Symposium: Radical Democracy and the Venezuelan Crisis



Harvard Law School

Editors’ Note: A number of pieces in this Symposium diverge slightly from our House Style by using footnotes or endnotes. This has been accommodated for this Symposium but submissions in general should continue to use hyperlinks solely and follow the Blog’s Submission Guidelines.

Is the current crisis inherent to the Venezuelan ideal of participatory and radical democracy, or is it a result of the perversion of that system by Nicolás Maduro?  I suggest that even if pursued sincerely, in some settings, radical participatory democracy suffers from contradictions that leave it vulnerable to authoritarianism.  All systems have short-comings.  It is a separate question, one I do not address here, whether this authoritarian vulnerability is so deep that participatory democracy is no longer worth pursuing or whether there might be strategies to mitigate this danger. 

Radical democracy promises that militant participation by the people will create a sharp break with the past and inaugurate a just future.  The theory identifies the problem as elite control, that the ‘patriarchy’ manipulates the government to enrich themselves as the expense of everyone else.  If you give power to the people, they will use it to pursue the common good.  This power must be directly exercised: while this does not exclude more plebiscitarian forms of democracy such as referendums and elections, that must be in conjunction with or in the service of direct democracy in which people make decisions in local and participatory spaces.  This philosophy undergirded the ‘pink tide’ or election of radical leftist presidents in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina, but its participatory thrust, the idea that citizens should exercise power locally and directly, was most thoroughly carried out in Venezuela.[i] 

Radical democracy believes it must overcome two challenges.  First, it must defeat an enemy that otherwise will use its power in government and civil society to undermine the revolution.  Indeed, in Venezuela the opposition attacked Chàvez with unrelentingly brutal news coverage, weakened the economy with an oil lockout, and even attempted a military coup.[ii]  Furthermore, the vertical and horizontal checks and balances and bureaucracy of government are designed to hinder radical change.  Second, at least in Venezuela, the challenge was to create and maintain local participatory spaces, which often suffer from the weak spots of corruption, disorganization, and lack of participation by citizens.[iii]  

In Venezuela, the solution was to concentrate power in the presidency so that Chàvez could cut through the red tape, sidestep the opposition, and provide the support necessary to establish participatory spaces.  Hence, the new 1999 Constitution weakened the system of horizontal checks and balances by allowing the legislature, by a 3/5 vote, to give Chàvez extensive emergency decree powers.  It weakened federalism and made it easier to impeach and try members of the judiciary.[iv]  Still, Chàvez would be held accountable by the people themselves.  The new Constitution granted a variety of ways, including by citizens’ signatures, to hold nation-wide votes to recall the president, convoke a constitutional assembly or have a referendum on a particular law or policy. The Constitution compensated for the evisceration of checks and balances by creating plebisictory measures.  The hope was that Chàvez, under constant monitoring by the people, would use his immense power to create participatory and direct democracy.   

How did this system work in practice?  Could the people truly hold the government responsible through referendums?  When threatened by the possibility of unfavorable national votes, Chávez and then Maduro manipulated the system to prevail.  In 2002, in the midst of a crisis of confidence in his administration, petitioners gathered enough signatures to hold a recall referendum in which citizens could vote Chàvez out of office.  However, since Chàvez effectively controlled the agencies that would organize the referendum, he was able to delay its holding for enough time until the crisis passed and so that he could enact new policies to recoup his popularity.  With access to the official records, the government blacklisted form public sector jobs all those who signed the petition.[v] Maduro used even more blatant forms of manipulation to avoid holding a true recall vote before ultimately suspending it.[vi]  Without sufficient checks on the president, he could use his power to subvert popular monitoring.   

