Coordinated by Aurelian GIUGĂL

Hugo Chávez’s Political Regime a Case of 
Delegative Democracy?

Răzvan Victor PANTELIMON

Faculty of History and Political Science, “Ovidius” University of Constanta



Abstract: This article is starting from the “delegative democracy” concept, originally proposed by Guillermo O’Donnell in 1994 and intent to prove the hypothesis that there are cases where delegative democracies do not start necessarily from authoritarian regimes, but can also start from what is customarily called a typical democracy. In terms of methodology, this paper will be structured around a case study typology – the analysis will focus on Venezuela and the changes brought by the Hugo Chávez’s Political Regime as proof for the hypothesis. Some of the theoretical characteristics for delegative democracy are analyzed and applied to Venezuela in an effort to prove the delegative nature of the state and its evolution to this point from a non-authoritarian, arguably more democratic background.


Keywords: delegative democracy, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, bolivarianism.




On the morning of the 23rd of May 1999, a new live talk show aired on the largest TV channel in Venezuela, Venezolana de Television.1 The talk show was broadcasted ever since, on a weekly basis and at the same hour, bearing a strong socially-oriented pattern and being exactly what the Venezuelans needed. Ordinary debates included issues such as floods, illiteracy in the countryside, delaying of pension fund payments and scarce availability of medicines in the mountain regions of the country, especially in the small villages. The host of the show would laugh and gesticulate, talk with the guests, familiarly address to them using the diminutives of their given names, take live phone calls from all over the country and delivering straightforward promises regarding the urgent solving of “the callers” problems. It was just another popular talk show that the middle and lower-class loved watching, with only one exception – the host of the show was the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.

Within next broadcasts, the show would become extremely popular, especially due to its direct appeal to the public managed by Chávez, a consummated showman thirsty for cementing his bond with the people, and also through marketing abilities. The list of guest appearances would be topped by Venezuelans ministers and state governors, invited by the President to expose their support for the programs developed by the Chávez administration, as well as by religious figures such as Monsignor Torrealba, Councilor of the Venezuelan embassy at the Holy See in Rome ; one of the most viewed editions would be the one starring the Argentine football player Diego Armando Maradona, who engaged in a semi-political conversation with Chávez, proudly showing to the cameras his tattoos that included portraits of the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and also expressing his desire of getting another tattoo, this time the one of Hugo Chávez himself.2

The national and international media coverage dedicated to Hugo Chávez the 72nd president of Venezuela – newspaper articles, political publications, official statements delivered through web pages or live television broadcast, caricatures, praising or intense criticism – shows a middle-aged short man with sparkling eyes, a rather loud voice and, most important of all, very strong opinions. He describes himself as a man of humble origins who became an army officer active through 1975 up to 1992, when he got retired, and who was finally destined to become Venezuela’s savior and embodiment of a new “revolution” that would finally bring the so ardently-wanted peace and prosperity to his people3.

There is relatively little interest shown by political scientists and scholars to the Venezuelan politics before the beginning of the Chávez administration. Most of the studies conducted with respect to this issue appear to be centered either on the Venezuelan history in terms of populist ideology of its former military dictators or on presenting studies regarding the analysis of the political parties.4 The attention was based on structural and explanatory approaches of the institutions, without considering any deepened analysis with respect to the state of democracy, since it was not necessary: Venezuela was considered to be a consolidated democracy, an exception among the Southern American states struggling for peaceful transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in the beginning of the 1990’s.5

Since Hugo Chávez rose to power in 1999 thousands of pages have been written, dissecting the Venezuelan politics, trying to create a framework for understanding the political platform of Hugo Chávez, its origins and its directions, as well as analyzing the consequences of Chávez’s politics in terms of democratic outcome. His policies, domestic and international, have evoked echoing controversy in Venezuela and abroad, since Chávez paved his way with radical changes at the state level - changing the constitution, the country’s flag and national anthem, creation of a stronger state-controlled currency and strong state intervention in economy, radical institutional change - five branches of government, a tight grip of the executive over the legislative and the judicial, systematically discouraged opposition and limitations of civil liberties6, everything in the name of “Bolivarianism”, as well a strong international political orientation towards the “liberation from the American imperialism” and a planned “re-inventing” of socialism inside the community of Latin American states through his relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

Opinions range from labeling Chávez a “threat to democracy”, “authoritarian”, a “hurricane”, “Fidel’s pupil”, “the boss” and a “vulgar loudmouth”7, to considering him a savior for Venezuela and applauding his economic and oil policies as courageous incentives for the Latin American countries to collaborate and overcome their historical problems, as well as appreciating the brilliant domestic programs, fully designed to leave behind Venezuela’s most important social issues: massive poverty and huge social inequalities.

Chávez imposed himself through tailoring and leading the “Bolivarian Revolution”, a movement ideologically derived from the political thought of the Latin American hero Simon Bolivar, and starkly stands for his ideas of “Bolivarianism”, promoting political doctrines such as anti-imperialism and democratic socialism8. A political system created by such decisions and visions, so contested and praised in the same time, cannot fit in a typical political system. It is impossible to fit present day Venezuela in the mold of typical political regimes due to the radical, polarized and seemingly hard to explain decisions. However, using the right theoretical framework, one may not only be able to understand the changes and patterns of policy-making in this country, but also to integrate it in the broader political arena of South America. Regarding the impossibility of categorizing Chávez’s Venezuela in a fix pattern of democracy, a framework must be used in order to explain the type of regime. One such framework could be Guillermo O’Donnell’s concept of “delegative democracy”9.

The hypothesis of this study is to prove whether delegative democracy can actually go two ways - from but also towards non-democratic dimensions. A normative formula of the hypothesis would therefore be, if delegative democracy is an uncertain blend of patterns of freedom and coercion, then there is no fixed expected trajectory of its evolution. Given that Venezuela was considered to be one of the most enduring South American democracies before 199910, with scholars choosing to analyze peculiarities of the regime, and taking the democratic nature of the system by default11, this transition is even more startling and important for the general understanding of delegative democracy. The purpose of this article is to categorize and explain the Chávez administration as a case of delegative democracy in light of its radical changes and thus in relation with the previous regime – with the country moving more and more towards an extreme case of delegative democracy from a more democratic standpoint.

