International human rights advocates have assumed that regional organizations are apt to keep populist regimes under control. Sometimes, this is true.76 Yet, the Venezuelan experience demonstrates that this assumption is not always correct. For example, actions taken by both the IACHR and the IACtHR proved unable to prevent and stop human rights abuses conducted by the Chavista regime. This final Section of this Article will advance some explanations of the options adopted by both the IACHR and the IACtHR when dealing with el Comandante Chávez.
I. Preventing populism: the question of consent, incentives for early supervision, and uncertainty
Both the IACHR and the IACtHR did not foresee—or, perhaps, they did not want to anticipate—what was likely to happen in Venezuela after 1999. Because of that, they reacted against Chávez too late. As noted above, the IACHR did not publish its first country report on Venezuela until 2003. Similarly, the first decision of the IACtHR condemning actions conducted by the regime against the opposition was not issued until 2005. Accordingly, both institutions failed to act against Chávez until his position in Venezuela was too strong to be weakened by criticism from abroad.
The overarching question is why both the IACHR and the IACtHR adopted such an approach to Chávez during the period between 1999 and 2002. It is relatively easy for anyone who evaluates this situation to censure what these supervisory bodies did in this regard. Yet, the IACHR and IACtHR do not deserve excessive blame. Indeed, the institutional design of the Inter-American system itself discouraged the Commission and the Court from choosing a more active path to confront Chávez. After Chávez accessed power by democratic means in Venezuela, both the IACHR and the IACtHR were surely faced with considering what to do afterwards. They could have decided to remain inactive. Nonetheless, these institutions made a different choice. Instead, both the IACHR and the IACtHR had to choose the level of scrutiny they would apply to the regime while striking a fair balance between the costs and gains involved in any potential option. Therefore, in deciding on such a level of scrutiny, both the IACHR and the IACtHR probably pondered: (a) The need to deter a populist regime that was likely to abuse minority rights in the future; and (b) the necessity for regional institutions to maximize their own supervisory powers over states. In doing so, they had to bear in mind that the latter consideration depended critically on the consent of the State that would be checked.
This analysis was particularly accurate in the context of the Inter-American system of human rights protection. According to Article 33 of the American Convention on Human Rights, both the IACHR and IACtHR “have competence with respect to matters relating to the fulfillment of the commitments made by the States Parties to… [the] Convention.” Still, these institutions can supervise state compliance only under the agreement of the state parties to the Convention. In this respect, ratification of the Convention by states automatically empowers the IACHR to receive petitions made by individuals against their own states. Yet, Article 62.1 of the treaty requires additional consent from the states for the IACtHR to have jurisdiction over States Parties to the Convention. Therefore, the supervision developed by both the IACHR and the IACtHR depends on the consent of the very same States that are supervised by the two institutions.
The Venezuelan experience suggests that the issue of state consent has the potential to discourage regional human rights bodies from effectively checking populists after they take power. Indeed, both the IACHR and the IACtHR probably reacted timidly when Chávez gained power in order to prevent political costs for the Inter-American system. Withdrawal of state consent might have created a backlash that would eventually threaten the very existence of this regional arrangement. A domino effect of other states could have also endangered the existence of the system as a whole. Certainly, this was a cost that both the IACHR and the IACtHR were unlikely to accept.
Another factor probably considered by the regional human rights institutions of the Americas when deciding what approach to adopt to Chávez was the perception of states about the legitimacy and utility of the system.77 When a system is not seen as completely legitimate by the states—or states perceive that the system renders benefits that are not relevant to them—it is more likely for regional institutions to adopt a more deferential approach to populist authorities during the first years of their regime. This to prevent an exit whose cost for the state might be lower considering the overall context. In contrast, a different attitude is likely to be assumed by regional organizations that belong to systems whose legitimacy is beyond doubt, or to systems that are overall profitable for states. In this scenario, regional institutions may conclude that the exit cost for the new populist authorities is so high that they will surely accept the costs represented by stricter supervision from abroad.
Finally, it is reasonable to assume that both the IACHR and the IACtHR, when pondering what to do during the initial stages of the Chavista regime, considered the issue of uncertainty. Regional institutions, although conscious about the populistic character of a regime, may be ignorant of what is going to happen in the future. There is a relevant probability that the regime will harass minority rights. Nonetheless, there is also a possibility that the regime, for different reasons, may act benignly to its citizens. In this context, and considering the potential costs associated with early scrutiny, regional institutions are likely to prefer a more deferential approach to supervision, at least during the first years of the populist regime.
