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Feb 20, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Dismantling the middle class

Leopoldo Lopez handing himself in to the police / Reuters

During the last few weeks, conflict has emerged –somewhat unexpectedly– in places like Venezuela and Ukraine. This post recognizes the relevance of Ukraine’s situation right now considering that 100 people died yesterday as a result of violent clashes between the civil society and the government. Nevertheless, given the recent jailing of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, this post will address such a situation.

Protests in Venezuela started after the death of Miss Venezuela, Monica Spears, who was shot along his husband by a band of robbers, while her 5-year-old daughter witnessed their death and was shot in her leg. The policies implemented by the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Manduro’s government, to reduce organized crime appear to be failing. At least in the eyes of the middle class and those left-out of the chavista winning coalition. Some days after her death at the beginning of January, protests sparked but continued incrementally. Opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, led the protests against the government. Some key reasons for these protests have been the lack of product-availability such as toilette paper, increased crime, increased crime-rate, measures against businesses, human rights abuses and the diminishing support to Maduro by former chavista supporters. Allegedly, military (the National Guard and the National Bolivarian Police) and paramilitary groups (colectivos) have been deployed by the government in order to crackdown protests. Fairly or unfairly, this has further victimized the opposition coalition and, perhaps, has caused them to gain supporters. Other measures have been canceling the Colombian news channel NTN24, for disseminating their ‘right-winged’ opinions.

Leopoldo Lopez, currently the main opposition leader was accused by Maduro’s government of having incited violence against it and called his arrest. On February 19, Lopez declared that he would hand himself to the government and encouraged his supporters to manifest peacefully. In a peaceful rally before giving himself to justice, he was followed by 5,000 people. Lopez had been originally charged with arson and conspiracy but just today Venezuelan prosecutors dropped some of the most serious charges. Although it was said that he could potentially face 10 years in prison because of this, such change of mind could lead to reduced sanctions. Since last week’s protests, there have been 6 deaths, 138 were hurt just yesterday in demonstrations, people made noise on the streets by hitting pans in the midst of violence (as a sign of peaceful dissent), and the protests had finally extended to up to 11 out of the 23 states.

Although the role of the international community has been kept at a low key –except for the U.S., there have already been declarations regarding the situation. The U.N. High Commission and the E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs have condemned the violence. Secretary General of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, called upon the government to avoid using force and stressed the importance of respecting freedom of expression and the media. Clearly, the United States was the loudest voice in this conflict calling for dialogue, just after 3 of its Embassy members had been declared as ‘persona non-grata’ and were expelled from the country.

Calculating the number of chavista supporters as well as opposition is not possible at the moment. Yet, we can assert that the number of protestors is unusually high. They can be thought of as the middle class and the lower-class groups that have been either excluded or unhappy with Maduro’s policies. Perhaps former chavistas rationale is now thinking about their long-term well-being, given the high crime rates. What good is it to decrease poverty through cash transfers if organized crime continues to steal that loosely allocated, additional money? The truth is that Venezuela is now in the spot. Its crime rate is one of the highest in the world –79 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, which is in the 4th most violent country in the world after Honduras, El Salvador and Ivory Coast as per the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Today, Henrique Capriles, former presidential frontrunner for the 2013 elections, has re-emerged as a possible opposition leader. Yes, he had previously disappointed his followers by having shaken hands with Maduro. Yet, what other leadership options does the opposition have? Corina Machado could be a potential leader yet she is a female and is seen as pro-U.S., which can prevent her from becoming one. Even if Capriles does not have the Harvard MPP and Economics degree that Lopez has, he has always keenly called for pacific protests. Can Capriles lead the middle class and other segregate groups? To what extent can the government continue implementing policies to disband the middle class? Let’s just recall that countries with strong democracies are typically those that foment a strong middle class. If Venezuela’s government has alienated the middle and now the poor sectors, it does not seem likely that a long-term government coalition could hold. The only feasible way out of the crisis for Maduro’s government is dialogue.

Feb 4, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Elections in El Salvador. “May truce set us free”

Elections in El Salvador / Source: TelesurTV

Elections in El Salvador / Source: TelesurTV

Much has been written about the necessary and sufficient conditions for democracy to burgeon. Yet, is democracy able to flourish after a recent and very deadly civil war? Despite having signed the Chapultepec Peace Agreements in 1992, remnants of the Salvadoran bloody strife can be traced until today. In El Salvador, the core ideologies and groups that once fought to dead are today competing politically for the presidency. In addition, these two groups now co-exist with a third centrist political party as well as with bloody gangs that have made El Salvador the second deadliest country in the world, after Honduras. (There were 70 homicides per 100,000 habitants before the “truce.”) Perhaps and more important is to recognize the relevance of trust in developing democracies. Oftentimes, trust emerges when the democratic rules of the game are respected knowing that the loser will have a future opportunity. It also surfaces after having reconciled opposing views. The current truce between the gangs and the government, along with seemingly fair elections, are two conditions that could help to lay the tenets for greater democratization.