The major interest in the subject of this study comes from the relative absence of scholarly studies with respect to the problem of delegative democracy itself; moreover, there is a substantial lack of political analysis regarding the delegative factor in Venezuela. The largest part of the political scientists who dealt with the consequences of the Chávez administration preferred to focus on separate features of delegative democracy, such as institutionalization12, the charismatic image of the leader and reasons for popular support of Chávez13 or the alteration of liberal democracy through the rise of popular sovereignty14, but slightly missed incorporating these elements into a complete analysis of the delegative phenomenon.

In terms of the previous regime, we will consider it fully democratic, given the aforementioned claims, but also democratization indicators, such as Freedom House scores, that have never been higher than 3 (Free), and typically being situated around 1.5 (and thus in line with free countries in Europe or North America) between the start of measurement (1972) and the beginning of Chávez’s regime (1999).15 This was untypical for Latin America, with political scientists considering it an island of democracy in a sea of dictatorships.16 Furthermore, political scientists have dedicated books, and innumerable studies analyzing the characteristics of the former regime, including peculiarities such as partyarchy (the way the two major parties in Venezuela, Democratic Action-Accion Democratica-AD and Political Electoral Independent Organizational Committee – Comite de Organizacion Politica Electoral Independiente – COPEI, cohabitated and collaborated)17, without even debating the existence of democracy.

Manuel Alcántara Sáez, probably the most important author on Latin America in hispano-speaking space, affirmed theory clearly that: “…the venezuelan people enjoyed for more than thirty years of clear democratic solidity, far from being reached by any of the other countries from the South American area.”18 Alcántara retakes this idea various times in his work, concluding that Venezuela before 1999 “can be considered the most eatable democracy of Latin America”19 . Others scholars affirmed the same: “a country that for 40 years after 1958 had seemed an exceptional model of democratic stability and successful development”20; “The Pact of Punto Fijo was important far beyond its impact on the 1958 elections because it created a unique Venezuelan model of representative democracy.”21; “When neighboring nations were succumbing to brutal military repression, Venezuela was proudly upholding a political democracy”22; “Chavez, a former army paratrooper, came to power in 1998 in a country which, unlike others in the hemisphere, had enjoyed an unbroken period of representative government since 1958.”23

Such great consensus amongst scholars makes debating the nature of democracy in Venezuela before 1999 futile, and will be taken for granted when considering the previous regime. Thus, in order to validate the hypothesis, it is enough to demonstrate the nature of the current regime as a delegative democracy, the relation with the previous regime thus becoming clear.



The conceptual framework is based on the political theory of “delegative democracy” as originally proposed by Guillermo O’Donnell in 1994, examining the relationship between delegative democracy and the concept of “polyarchy” described by Robert Dahl24 and correlating delegative democracy with the dimensions of consolidated democracy as proposed by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan.25

In explaining the concept of “delegative democracy”, Guillermo O’Donnell argues that, since not all processes of change have identical outcomes, a need for categorizing the results in terms of democracy is present. Therefore, he coins the term of “delegative democracy” as in a hybrid “new species” as he describes it. This new typology is, de facto, a grey zone between an authoritarian regime and the complete status of democratization. The major cause of delegative democracy and its incapacity of moving towards a fully-fledged democracy are deeply seeded inside the socio-economic problems inherited from the previous regime(s). Due to the seriousness of these issues, a reinforcement of the past conceptions and practices of the political authority appears, since there is no other available option, thus leading towards this “hybrid”.26 Nevertheless, the political theory of democratization processes described by O’Donnell establishes only a one-way route for the delegative democracy, that of from non-democratic regimes towards democratic ones, remaining silent when it comes to the existence of a potential opposite way, hence that delegative democracy could also mean going backwards from democracy to its so-called delegative form- in other words, if there can also be a reversed process.

The major concern O’Donnell expressed in elaborating his theory was that delegative democracy should not be considered an “incomplete” democracy, since it encounters all the criteria established by Dahl’s “polyarchy”- elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy.27 From this normative point of view, it is a complete democracy, but its peculiarities reside in its three major characteristics: the leader as the “savior” of the nation, custodian of the national interest and head of a “movement”, low institutionalization, hence low accountability and a strong majoritarian character.28 O’Donnell further argues that these peculiarities precisely allow delegative democracy to develop in spite of its “polyarchic” character due to the fact that Dahl’s theory, although presents the basic features for polyarchy, remains silent when it comes to secondary aspects, such as the conduct of the “free” elections, parliamentarism over presidentialism, majoritarianism or consensualism, the actual system of checks and balances or the extent of the civil liberties. The key point, in O’Donnell’s opinion, is the quality of institutionalization of the other elements of the polyarchy, except for the elections.29 Hence there are elements that manage to go above the establishment of polyarchy and create a confusion between the “to be” and “not to be” of the democratic character.

The basic ground for delegative democracy is the premise that the one who wins the elections, the President, is a charismatic leader who presents himself as an embodiment of the nation. The strong image of the president establishes him as the leader of a “movement”, who affords to govern “as he sees fit”, since his support does not come exclusively from a political party but from the entire nation. The political platform/program proposed before the elections is not so important and it shouldn’t be, since maximum trust is awarded to the leader- he is a “messianic” actor, custodian of the national interest. The image of the president is a strong paternalistic figure, a leader who, just like a father for his children, identifies the “right thing to do” and channels his actions towards “the people”, emotional voters who expect to see the redeemer of their nation guiding towards a fulfillment of the “destiny”.30 His encompassing “mission” does not have to do with a specifically identified problem the society must overcome, since there is no need for a palpable validation of the character or legitimacy of the political agenda of the leader.