This framework permits us to better understand why both the IACHR and the IACtHR adopted a deferential approach to Chávez during the first years of his regime. Both institutions assumed that stricter scrutiny on the regime would have induced Chávez to withdraw his consent to regional supervision. In turn, this decision would have likely led other states to react in the same way in a show of support for Venezuela. This represented an intolerable cost for regional institutions, whose jurisdiction had been under risk in such a context. Therefore, both the IACHR and the IACtHR decided to adopt a deferential policy to Chávez during the first years of his regime. By so doing, they sought to optimize, on the one side, the need to preserve their powers of supervision and, on the other side, the necessity to keep Venezuela under regional control.
Early decisions adopted by regional institutions when dealing with populism may produce impacts beyond what the institutions expected or desired. For instance, the strategy developed by both the IACHR and the IACtHR to supervise Chávez during the period between 1999 and 2002 had different side effects, some of which were more salutary than others.
First, by avoiding an initial condemnation for the regime, the IACHR not only prevented Venezuela from withdrawing its consent and averted a generalized backlash between States and the Commission. The IACHR’s strategy also attracted Chávez’s support for the system as a sort of side effect. Chávez’s visit to the headquarters of the Commission in 1999 illustrates this achievement. Additionally, the Caracazo decision made by the IACtHR in 1999 reinforced Chávez’s conviction to support regional supervision.
Second, another side effect regarded the position of Chávez himself. In effect, due to the deferential line of action developed by both the IACHR and the IACtHR between 1999 and 2002, the position of Chávez within and outside Venezuela became stronger. Chávez perceived regional supervision as not harmful enough because both the IACHR and the IACtHR did not criticize him during those years. Additionally, what these institutions did at that time was perceived as politically beneficial by Chavez. This because the IACtHR condemned Venezuela due to measures adopted by administrations to which Chávez had been opposed in the past. In these two cases, regional supervision became very useful for Chávez during his early years in power. Because of the cautious attitude taken by both the IACHR and the IACtHR, these regional institutions contributed in part to an early legitimization of Chávez’s position in front of the international community, and, vis-à-vis, his political opposition within Venezuela. Evidently, this approach contributed to fortify populist rule over the Venezuelans from 1999 to 2002. This happened even though regional institutions never intended such.
In conclusion, both the IACHR and the IACtHR, when dealing with the recently elected President Chávez, had strong reasons for adopting a more deferential approach in reviewing his populist policies.
II. Remedying the evils: the friend and foe dynamics of populism
As illustrated above, the deferential strategy deployed by both the IACHR and the IACtHR in checking the Chávez regime between 1999 and 2002 was due to constraints implicit in the normative framework of the Inter-American system of human rights protections. We now move on to considering the dynamics of regional supervision over Venezuela since Chávez consolidated his position of power within Venezuela in 2003.
Once Chávez defeated the 2002 coup d’état, his populist path to dictatorship became crystal clear to both the IACHR and the IACtHR. As discussed above, the IACHR responded by publishing a complete country report in 2003, denouncing the multiple human rights abuses committed by the regime. New reports were published in 2009 and 2017. Moreover, the IACtHR decided a series of cases condemning the Chavista regime since 2005. In other words: When human rights institutions of the Americas realized the populist and authoritarian purposes of the actions implemented by el Comandante Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, they increased their level of scrutiny on him.
Yet, despite all of the efforts deployed by both the IACHR and the IACtHR, this story did not have a happy ending. The regime, now under the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro, never modified Chávez’s policies, putting Venezuela at the edge of the abyss. Furthermore, Chávez announced in 2012 his decision to denunciate the American Convention on Human Rights. In sum, all attempts to restrain populist rule in Venezuela were ultimately impotent to end the abusive policies of the regime. This panorama is even more desolating when considering the fact that regional supervision over the Latin American region is much more limited today than in it was in 2003.
The question that emerges is why all efforts deployed by regional institutions since 2003 were unable to reshape the policies of the Chavista regime. A possible response to this inquiry has to do with an unexpected side effect produced by the intensification of regional supervision of Chávez after he gained full control over Venezuela.
Paradoxically, this intense supervision implemented by both the IACHR and the IACtHR to keep the solidly placed Chavista regime under control ultimately reinforced the populist rule in Venezuela. This undesired effect of regional supervision originated as a result of the perverse dynamics of populism. In effect, the criticism conducted by both the IACHR and the IACtHR allowed Chávez to deploy his populist strategy of friend and foe. By so doing, Chávez reinforced his rule over the country by galvanizing his supporters against a single enemy: Foreign institutions. In this scenario, both the IACHR and the IACtHR became an easy target for Chavistas, due to the issue of state consent.
