The events of this past April that led to the brief removal from power of Hugo Chavez Frias, Venezuela's mercurial president, caught many scholars and policymakers who had come to believe that coups were a thing of the past in Latin America by surprise. More significantly, the turmoil in Venezuela challenged another bit of conventional wisdom about contemporary politics (and indeed, a tenet of American foreign policy): that a strong and invigorated civil society is an unmitigated blessing for democracy. (1) This idea was put forward as early as the mid-1800s with the publication of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville's classic treatise on American political culture in the postcolonial period, and in the last decade it has enjoyed a robust renaissance in academic and policy circles. (2) "Tocqueville was right: democratic government is strengthened, not weakened, when it faces a vigorous civil society," writes Robert Putnam, a leading voice among the "new" Tocquevilleans. (3)
Putnam's views are shared by the international aid community, which in recent years has embraced the mission of fortifying civil society as a programmatic priority in nations that have recently inaugurated democratic governance. (4) The United States Agency for International Development (AID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have taken the lead in boosting the development of groups thought to comprise the heart of civil society: grass-roots social movements, unions, a free media, and a wide range of nongovernmental organizations involved in promoting such causes as human rights, governmental transparency, and protection of the environment. Presently, funding for "civil society assistance" exceeds that of any other initiative designed by MD to encourage democracy abroad. The agency's budget for 1999 designated $204 million for "civil society promotion," $147 million for "rule of law," $203 million for "governance," and $59 million for "elections and political processes." (5)
Few would dispute the importance of civil society to the creation and maintenance of a democratic public life, but civil society can only serve as an effective foundation for democracy where there are credible functioning state institutions and strong political parties with deep roots in society. (6) Under such conditions, the virtues of civil society--safeguarding society against abuse of power and socializing the citizenry to democratic practices--become apparent. In their absence, however, civil society, especially an invigorated one, can become a source of instability, disorder, and even violence. The latter scenario, predicted by Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington more than three decades ago in his classic work on political development, Political Order in Changing Societies, is currently being recreated in struggling democracies around the world. (7)
In particular, a mobilized and energized civil society in the midst of failing political institutions affords a highly auspicious environment for a "civil society coup." This is a shorthand term employed in this analysis to suggest the handling of governing crises by extraconstitutional, undemocratic means by such actors as the business community, organized labor, religious institutions, and the media. This distressing political phenomenon, an increasingly familiar feature of contemporary Latin American politics, found its latest and most dramatic manifestation in Venezuela. (8)
A civil society coup develops in three distinct phases, each with devastating consequences for democracy. The first is the institutional decay and eventual collapse of the political system (especially political parties), the result of corruption, incompetence, and neglect of the electorate's basic needs. The second is the rise of an antiparty, antiestablishment leader whose appeal to the masses is rooted in the failures of the political system and whose commitment to democracy is at best suspect. This development, in turn, makes civil society, rather than formally organized political forces, the principal opposition to the regime in power, and potentially the sole defender of democracy against encroaching state authoritarianism (itself a consequence of the lack of formal political opposition to the government).
The third phase is a confrontation between government and civil society, the result of the government's failure to deliver on its promises and its attacks on both civil society and the democratic system. In the absence of credible political institutions through which societal demands and dissatisfactions may be channeled, the streets--rather than the legislature, the courts, and the electoral system--become the principal setting for this confrontation. At this juncture, sectors of civil society are not only likely to become radicalized but are also vulnerable to being hijacked by antidemocratic forces.
A Decaying Political System
Hugo Chavez's brief and dramatic ouster from power on April 12 vividly brought to life the explosive nature of the convergence (or more accurately the clash) of an invigorated civil society and a failed political system. The roots of this predicament--and of the current political crisis--can be traced to the ossification and eventual collapse of the Venezuelan party system, a development that stands in striking contrast to the image of Venezuela as one of most successful democracies in postwar Latin America.
Prior to Chavez's rise to power, Venezuelan politics were the dullest, most predictable, and least typical in Latin America. This was owed to the organization of the country's political elites around a two-party system consisting of the Social Democratic Accion Democratica (AD) and the Christian Democratic Comite de Organizacion Politica Electoral Independienre (COPBI). For several decades, these parties carefully maintained one of Latin America's most stable political regimes, making Venezuela the envy of every other country in the region. Indeed, from the 1960s through the 1980s, when many Latin American countries descended into military dictatorship, social unrest, civil war, and economic stagnation, Venezuela remained a sea of relative political tranquility and economic growth. (9)
Venezuela's postwar success made the country the darling of social scientists by giving credence to a new school of thought about democratization that favors the actions of political elites over the impact of socioeconomic, structural variables in the making of successful democracies. (10) Democracies are crafted, not born, was the primary lesson that scholars of Latin American politics took from Venezuela's democratic stability. Paradoxically, during the late 1980s, as scholars were touting the virtues of the Venezuelan model and countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile were shedding their military regimes and looking to Venezuela as a beacon of democratic success, the country was coming apart at the seams.
In 1989, during the popular uprising commonly known as "El Caracazo," the country was rocked by a wave of food riots and violent protests that left hundreds of dead in its wake, after the government ordered the army to open fire on protestors. At the time, Venezuela's political elite vowed that such chaos would never occur again. But in 1992, the country once again fell into crisis, this time as a result of a failed military coup against President Carlos Andres Perez of the ruling AD party, led by none other than Hugo Chavez, who was then an army colonel. This attack on one of Latin America's oldest and most stable democracies did not surprise those intimately familiar with the deterioration of the Venezuelan political system, especially the institutional decay afflicting the leading parties. What was once Latin America's paradigmatic example of "party fortitude" had become by the mid-1990s an egregious case of "party deficit." (11)
The democratic stability projected by Venezuela through the 1980s was largely a mirage. It was built upon exclusionary and seemingly antidemocratic practices that in time gave way to a stifling political system and an alienated electorate. Beginning with the 1958 Punto Fijo Pact, which signaled both the end of the country's last military dictatorship under Gen. Marcos Perez J imenez and the founding of Venezuela's present democracy, the AD and COPEI conspired to keep the Communists and other left-wing organizations from attaining power. (12) From 1958 through the early 1990s, the AD and COPEI exchanged power on a...