The second characteristic of delegative democracy is its strong majoritarian character, making it more democratic but less liberal than representative democracy. Through elections, the leader is empowered by the majority to rule for a number of years, becoming both the “interpreter” and the “embodiment” of the interests of the nation. The idea of representation, as O”Donnell argues, is not opposite to delegation, since it involves the delegation of a leader to speak for the majority that had chosen him, and eventually this majority commits to abide what the representative has decided in his position as representative, hence the leader’s democratic credentials are solid. However, representation is based on accountability and not only vertical accountability in front of those who have elected the officer but also on horizontal accountability, materialized through the relationship between the representative and a set of autonomous institutions that have the capacity to control or punish an eventual misconduct of the given officer.31 Due to the weak institutionalization, in delegative democracies there is little horizontal accountability that gives the President the advantage of implementing policies much easier and faster, though with certain risks, such as hazardous implementation and concentrated responsibility. Hence delegative democracies set a treacherous ground for the President, since he is exposed to the high risk of becoming isolated and the only bearer of the burden of misconduct, which leads to extremely high swinging in popularity.32

With respect to the aforementioned peculiarities, the necessity to clearly establish the difference between a consolidated democracy and its delegative counterpart leads to an analysis of the characteristics of a consolidated democracy as formulated by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. The definition includes three major elements: the behavioral one, the attitudinal one and the constitutional one.33 The behavioral sphere represents a compulsory lack of potential effort of the national, socio-economic, political and economic actors of a state to invest significant resources in an attempt to create a nondemocratic regime or the presence of violence for seceding from the state. The attitudinal sphere reflects a consensus of the majority with regard to the belief that democratic institutions and procedures are the ways best fit to governing collective life, and when support for eventual anti-system alternatives is small or appears to be an isolated phenomenon. The constitutional sphere encompasses the rule of law applied throughout the territory of the state for resolution of conflict, through institutions and procedures sanctioned by the democratic process. When explaining these mechanisms of the democratic machinery, the possibility for breakdown of the democratic rule is not excluded at all; the attention is drawn by mentioning that this potential decay is not to be explained by eventual misconduct of the democratic process but of a set of problems that emerge and that cannot be solved by the system. The “nondemocratic alternative” 34 begins gaining supporters and the former “regime loyalists” begin acting in a “disloyal” manner towards the democratic system. In this caveat resides another explanation of delegative democracy, though not completely different but with little indication of the charismatic factor and the ideological umbrella of the leader as a “savior” from these problems. A term that can be considered a relative synonym of “delegative democracy” is the term used by Linz and Stepan, “democratic disloyalty”, since it does not clearly establish a complete rupture from a consolidated democracy.

Thus, delegative democracy is not a stark alien to the consolidated democracy in conceptual terms. It is surely different, but existing on the same polyarchic pre-requisites. In other words, delegative democracy can be metaphorically described as a “smaller member” of the democratic “family”.

One trait defining delegative democracy is the full delegation of authority to a charismatic president. The image of the president and the image of the state converge, become one in such cases, and typically, the more charismatic the president, the higher chance for institutional development towards a delegative form of democracy rather than towards a consolidated form. Introducing the profile of the president in such an analysis is, thus, clearly relevant, especially since we are speaking about a reverse transition – from a more consolidated form of democratic development to a more delegative one. Thus, studying the president, in terms of image, personal and state ideology and internalization of popular support is important to understand what were the forces that transformed Venezuela but also, more importantly, how Venezuela is currently shaped.

When describing charismatic authority, Weber emphasized the “extraordinary qualities”35 of the individuals arising from social groups and being the most expected ones to become leaders since they possessed these special features that made them so attractive. The emergence of populist and personalistic movements is based almost exclusively on the relationship of a charismatic leader with a “moral community invested with a mission of salvation against conspiratorial enemies, engaged in a mission towards redemption and salvation”.36

Political scientists have described populism as being derived from socioeconomic developments or, more frequently, from the expectations of these developments37. The theory emerged from the succession of the modernization cycles in emerging nations, since populist leaders were considered “manipulators of the marginalized masses” and “demagogues”.38 One of the most representative approaches of populism is Laclau’s thesis, that emphasizes an exclusive discursive consideration of this phenomenon, rejecting the relationship with modernization and economic systems and establishes the key point of populism as being “the antagonism between the people and oligarchy”39, much in the spirit of Shils” concept of “ideology of popular resentment”40.

In defining Hugo Chávez as a charismatic leader, these two approaches of populism are to be taken in consideration, since his discourse on the “mission” of “saving Venezuela” is grounded on the failure of the institutional actors of the previous regime and also on deeply seeded social inequalities that have been maintained by the economic development.



Jose Pedro Zuquete identifies four different dimensions emerging from Chávez”s discourse, seen as the engine of his leadership: the moral dimension, the identification one, the dimension of a martyr and the historical one.41 Zuquete points out that Chávez’s charismatic leadership is not to be understood from the point of view of the personal preference or attraction, but from the Weberian understanding of the charismatic leader as being driven by a “call”, who must transmit this “vision” to his “followers” through his discourse.42 Weber’s approach of charisma was based on emphasizing the important role that the “mission” of a leader played in blending the charismatic relationship between him and his followers43.

Chávez presents himself as an exemplary figure and a moral archetype, as a man of humble origins but with a great destiny, who had always fought for his ideals in spite of all persecutions, in a continuous struggle to “save” the people and always putting them on the first place: “I always put myself in the frontline of this battle for Venezuela […] I guess that is my destiny, to fight for my homeland”.44 The leader continues with saying that “the great people of Venezuela know this, because they love me, I really feel the love you give me…and the only way I can pay you back is to give you all my life”.45 He also assures his people of his strength and commitment to them, which cannot be eroded because of his inextricable bond with “el pueblo”:


”I’m telling you, with every day that goes by I feel more committed to you, and the fact that you are such a great heroic people, beautiful and sage, gives me energy to work even harder, to be harsher with myself. The Venezuelan people deserve what is best and we are ready to give you the best of us”46.