In general terms, once regional institutions increase the intensity of supervision, the possibility is opened for populist authorities to react by initiating a political battle against those institutions. Because this battle will allow populists to reunite around a single leader to confront a new and common enemy, populism will possibly become stronger. This renewed strength may reinforce populist rule in the medium and long term.
Additionally, regional institutions, such as the IACHR and the IACtHR, represent an easy target for populisms. States have the key that opens the door to supervision. If states do not want to be supervised by foreign institutions, they can either refuse to give consent or withdraw its consent after being given. In these two scenarios, regional institutions become impotent to check populist authorities from abroad. This ends the game. From this perspective, populists may well consider regional institutions as easy targets to defeat. Furthermore, attacking regional institutions offers to populist rhetoric the opportunity to develop a nationalistic discourse, which is likely to be well received by the masses that are manipulated by such toxic forms of leadership. In this context, it is not rare for populists to actively engage in struggles against regional institutions. In effect, populist leaders see an opportunity to strengthen their rule when they are faced with an enemy that they will likely defeat after some struggle.
A final factor to consider is that meaningful reaction against regional institutions is likely to emerge when populist authorities have already secured their power over the nation. Campaigning against regional institutions is not cost free. In practice, populist leaders assume that this struggle will produce political costs for themselves, particularly in the short term. The international community is likely to isolate these leaders because of their virulent criticism against these human rights organizations. Additionally, this campaign is likely to encourage domestic opposition and demonstration of the regime’s abuses. Because of these potential costs involved, populists react against regional supervision only after they have become stronger internally. By so doing, populist leaders reduce potential costs involved in attacking regional institutions. In turn, by reducing these costs, populists enjoy a greater chance of success. In this scenario, the benefits brought by conflict will exceed the political costs.
This explains why populists’ first reaction against regional institutions can be timid. As they lack sufficient popular support, they prefer to wait. In this initial context, political costs that come from aggressive action against regional institutions are possibly too high for the populist to tolerate. Nonetheless, this sort of inaction does not represent a problem for the populist leader. Because regional institutions are likely to act in an extremely cautious manner toward populist authorities during the first stages of their regimes, there is no real incentive for these leaders to begin a battle against foreign supervision. Only later—when regional institutions start really playing their role of watchdogs—do populists have real incentives to struggle against them.
Consider what happens with regional human rights institutions when they start to seriously criticize populists who are in full control of the state apparatus. In this situation, populist leaders may respond to the criticism by challenging the legitimacy of the regional system. This can focus on the supranational bodies’ lack of political impartiality, their sociological bias, or simply the cultural imperialism that supposedly exists behind them. Usually, this criticism is presented by an extremely virulent rhetoric against regional institutions. Populist leaders may also victimize themselves in front of their supporters, presenting a well-planned strategy developed from abroad whose only purpose is to destabilize the country. Moreover, populist leaders can appeal to the dignity of national sovereignty in very nationalistic terms.
The impact of these actions within the domestic sphere creates a sense of social struggle that is apt to mobilize populist majorities and unite themselves against the new enemy under one leadership. It is precisely this circumstance that makes populism stronger when reacting against international supervision. By adopting this strategy, populist leaders galvanize their supporters and demonstrate their own authority over the people. This allows populism to exhibit its powerful cohesiveness to both the international community and the domestic opposition. After this, populist rule within the country looks more consolidated than ever.
Sometimes, this strategy goes beyond the national sphere, expanding the struggle beyond national borders by forming alliances with other states party to the regional system. By so doing, the leader seeks to undermine either the legitimacy of the system, its workability, or both. Populist leaders may deploy this strategy when they perceive support from other states that follow the same political line. This can also evidence the populist’s leadership in the region. In this respect, intense regional supervision not only contributes to making the position of the populist leader stronger within the country, but it also may contribute to: (a) Reinforcing the leadership of the populist ruler in the region; and (b) developing continental opposition to the system of regional supervision.
Another relevant factor that populists probably consider is how non-populist states are likely to respond to their move against the system of regional supervision. If the populist leader believes that his strategy of aggression will not cause other states to act individually or collectively against him, it is easier for him to decide to act against regional institutions. In this regard, lack of likely responses from non-populist states will likely exacerbate the situation.
