A Tale of Two Countries

Clashes in Berkeley and Portland bring to mind an interesting story about two countries where people who felt frustrated with each other and their governments.

Citizens in Columbia and Venezuela (both republics) were fed up with the inability of their governments to solve their problems. In both cases, they were willing to try the leadership of populist strongmen who promised to do whatever was necessary, even if that meant breaking down the system.  The main difference between the two leaders was that Uribe in Columbia came from the right-wing while Chavez in Venezuela came from the left-wing. 

Once elected, both leaders made moves that were meant to increase their power to reward their followers and punish their enemies: changing the constitution, stacking the courts, creating puppet legislatures, and so on.  In both cases, their opposition controlled less than half the seats in the national legislatures.  The stories diverge in how the opposition used the little legislative power they did have. 

In Columbia, the left-wing opposition used their legislative seats to slow-down the new president’s attempts to undermine democracy.  By so doing, the opposition kept the respect of the citizens and the military. In Venezuela, the right-wing opposition organized a coup against the new president. It quickly collapsed because a chunk of their supporters was not comfortable with such a drastic move. They next tried a national strike that lost them still more supporters – and created an excuse for the Chavez government to detain and jail many of the opposition leaders.  Finally, the opposition committed political suicide by boycotting the next round of national elections. The boycott allowed the Chavistas to take over the government entirely and transform it into an autocracy. 

Since then, with no one to tell the government to stop atrocious economic policies, and with less international support, the Venezuelan economy has suffered from hyperinflation, shortages, and low growth. Millions of Venezuelans left the country for Columbia, where life under democracy is better.

The moral of the story is that using our institutions of democracy, while respecting everyone’s right to free speech and assembly, is the best way to defend and strengthen our democracy and our freedom.  In the case of our institutions, it’s like muscles and exercise: use them or lose them. In the case of our rights, it’s like the Golden Rule: if you want to keep your rights, then keep them for everyone.

To learn more about how our system of government works, please take a look at our short courses. And then click on the survey to let us know how we did. 

To learn more about Columbia and Venezuela, see Gamboa, L. (2017). Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela. Comparative Politics, 49(4), 457-477.

Photo credit: David Butow.

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