Chávez’s discourse also emphasizes an impeccable morality when it comes to his personal life. In Latin American societies the Catholic Church has always played an important role, inculcating throughout centuries strong family values and exemplary moral conduct. In an exclusive interview with Hugo Chávez, the American journalist Barbara Walters made an innuendo to the fact that Chávez has six children from two different marriages that both ended in divorce. The President’s position was a strong one and his answer was given from a different turn, depicting the image of a righteous man:


“I like to keep myself far from these things. I was married twice, but it is difficult being married especially when one is a man like me, in my position. Yes, I have given up all the intimate things and I can say that my life is devoted now to the poor of the earth. But I don’t regret it at all”. 47

One of the major characteristics of the discourse of Chávez is the identification with the poor masses of Venezuela, his major supporters. His discourse is based on mentioning “the people” (el pueblo) countless times, in order to secure the relationship between him and his loyalists, in a stark difference with the former leaders who “did not care enough” and were out of reach.48 In Spanish, the word “pueblo” has the primary sense of “people” in terms of collective identity, being synonym with “nation”. The word “pueblo” is also the most frequently used form of designating the mass of the poor and uneducated ones, and, depending on the context, can sometimes achieve a pejorative sense. Chávez makes appeal to his humble origins and ethnic background to cement his bond with the people. He was born in an impoverished family in the city of Sabaneta and he is a “mestizo”, a man of mixed European (Spaniard) and Amerindian ancestry, just like 70% of Venezuela’s population49. The leader’s discourses emphasize his identification with the poor and downtrodden of the country, since he is one of them and thus capable of understanding their problems. His addresses are full of vivid depictions of his childhood as a poor boy who had to sell fruits in Sabaneta50 to help supporting his family. He also speaks of his normal lifestyle in terms of behavior: “I have never liked wearing those fancy suites. I have to wear them, of course, for official meetings, but I usually like to dress comfortable, like everyone does”51, and material possessions: “I’ve never had a credit card. Many people have one, but I am not interested in this consumerism”.52

The identification with the poor also derives from his plainspoken and straightforward language and public remarks which are outrageous for the head of a state. The purpose of his rather violent rhetoric is to maximize the defensive attitude in relation to “his people” and to establish the leader as an unconventional one. Chávez characterizes the opposition as being “fascist and terrorist” against the people of Venezuela53; he labeled George W. Bush as “ terrorist”, “Mr. Danger”, “a coward”, “a donkey” and “a drunk”54, criticizing the United States foreign policy as violent and ruthless. On the other hand, the relationship created between Chávez and his people is an almost intimate one. Through his weekly show “Alo, Presidente!”, where people are encouraged to make live phonecalls and speak with the President about their problems and share their opinions, Chávez uses a colloquial style to create an atmosphere of personal acquaintance with ordinary citizens, by using their given names, saluting them with formulas such as “I hug you” or “A kiss for your children”55 and singing to them Venezuelan folk songs or reading poetry.56

Connected with the image of the leader is also his portrayal as a martyr, a self-sacrificing son of Venezuela who has been subjected to persecution because of his willingness to stand against the “squalid oligarchy”57 that was overthrown by his regime and is now trying to take its seat back. After the failed coup of April 2002, when several members of the opposition attempted to oust him from power, Chávez declared in an interview: “I was put in jail once again because of my irrevocable compromise with the people […] I told myself, <Your time has come, but you will die because you were loyal to your people>“58 . The portrait of a martyr is taken even further: in a public speech delivered in 2004, Chávez accused President Bush of trying to assassinate him, and indicated that if he ever gets murdered, then the people should expect the criminals to definitely be connected with the White House.59 When asked about his tormented relationship with the United States government, and the relevance of his personal friendships with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba’s Fidel Castro with respect to this issue, Chávez argued that “I am a victim of the American media, this huge ruthless apparatus. Of course that people see what they [the media] want them to see, photographs with me and Fidel Castro, Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein”. Again, Chávez is just another victim of “the system” that decided to destroy his official and personal credentials. But the “truth” is always there:

“These people - he added - had never seen a photograph of me and Pope Joan Paul II for example. I have visited him twice. They haven’t seen the photographs from my meeting with Bill Clinton either. The media is just trying to demonize me”.60

Chávez’s rhetoric when it comes to issues like democracy or freedom is based on a personal conception on what these things mean or should mean. When British journalist Tavis Smiley asked Chávez what he thought of the regime in Cuba, the answer was: “Yes, it is a dictatorship. But I cannot comment upon this, I’d have to be one of the Cuban people to understand why they wanted a dictatorship”61.

Since charismatic authority is essential to delegative democracy and the image of the leader as the representative of the people constitutes a major source of that authority, if the leader projects a conscientious myth as his image, that image becomes the image of the country. In the case of Venezuela, this myth, a combination of founding myth and authority reinforcing the legend is “Bolivarianism” or, as Jose Pedro Zuquete puts it, his “historical dimension”. The entire ideology derives from the movement of the “Bolivarian Revolution” and it is pillared on the President as the “founding father of the revolution”.