This strategy of tension developed by the populist leader will likely end when the benefits reported to the ruler of sustaining this struggle are quickly decreasing. This may happen when the struggle has lost its novelty and the need to seek a different enemy is perceived as a priority. In this context, the inexistence of profits and the potential costs associated with inaction demands new enemies and new fights. This may also occur when the international strategy developed by the populists fails and states party to the system react in a way that unexpectedly increases the political costs to the populist leader. Finally, this situation may also take place when the conflict becomes irrelevant for regional institutions, which then discourages the populist regime from continuing in its action against the regional institutions.
In those cases, the conflict may finish when the populist leader abandons the struggle by performing a symbolic action that reaffirms his final victory. The populist leader simply withdraws the consent of the state authorizing further regional supervision, after convincing national majorities about how unjust and partial supranational organizations are. When this happens, the leader must then look for other conflicts to keep social tension in his favor.
This thesis may partially explain why the results of the efforts deployed by both the IACHR and the IACtHR against the Chávez regime were not those that the institutions expected. In effect, instead of preventing the regime from abusing human rights, supervision conducted by both the IACHR and the IACtHR encouraged populism to mobilize their supporters in favor of Hugo Chávez. In this regard, Chávez knew that by fighting those institutions, he was invigorating his internal front in Venezuela. Even more, in doing so, he also reinforced his role as a continental leader. In this respect, a well-intentioned strategy developed by Inter-American institutions of human rights became self-defeating.
The pattern of facts is similar to that described above. By initiating this fight against regional supervision, Chávez created a political conflict that permitted him to energize his supporters around his leadership.78 In fact, he presented himself to the people as someone who was fighting for the dignity of Venezuela abroad. In this struggle against regional institutions, Chávez employed an extremely virulent rhetoric. This allowed him to catch the attention of all Venezuelans, who received explanations in a language that, despite or because of its aggression, was clear and direct. Indeed, in a speech from February 2010, Chávez called the IACHR “ignominious,” “disastrous,” and “a true mafia.” He also referred to Santiago Cantón, his former Executive Secretary, as “an Executive excrement, a pure one.” Finally, he referred to the 2009 country report on Venezuela as “garbage.”79 Furthermore, when Chávez denounced the American Convention on Human Rights in July 2012, he said that the IACtHR was “ineffable” and “unworthy of being a human rights tribunal.”80
By using these strong and even disrespectful statements, Chávez consciously contributed to creating the atmosphere of social tension required to mobilize his supporters around him. This made his position stronger within Venezuela. Additionally, Chávez began an intense international campaign supported by his continental allies: ALBA States—such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. This campaign purported to deprive both the IACHR and the IACtHR from their authority and their funding.81 Because of that, the system almost collapsed in 2016 due to a lack of financial resources. In turn, this allowed Chávez to assume a new regional leadership.
Nonetheless, the struggle had to end. There were a series of country reports and court decisions made against Venezuela, which resonated even far away from the Latin American continent. In this context, political costs became more visible for Chávez both inside and outside the country. Consequently, the benefits of his policy of aggression against regional institutions began to decrease. Due to this, Chávez decided to finish the dispute with the IACHR and the IACtHR by finally denouncing the American Convention on Human Rights in 2012. Yet, the system is still supervising Venezuela by deciding cases presented to the system before 2012. This has allowed Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, to repeat the strategy developed by el Comandante, following almost the same violent rhetoric employed by his predecessor.82
Chávez sought to escalate the conflict against regional institutions not only defend him from the multiple accusations made by both the IACHR and the IACtHR, but also to capitalize on an opportunity to reinforce his leadership within Venezuela and the surrounding region. This situation represents a true paradox. Tragically, by increasing their level of supervision, both the IACHR and the IACtHR contributed to reinforcing Chávez’s rule in Venezuela. Of course, this does not mean that regional institutions of the Inter-American system pursued this objective. On the contrary, with more or less intensity, both the IACHR and the IACtHR always confronted the Chavista regime with the sole purpose of stopping human rights abuses in Bolívar’s motherland. In so doing, these institutions assumed, and continue to assume, many political and financial costs.
The reason why increased supervision from abroad unexpectedly reinforced the rule of Chávez over Venezuela had to do with the internal—and perverse—dynamics of populism. Because populist regimes survive thanks to political and social conflicts animated by their leaders, regional supervision encouraged Chávez not to change his own dictatorial path. On the contrary, criticisms led him to massively confront both the IACHR and the IACtHR. Keeping this conflict alive permitted Chávez to solidify his position in Venezuela. This was because the political benefits perceived by el Comandante were far more than the costs he had to assume. Later, when Chávez exhausted all benefits derived from this conflict, he exited the system to prevent the potential costs that would likely come in the short term.