Is Nicolás Maduro today’s Alberto Fujimori?


Fujimori announcing the end of democracy in Peru (1992)

Over the past months, several observers have compared Nicolás Maduro to Alberto Fujimori, whose dictatorial rule in Peru ended in disgrace in the year 2000. Specifically, Maduro's decision to essentially neuter Venezuela's National Assembly (what some have called a "slow-motion coup") after the opposition's historic parliamentary election victory in December 2015 has been compared to Fujimori's decision to impose emergency rule in 1992 and shut down Congress. Does the comparison make sense?

On the 4th of April of 1992, Alberto Fujimori appeared on television screens across Peru to announce that he saw himself forced to adopt an "exceptional attitude" needed to "accelerate the project of national reconstruction". Peru's Congress was closed, opposition members arrested and radio stations invaded. The documentary Su Nombre es Fujimori shows the dramatic final moments of a Radio Antena's transmission, in which the presenter describes police entering the studio and, before being forced to to suspend the program, asks Peruvians to protest before, and then plays the national anthem. Fujimori initiated legislation by decree and placed the courts under his control. The regional response was swift, and the OAS' Permanent Council, which met to discuss the situation, "strongly deplored" the situation and urged Fujimori to restore democratic rule. The United States took the lead in pressuring creditors to suspend loans and isolate Lima financially and diplomatically. In the region, criticism was far more muted. Brazil worried that using the OAS' Resolution 1080 to punish Peru would destabilize the country unnecessarily. When asked why the Collor government would not take a tougher stance on Peru, Brazi's Foreign Minister Francisco Rezek responded that "one does not break diplomatic relations between neighboring countries that have traditionally been friends (...) Brazil's hope is that the Peruvian Constitution prevails." 

Back in 1992, the international community's efforts were not entirely in vain. After external pressure increased, Fujimori released political prisoners and promised to hold elections soon and discuss revisions to the constitution. Yet even though elections were held in 1992 (to work on a new constitution) and general elections 1993, until when the president ruled by decree and purged the judiciary, the quality of Peru's democracy had worsened considerably, and Fujimori was more powerful than ever before. Indeed, in 1992, Fujimori can be said to have achieved his main goals and stayed in power for another eight years before his star began to fade after he blatantly falsified election in the year 2000.

Nicolás Maduro's decision not to recognize Venezuela's National Assembly (by having the Supreme Court annul whatever the legislature decides) seems, at first glance, milder than Alberto Fujimori's attack on Peru's democracy in 1992. Indeed, the Venezuelan government has been more subtle, and rather than sending police into radio stations at once, it has slowly, over years, dismantled an independent judiciary, politicized the armed forces, and imprisoned a series of opposition leaders. That suggests that, while Maduro may have taken a final step by explicitly sidelining the legislature, most of what Fujimori did in one day in April 1992 has occurred, in Venezuela, in the course of the past decade.

As Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold write in their book Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez (reviewed here), Chávez used a moment of strong popularity to eliminate checks and balances, concentrating an extreme amount of power in the presidency. Venezuela's democracy in the 1990s was frail, they admit, but it was plural and checks and balances were largely in place, before they were systematically eliminated -- for example, giving Chavez complete discretion over promotions in the armed forces without legislative approval. Venezuela’s 1999 constitution transformed the country’s political system in what scholars call a “high-stakes” model: the advantages of holding office and, conversely, the costs of remaining in the opposition were significantly expanded.

In that sense, while the result of Maduro's attack on the opposition-dominated National Assembly in 2016 and Alberto Fujimori's decision to close Congress in 1992 may be similar, the major difference between the two is that the decline of democracy in Venezuela has, in fact, been going on for years, while Fujimori opted to dismantle it at once.

While international pressure in 1992 did little to affect Fujimori's reign, reactions were far more significant than what Venezuela has faced over the past years. In that sense, policy makers in Caracas have been much more sophisticated in their effort to concentrate power and dismantle checks and balances without raising many eyebrows abroad. Despite the emergence of numerous democratic clauses, normative treaties and regional clubs between 1992 and 2016, both Chávez and Maduro have never faced anything similar to the international pressure Fujimori was exposed to in 1992. Caracas was not only smarter to weaken democracy bit by bit, never taking a step big enough to generate a regional outcry. Venezuela was also careful to engage in oil diplomacy, providing subsidized oil to Buenos Aires, Havana and smaller countries in the Caribbean, which assured that a significant number of countries would support Caracas no matter what — strategically using the benefits of the oil bonanza in a way that Fujimori never could have dreamed of. 

Today, anything resembling Fujimori's "autogolpe" in 1992 would elicit a strong reaction by governments across the region, probably leading to the suspension of the country in question. Aware of this limitation, Caracas had to adapt, and it has done so quite successfully: while Brazil's rhetoric regarding the contemporary political crisis in Venezuela has become more critical since President Temer took over, Brazil remains reluctant to take the lead in putting real diplomatic pressure on the Maduro government. 

Over the past twenty-five years, normative rules have slowly adapted to the way threats to democracy evolved. While rules were initially aimed at coups against incumbents, later on others were added to deal with more complex challenges such as fraudulent elections, as seen in Peru in 2000. With its incrementally authoritarian approach, the Venezuelan government has effectively outfoxed, over the past decade, the normative rules established to preserve democracy in Latin America.

A slow erosion of checks and balances led by the incumbent, leading to an extreme concentration of power in the executive, as currently seen in Venezuela, is a powerful threat to democracy in Latin America. It is time for regional leaders to discuss how to adapt regional rules and norms to deal with this challenge.

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