Chávez’s Bolivarian movement began long before his political ascension. In the 1970’s Venezuela experienced an economic boom due to the increase of oil prices due to problems in the Middle East (1973 Yom Kippur War). Patricia Marquez describes Venezuela of the “70’s-late “80’s as “the country where everything was possible”62, since an unprecedented economic development was thought to last indefinitely. Major social programs were introduced and the state flourished, with poverty and unemployment rates diminishing overnight. However, in the mid “80’s the crisis struck, due to the decrease in oil prices and huge national debt rates accumulated during the Perez and Herrera Campins presidencies, who heavily borrowed for the pursuit of social programs and infrastructure. The military were also affected by these problems and in those years, several groups of the National Forces started gathering and tried designing an alternative, in the spirit of Latin American traditional military culture.63 In 1982, several young army officers founded a clandestine military cell named “The Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200” (Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200), with “200” as a symbol for the bicentenary of the birth year of Simon Bolivar.64 Among these young officers, Hugo Chávez and his friends Jesus Hernandez and Felipe Carles distinguished themselves for their commitment to expand the ideals of Simon Bolivar. Margarita Lopez Maya emphasizes the nature of Chávez’s dedication by relating the episode when the young Chávez and his colleagues mystically swore under the Saman tree, known in the Venezuelan culture as “Bolivar’s Tree”, to remain united and fight to accomplish their Bolivarian revolutionary ideals.65 However, the MBR-200 was not supposed to remain clandestine. Through collaborations with other military groups and leftist political formations that had developed during the Jimenez dictatorship (1952-1958) and thus had a strong organization and were based on severe discipline (during the Jimenez dictatorship political factionalism was considered a criminal offence and political parties were strictly forbidden), Chávez imposed himself as the leader of the MBR especially with the help of his younger brother Adan Chávez Frias, one of the leaders of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution (Partido de la Revolucion Venezolana, PRV). In 1992 the MBR-200 masterminded a coup to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez, but failed; nevertheless, after being forced by the incumbent government to appear on the national television and command his supporters to lay down the arms, Chávez instantly became a hero. People associated him with revolution, change and courage to have attempted to overthrow an inefficient government. President Carlos Andres Perez, aware of Chávez”s huge popularity, intervened with the latter’s prison sentence and pardoned him, afraid that Chávez might get perceived as a national martyr. This is how Chávez, with no criminal record, was capable of developing a political agenda and organize his party until the 1998 elections, when he ran for presidency and won.66

Beginning with 1999, when Hugo Chávez was sworn in as president, Venezuela underwent mass transformations at institutional level, allegedly derived from the ideology of “El Libertador” Simon Bolivar. The official name of the country is “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”, changed at the personal insistence of Chávez, and the 1999 Constitution’s first fundamental principle states that the fundamental values of the Republic are based on the doctrine of Bolivar.67 In every state there are “Bolivarian” universities with “Bolivarian” curricula, “Bolivarian” students” unions, “Bolivarian Circles”, communal councils that work as grassroots for participatory democracy due to their direct involvement in health, public transportation and education policies through self-designed “community plans”68, as well as countless statues and shrines dedicated to Bolivar in almost every Venezuelan establishment, whether it is the city of Caracas or a tiny village.

The ideological attachment Chávez developed for the spirit of “The Liberator” is represented by the “discourse of identity”69 created by the “Bolivarian” ideology in order to connect the present with the historical background of the Third Republic of Bolivar. The period between 1830 and 1999, known as the “Fourth Republic of Venezuela”, is considered by Chávez “anti-Bolivarian and oligarchic” because “the oligarchy took control of all the land and resources and murdered the dream of Bolivar”.70 Chávez’s discourse often leads to analogies between him and Bolivar in order to acquiesce a certain historical dimension. His references often include comparisons between his era and the one of Simon Bolivar, in terms of followers and opposition. The elites opposing to him are compared with the same ones that opposed to Bolivar; his governance is nothing but “the return” of the Liberator: “This is not a violent revolution but a peaceful one; it is the Bolivarian revolution, it’s Bolivar who has come, with his flag of redemption!”71. When referring to the opposition, Chávez portrays real enemies who must be dealt with in the name of freedom:

“The governments of the states of Zulia, Miranda and Carabobo are great enemies; not because they are the opposition, no, I wish they were an honest opposition, so we could work together. Instead, they are terrorist governments, who support coups, who engaged in spreading lies and weakening of the national order”72.

The best solution is quickly delivered:

“Another important issue is the media. The media has to be regulated, because, as Pope John Paul II said, one must regulate the means of communication. It is definitely not a threat, but a guarantee that law and order shall reign from now on. There shall never be terrorist television channels again!”73.

By emphasizing the moral and historic dimensions of his conduct, Chávez encourages the people to follow him, since they are the real heroes and no victory will be abusively appropriated: “The most important thing than Venezuela can have today is not a man, but conscious people. You, conscious of what’s happening, awake, conscious, marching”74. Jose Pedro Zuquete signals that the typology of the discourse leads to empowering “el pueblo”, thus transferring the individual mission towards the collective dimension, granting them participation to the “revolution”75.

As Zuquete describes it, the “Bolivarian” ideology takes the form of a “battle of history”76 between the past as seen by the “old hegemonic order” and a present based on a new interpretation, popular figures and state intervention. This application of history is presumed to derive from Bolivar’s political thought, as Chávez constantly argues: “The counterculture has invaded us and has deleted out historical memory”.77

To this extent, what is perceived as “the counterculture” is the product of what Elias Pino Iturrieta has called an “ossification of heroes”78. According to Iturrieta, the necessity for national heroes can be considered an inborn characteristic of all the peoples of the world, since it exists as an aggregate, both at group and personal level, for people to use in pursuing their national design. Iturrieta mentions that every nation has its own hero - the French Joan of Arc, the Spanish El Cid, the importance of Moses for the Jews - in order to unconsciously validate a historical heritage of the “cradle of gold”79; this term illustrates the absolute and unwritten need of a nation to be spared of answering, explaining or counter-arguing two major issues: its existence and its utility.

The problem, as both Iturrieta and Christopher Conway signal80, emerged in the case of Venezuela when this patriarchal image of the leader faded in with time, especially when the country faced problems and the incumbent officials kept “fashioning” the ideology of Bolivar, until the disenchantment became so obvious that Bolivar’s ideas were reduced to mere anecdotes and “words in quotation marks”.81 The inevitable consequence is that the re-tailoring of ideology becomes automatic, as both political platform and ideological umbrella. Chávez’s ideology is based, according to his statements, entirely on the Bolivarian thought, its principal arguments being social equality, breaking the “shackles of imperialist slavery”, eliminating corruption, ensuring grassroots political participation through referendums and popular vote and providing consumer goods for the poor.82 However, this presents itself as a version of “adapted Bolivarianism”, a package with the twisted principles of Simon Bolivar, through rejecting the latter’s liberal values. For Chávez, reinforcing the myth is not a matter of him actually relating to the ideals of Simon Bolivar, but simply a mere tool to make himself authoritative and improve his charisma in front of his supporters – for the 19th century revolutionary and statesman, the measures, actions and opinions of Chávez would be opposite to his actual platform for action.