Chàvez did use his power to create new spaces of democracy, such as worker cooperatives, Bolivarian circles, municipal participatory budgeting and communal councils, and the commune aimed to coordinate all of these experiments.  But they have not fared well: they never became consolidated or maintained a steady existence throughout the years, nor did they develop a national leadership to articulate rank and file positions.[vii] The cynical take is that this failure was intentional: the experiments were Chàvez’s ploy to rationalize the weakening of rival institutions.  The problem may have been more fundamental and more telling.  The political literature tells us that you cannot create participatory democracy in a top-down manner.  Its success depends upon the pre-existing state of civil society, on the strength of neighborhood organizations, unions, community clubs, charitable organizations and organized business interests.   These organizations monitor, organize and cajole the process, and fight back against rival institutions that seek to corrupt it for their own ends.[viii] 

In Venezuela, such organizations failed to protect these new participatory spaces and local mayors resisted or killed them.  Frustrated with the lack of progress, Chàvez passed new laws in 2010 to circumvent the mayors and create a central regional commune to coordinate among the local communes, but the new process still suffered from low levels of registration.  In one of Chàvez’s last speeches, often known as the “Strike at the Helm,” he bemoaned the failure of participatory democracy in Venezuela: “Where is the commune?  Will I continue to preach in the wilderness for things like this?  Where will we search for them, on the moon?  Or on Jupiter?”  After years of experimenting, Chàvez himself recognized the problem: the commune could only be created bottom-up: “We continue to create housing, but we do not see communes anywhere, not even the spirt of the commune, which at this point is much more important than the commune itself: The cultural commune.”  Chávez declared, “Either the commune or nothing.”[ix]  He was right.

Josh Braver is a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.

Suggested Citation: Josh Braver, ‘Radical Democracy and the Venezuelan Crisis’ IACL-AIDC Blog (8 May 2019)

[i] David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger, eds., Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chávez (Duke University Press, 2011). 

[ii] Richard Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Fully Updated New Second Edition edition (London; New York: Verso, 2011).

[iii] Gabriel Hetland, “The Crooked Line: From Populist Mobilization to Participatory Democracy in Chávez-Era Venezuela,” Qualitative Sociology 37, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 373–401,

[iv] For a fiery critique of the 1999 Constitution, see Allan R. Brewer-Carías, Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela: The Chá́vez Authoritarian Experiment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).  For an optimistic account, Mark Tushnet, “The New ‘Bolivarian’ Constitutions: A Textual Analysis,” in Comparative Constitutional Law in Latin America, ed. Rosalind Dixon and Tom Ginsburg (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017).

[v] Human Rights Watch | 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor | New York, and NY 10118-3299 USA | t, “A Decade Under Chávez | Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela,” Human Rights Watch, September 18, 2008,

[vi] “Maduro Opponents March after Venezuela Referendum Sunk,” Reuters, October 22, 2016,; Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul, “Anger Grows as Venezuela Blocks Effort to Recall President,”, accessed April 23, 2019,; Patricia Torres and Elisabeth Malkin, “Venezuelan Electoral Panel Halts Effort to Recall President Nicolás Maduro,” The New York Times, December 21, 2017, sec. World,

[vii] Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2008); Gott, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution; Jeffrey Webber, “Venezuela under Chávez The Prospects and Limitations of Twenty-First Century.,” Socialist Studies.  For a more sympathetic portrait of the state of participatory democracy in Venezuela, see George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (Verso Books, 2016); Gabriel Hetland, “The Crooked Line: From Populist Mobilization to Participatory Democracy in Chávez-Era Venezuela,” Qualitative Sociology 37, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 373–401..

[viii] Patrick Heller, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, and Marcelo Silva, Bootstrapping Democracy: Transforming Local Governance and Civil Society in Brazil, 1 edition (Stanford University Press, 2011); Tulia G. Falleti and Thea N. Riofrancos, “Endogenous Participation: Strengthening Prior Consultation in Extractive Economies,” World Politics 70, no. 1 (January 2018): 86–121,

[ix] Monthly Review | Strike at the Helm,” Monthly Review (blog), April 1, 2015,