erosion of checks and balances, elimination of term limits, concentration of power in the executive branch and rapid depreciation of local currency might sound eerily familiar. These are all typical steps towards one-man rule regimes. However, the levels of economic dependency and vulnerability are different in the two contexts. Excessive dependence on oil was the Achilles’ heel of Venezuela. In good times, the Venezuelan regime did not save, did not start up a sovereign wealth fund. They did not invest in different sectors and diversify their economy. Consequently, faced with a downturn in oil prices, they were severely hit.

Turkey has a more diversified economy than Venezuela. However, political leadership in Turkey does not reinforce this quality by supporting industrial production, manufacturing, tourism, including cultural and conference tourism, R&D investment, education, or sustainable agricultural production. Instead, Turkish leadership increasingly has placed all economic eggs in one basket – construction - and fuelled the economy with excessive consumption, imports and borrowing.

In the long run, academic research shows that only open and productive nations thrive (see the works of Acemoglu and Robinson). The core issue in both these cases is the lack of long-term productive investment. Political authorities in both cases are so busy keeping their immediate grip on power that they are willing to sacrifice all future economic prospects of their respective nations.

The urgency of the situation in Venezuela is reaching epic proportions by the day. The Organization of American States (OAS) has finally taken this issue to its agenda, largely because of the increasing number of Venezuelan refugees in neighbouring countries. However, the discussions at the OAS level are more about alleviating the distress of the refugees, than fixing Venezuela.

While only Venezuelans can fix Venezuela, the rest of the world also shares some responsibility. One-man regimes thrive when both domestic and the international environment serve as enablers. Every diplomatic engagement with these regimes serves as a pat on their back. Every trade deal, or arms sale, extends their lifespan. Today, instead of looking upon the pending catastrophe in Venezuela, we should be questioning our own complacency in the longevity of such one-man regimes.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.