Born in 1783 in Caracas, in an aristocratic family descending from the Spanish Castille lineage, Simon Bolivar defined his education in Madrid and Paris and later came back to Venezuela to inherit his family’s large wealth. As a supporter of the American Revolution and of the republican ideals, Bolivar embraced liberalism and a strong desire for independence of the Southern Cone states from the Spanish Crown.83 The major tenets of the doctrine of Simon Bolivar dealt with both domestic and foreign preoccupations on the background of the Spanish domination. Bolivar’s speeches and declarations are filled with unlimited compassion for his “beloved Americans” or “Columbians”84, as he calls the Latin American people, and aim at developing a strong feeling of national identity for stimulating the masses to support the dream of independence from the Spanish rule. His major concern was related to an intuited impossibility of the Latin Americans to follow the democratic ideals as their Northern neighbors had done, due to the multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds, cultures, habits and religions. Bolivar was also a fervent advocate of anti-slavery and strongly propelled this thesis throughout his entire life. The reference with the issue of abolishing slavery was made due to the fact that it was the only “social program”, if one can name it so, residing in Bolivar’s political thought; Hugo Chávez emphasizes nowadays the overbearing importance of the Bolivarian legacy for propelling ideals such as equal distribution of wealth and eradication of social inequalities. Unfortunately for the Venezuelan President, there is almost no trace of such thoughts in the doctrine of Simon Bolivar; the original thesis was fundamentally constructed on the hardships the Latin American people, seen as a whole nation, had to face under the Spanish administration. Transcending boundaries was indeed Bolivar’s highest dream, but those were national, cultural, religious and identity boundaries and not by far based on wealth.

Chávez’s discourse is often based on remembering these liberal attitudes with regard to physical slavery in the 19th century. Chávez abusively adapts them for the political and economic context of present day Venezuela, describing its citizens as “former slaves” of the “exploiting” rich classes: “The Venezuelan people shall never be enslaved again, because Venezuela belongs to all of us!”85.

Bolivar’s ideal materialized in the project of Gran Colombia, a short-lived republic encompassing the territories of today’s Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Panama, as well as small parts of Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil and Guyana. The obsession Bolivar had with uniting the former Spanish colonies in a strong state derived from the model of the United States, considered “the Northern brothers”86, as well as the perfect model of liberty and justice.

Chávez’s discourse is entirely constructed as a legitimization of his political platform, since his “Bolivarian” thesis hardly corresponds to the ideals perpetuated by Simon Bolivar. The original Bolivarian arguments resided entirely on a different historical context, the one of the Spanish colonial rule, and were grounded on a perpetual concern with the lack of democratic tradition of the Latin Americans, hence Bolivar’s continuous concern with the suitability of the rule of the majority in Latin America. Bolivar was an admirer of the Northern American democracy, but was not convinced this model could apply to his people:

“For four centuries, we lived in the most abject form of slavery imposed by the Spaniards. We did not have anything, not even a despot, a tyrant of our own, nothing! The states are states through the nature of their constitutions or the abuse on their constitutions. We had nothing, which is why it is so hard for us to find the taste of freedom”87.

Bolivar sees the economic condition of the South American states as the embodiment of their significance for Europe: “We are just a fertile backyard, and the only place our people occupy in the society is that of hardworking slaves”88. Bolivar’s opinion on the typology of regime was delivered from an extremely intuitive position:

“The representative institutions are not adequate for our character and customs. The formation of the Venezuelan political parties gained us ground to break with slavery, but it is so difficult for us to follow these terms! The actual situation of the states is the best example of inefficiency of democracy for us, no matter how I regret acknowledging it”89.

His attitude was that of reject of democratic ideals, due to their incompatibility with the Latin Americans:

“It is my greatest desire to see America [Latin America] forming as the greatest nation of the world, because it has the wealth and the mighty spirit of its people. Although I aspire to the perfection of government in my homeland, I cannot convince myself that the New World can be guided as a great republic. Because this is impossible, I do not dare envisage it. The American states [Latin American] need the cure of paternalistic governments, to heal their plagues and wounds caused by despotism and endless wars”90.

The conceptualization of this credo lays in the historical circumstances of acquiring liberty:

“It was not meant for the Venezuelans to enjoy freedom so quickly after they broke the chains. Good, just as evil, brings only death when excessive. Our moral structure is not consistent enough to bear the benefit of an entirely representative government, so sublime it is rather fit for a saints’ republic”91 .

The quintessence of the Bolivarian thesis on democracy and its compatibility with his people lays in the following words: “We must not transform the remnants of our chains in freedom as a deadly weapon. Despotism has impregnated our souls. Our hands are free but our hearts are still in chains”92.

Thus, democracy is seen as suitable only under certain circumstances, and “paternalistic” governments are considered the most suitable only due to the given circumstances of internal turmoil, poverty and decimating wars, not even close to the “Bolivarianism” proposed by Chávez nowadays, which aims at destroying the rich classes seen as “kleptocratic oligarchs”93.

Also, for Bolivar, the “paternalistic” government did not refer only to presidency, but also to monarchy, though considered inadequate. As completely opposed to the contemporary doctrine emanated by Chávez, Bolivar’s ideas derived from the historic “personality” of the people, completely unaccustomed with any form of democratic rule, who needed the protection of a sincere ruler who could “heal their wounds” and exclusively follow the national interests:

“I admire the English monarchy that brought fortune, splendor and happiness to its people; still, we don’t have the virtues necessary neither for popular representation nor monarchy. We must avoid tyranny at all costs. Thus, the most suitable form of government would be the middle way between these two: an elected government for life, to love and protect the people, and also an elected legislative”94.

Bolivar counted on the capacity of his people to unite and stick together under the protective umbrella of a government named for life, who would feel responsible for the fate of the state and never be tempted to commit abuse or be disloyal to the national interests.

For our purposes, proving that Venezuela is a delegative democracy, this understanding of the “historical mission of the leader” and of the “charismatic authority” is essential. Delegative democracy is based on the way the leader is transformed into being the embodiment of the nation and is entrusted with a mission. In the chase of Chávez, this is manifested with quite extensive vigor – Chávez built himself a personal motive and mission, Bolivarianism, that, through delegation from the people, is translated to the Venezuelan state. When analyzing “Chavismo-Bolivarianism”95, the study proved that it is not the same with the original Bolivarian thought that was revered before Chávez, but merely a well-disguised political platform hidden behind the national ethos – meaning, in the context of delegative democracy, that the president is entrusted not only with the nation, but also with the history of the nation, being able to reshape it the way he sees fit.



Our study touched some of the major aspects of delegative democracy – the charismatic nature of the leader, his popular support and his ideology as the basis for the verticalization of society. The case under review, Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, as shown in the paper, has all these characteristics so typical for this skewed form of democracy: Venezuela has a president that is only bound by the mandate given through popular support, without any accountability from other institutions, that considers himself as fully responsible for the country, custodian of national interest, and who internalizes, transforms and reuses national myths (“Bolivarianism”) at his own convenience. With peculiar characteristics, some would say the “brink of authoritarianism”, Venezuela is, nevertheless, a system where regular elections take place, with the media getting the lion’s share in criticizing the government and thus achieving even more power than in a consolidated democracy, since it has become the nucleus of the opposition, and where the rule of law, although completely different from the one of a consolidated democracy, is still respected.

The hypothesis of the paper was to prove the bidirectional nature of delegative democracy. With Venezuela as a case study, considering the universally acknowledged assumption that the pre-Chávez system was a consolidated democracy and taking into account the delegative character of the Chávez administration as exhibited in the study, the hypothesis is thus confirmed: delegative democracy needs not to be a product of an authoritarian regime, but it can shape itself as a transitioning path from a consolidated democracy to a delegative one.

Given the aforementioned fact that delegative democracy works both ways, a new and enticing perspective remains to be deepened for the future: what are the causes that underlie such a transformation? How is it possible for a consolidated democracy to “devolve” to the stage of a delegative system? Perhaps the answer resides in what Guillermo O’Donnell emphasized as a “lack of democratic tradition” that is so characteristic for Latin America.96. However blunt this acknowledgement might seem, its quintessence resides in the pattern of intricacies the social dynamics represent in their shaping of the Latin American politics. The racial and cultural strong ties that are still attached to the Latin American societies have slowly given birth to a different perspective on what order, whether social or political, should mean. Political unrest is the most comprehensive and encompassing expression for characterizing these societies, since their historical development derived from the brutal rupture with their traditional heritage and their shaping by the two most coercive and powerful factors, the Catholic Church and the military.

In the case of Venezuela, it seems that the mirage of half a century of democratic rule was not enough and did not symbolize pretty much for a nation struggling with decimating poverty and historically established social inequalities no regime seemed to be capable to wipe out. The rise of a charismatic leader who promised and succeeded in leading them to the “Promised Land” is perhaps the only valid explanation of why democracy began failing. Further speculations regarding the future of democracy in Venezuela comply in suggesting that democracy would eventually cease to exist and make space for a completely authoritarian regime. Thus, Venezuela is an extreme case of delegative democracy whose peculiarities might successfully pave the way for a future non-democratic regime.




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3 Richard GOTT, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso Books, London, 2005, pp. 121-122.

4 Jennifer L. McCOY, “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No.3, July 1999, pp. 64 – 77.

5 Francisco MONALDI, Rosa Amelia GONZALES, Political Institutions, Policymaking Processes and Policy Outcomes in Venezuela, Research Network Working Paper #R-507, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, 2006, p. 55, .

6 Kurt WEYLAND, “Neopopulism and Neoliberalism in Latin America: How Much Affinity?”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 7, December 2003, p. 1106.

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9 Guillermo O’DONNELL, “Delegative Democracy”, Journal of Democracy, No. 5, January 1994, pp. 55-69.

10 Michael COPPEDGE, “Parties and Society in Mexico and Venezuela: Why Competition Matters”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 25, No. 3, April 1993, pp. 253-274.

11 Michael COPPEDGE, Strong Parties and Lame Ducks: Presidential Partyarchy and Factionalism in Venezuela, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, 1994, pp. 18-136.

12 Angel E. ALVAREZ, “La reforma del Estado antes y despues de Chávez” in: Steve ELLNER, Daniel HELLINGER (eds.), La Politica Venezolana en la Epoca de Chávez, Editorial Nueva Sociedad, Caracas, 2003, pp. 187-208.

13 Patricia MARQUEZ, “Por Que la Gente Voto por Hugo Chávez?” in Steve ELLNER, Daniel HELLINGER (eds.), La Politica Venezolana…cit, pp. 253-272.

14 Michael COPPEDGE, “Venezuela: Popular Sovereignty Versus Liberal Democracy” in: Michael SHIFTER, Jorge J. DOMINGUEZ (eds.), Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America, The Johns Hopkins University Press, New York, 2003, pp. 165-192.

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17 Alfredo RAMOS JIMENEZ, “Partidos y Sistema de Partidos en Venezuela”, in Marcello CAVAROZZI, Juan Abel MEDINA (eds.), El Asedio a la Política…cit., pp. 381-410.

18 Manuel ALCÁNTARA SAÉZ, Sistemas políticos de América Latina. Volumen I América del Sur, Editorial Tecnos, Madrid, 1999, p. 481.

19 Manuel ALCÁNTARA SAÉZ, Sistemas políticos…cit., p. 491.

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23 Teresa A. MEADE, A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present, Wiley Blackwell, Oxford, 2016, p. 326.

24 Robert DAHL, Polyarchy. Participation and Opposition, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1971, pp. 1-17.

25 Juan J. LINZ, Alfred STEPAN, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post-Communist Europe, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, pp. 3-15.

26 Guillermo O’DONNELL, “Delegative …cit.”, pp. 55-69.

27 Robert DAHL, Polyarchy. Participation…cit., pp. 1-17.

28 Guillermo O’DONNELL, “Delegative Democracy…cit.”, pp. 60-62.

29 Guillermo O’DONNELL‚ “Another Institutionalization: Latin America and Elsewhere”, Working Paper #222 – March 1996, The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, 1996, [].

30 Guillermo O’DONNELL, “Delegative Democracy…cit.”, p. 60,

31 Ibidem, p. 61.

32 Ibidem, p. 63.

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34 Ibidem, pp. 6-7.

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36 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics of Hugo Chávez”, Latin American Politics and Society, Vol. 50, No.1, 2008, pp. 91-121.

37 Margaret CANOVAN, “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy”, Political Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1999, pp.2-16.

38 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics…cit.”, p. 94.

39 Ernesto LACLAU, “Populism:What”s in a Name?”, in Francisco PANIZZA (ed.), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy,Verso Books, London, 2005, pp. 32-50.

40 Edward SHILS, The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies, Heinmann, London, 1956, p. 103.

41 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics…cit.”, p. 97.

42 Ibidem, p. 98.

43 Max WEBER, “Politics as a Vocation…cit.”, p.79.

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49 David DE FERRANTI, Francisco FERREIRO, Inequality in Latin America-Breaking With History, World Bank Latin American and Caribbean Studies, The World Bank, Washington D.C, 2004, p. 136.

50 Patricia MARQUEZ, “Por Que la Gente Voto…cit.”, p. 254

51 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente! no. 201…cit.”

52 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!” no. 182…cit.”.

53 Hugo CHÁVEZ, El Golpe Fascista…cit., p. 344.

54 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics…cit.”, p. 99.

55 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!” no. 261, September 3rd 2006,Venezolana de Television, Fuerte Tiuna.

56 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics…cit.”, p. 100.

57 Daniel HELLINGER, “Venezuela…cit.”, p. 468-493.

58 Marta HARNECKER, Hugo Chávez Frias: Un hombre, Un pueblo, Ediciones Plaza, La Habana, 2002, p. 76.

59 Madeleine SOMER, Karin SPIEGER,The Well-Oiled Revolution of Hugo Chávez, VPRO Production Company, The Netherlands, 2006.

60 Barbara WALTERS, ”Interview with Hugo Chávez…cit.”.

61 Tavis SMILEY, ”Interview with Hugo Chávez”, September 22nd 2006, PBS Network, [].

62 Patricia MARQUEZ, “Por Que la Gente Voto…cit.”, p. 254.

63 Alain ROUQUIE, The Military and the State in Latin America, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987, pp.196-281.

64 Ibidem.

65 Margarita LOPEZ MAYA, “Hugo Chávez Frias, Su Movimiento y Presidencia”, in Steve ELLNER, Daniel HELLINGER (editors), “La Politica Venezolana…cit., pp. 97-120.

66 Ibidem, p. 98-101.

67 *** Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Title 1, Fundamental Principles, Article 1.

68 Richard GOTT, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso Books, London, 2005, p. 91.

69 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics…cit.”, p. 113.

70 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “El Golpe Fascista…cit.”, p. 90.

71 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!”, no.1, May 23rd 1999, Venezolana de Television, Caracas.

72 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!”, no. 201, August 22nd 2004,Venezolana de Television, Merida.

73 Ibidem.

74 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!” no. 191, May 9th 2004, Venezolana de Television, Barinas.

75 Jose Pedro ZUQUETE, “The Missionary Politics…cit”, p. 112.

76 Ibidem, p. 114.

77 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!” no. 158, August 10th 2003, Venezolana de Television, Caracas.

78 Elias Pino ITURRIETA, El Divino Bolivar: Ensayo Sobre una Religion Republicana, Los Libros de la Catarata, Madrid, 2003, p. 181.

79 Ibidem, p. 187.

80 Christopher CONWAY, The Cult of Bolivar in Latin American Literature, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, 2003, p. 192.

81 Ibidem.

82 Richard GOTT, Hugo Chávez and the…cit., p. 121.

83 Yolanda SALAS DE LECUNA, Bolivar Y La Historia En La Conciencia Popular, Instituto de los Altos Studios de America Latina, Universidad Simon Bolivar, Caracas, 1987, pp. 48-46

84 Simon BOLIVAR, Discursuri şi proclamaţii, translated by Lucia URICARU, Editura Lider, Bucureşti, 2005, pp. 12-105.

85 Hugo CHÁVEZ, “Alo, Presidente!” no. 201, August 22nd 2004, Venezolana de Television, Merida.

86 Simon BOLIVAR, Discursuri şi proclamaţii…cit., p.14.

87 Ibidem, p. 30.

88 Ibidem.

89 Ibidem, p. 39.

90 Ibidem, p. 40.

91 Ibidem, p. 68.

92 Ibidem, p. 72.

93 Jennifer McCOY, ”From Representative to Participatory Democracy? Regime Transformation in Venezuela” in Jennifer McCOY, David J. MYERS (edt.),The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2004, p. 265.

94 Simon BOLIVAR, Discursuri şi proclamaţii…cit., p. 42.

95 Cristobal VALENCIA RAMIREZ, “Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution: Who Are the Chavistas?”, Latin American Perspectives, Issue 142, Vol. 32, No.3, May 2005, p. 83.

96 Guillermo O”DONNELL, “Delegative Democracy…cit.”, p. 96.