The first round of elections took place this Sunday February 2. In a preliminary account, the representative of OAS’s Electoral Observation Mission, Gustavo Fernandez, indicated that elections were being held under peaceful conditions and that there were no indications of fraud. FMLN’s candidate, former guerrilla commander Salvador Sanchez, obtained 49% of the votes. ARENA’s candidate, San Salvador’s major Norman Quijano, obtained a total of 39% of votes. With the law requiring at least 50% of total votes to declare a winner during the first round, presidential elections must undergo a second round of votes to take place on March 9. An astounding number of electoral observers attended the first round: a total of 4,418 observers were accredited, from which 1,830 were foreign observers, for a country with only 6.1 million people. Some other international delegations include the European Union, the Inter-American Union of Electoral Bodies, among others.

Current political competition reflects the struggles of the past. The FMLN was once a guerrilla that transformed into a political party after the 1992 peace accords. It is a left-winged party and today holds executive power under President Mauricio Funes. FMLN has typically been concerned with social policies such as ensuring that children stay in school. Under the guerrilla guise, it fought the once incumbent party ARENA as well as the dead squads the party had created to counter opposition. FMLN performed insurgency attacks on the military that ultimately caused numerous killings. ARENA, a right-wing party that prioritizes national security, did not go without stains either. Fearing the increased influence of the FMLN, ARENA engaged in mass disappearances, civilian killings and voters were coerced so as to influence elections. As mentioned before, when incumbent, ARENA created dead squads that had allegedly killed the influential Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest and human rights advocate. In today’s political scenery, these two forces prevail. Yet, a third political force has risen. The Unity party (Unidad) was created by the former President Tony Saca but whose ostensible charges of corruption appear to have diminished his public support. A fourth and unclear force is that of the transnational gangs. As non-state actors, it is difficult to uncover their level of political influence at the local and national levels. Clearly, democracy promotion may be challenged by the interplay of all these forces particularly if negative social capital (violence) wins over positive social capital (democracy).

The current situation displays a stalemate. While levels of poverty are strikingly high (34.5% of the population is considered to be living under extreme poverty threshold), the truce between the government and gangs has reduced homicides by half – down from 70 to 35 homicides per 100,000 habitants. More importantly, remnants of negative behavior endure as some Salvadorans who once fought the military now find “boring” the fact that they are no longer pursued by the army. But how long may this promising truce last? The history of El Salvador is peppered with truces and gridlocks. Let’s just hope that, for once, this truce is the beginning of a more meaningful reconciliation.

Certainly, no democracy can be manifest unless its members ensue in peaceful dialogue and that the most representative members of society are politically included. El Salvador needs to further include the poor in public policies. Moreover and despite resistance from some in the international community, it needs to continue dialogue with gang members. Continued dialogue and delivering promises like today can create trust between the parties involved –the government and the gangs. Hence, creating positive social capital. Gangs are so powerful that the government seems unable to control by coercion. El Salvador now has a valuable opportunity to forgive, yet not forget, and give democracy another try.

Jan 30, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Dreamed Olive Branch

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Negotiations to achieve peace in Syria are resuming now in Geneva’s UN headquarters, after a brief start in Montreux, Switzerland. United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, indicated that the ice between the government and the opposition is slowly breaking. Negotiations started with venting feelings and pro and anti-regime journalists pointing fingers towards each other. In order to find a solution to any conflict, oftentimes feelings need to be aired out. However, it is not clear whether both sides will listen to each other in Syria’s case. Particularly when other interested parties that have the power to solve the conflict are not present. Such is Syria’s current state of affairs. Peace negotiations seemingly not including key parties are taking place amidst new revelations that the regime has purposely demolished thousands of homes of families supporting the opposition. Another key indicator complicating the peace talks is the unfortunate delay by the Syrian government in surrendering its chemical weapons materials.

First, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2118, al-Assad’s government has not complied with the first deadline to surrender the “priority one” target of chemical weapons of December 31, 2013. Additionally, Reuters indicated that sources close to the regime report that the regime has no intention of meeting the “priority two” deadline for the February 5 delivery. Accordingly, the main reason for this delay are security concerns and the need for ‘additional’ equipment such as containers. At the negotiations table in Geneva, the Syrian regime has been accused by the opposition journalist Ahmed Zakaria in using, allegedly, food aid delivery as a bargaining tool. If this is so, then such a bargaining tool would contradict the UN SC resolution where the international community demanded that humanitarian aid be provided with no qualms. However, the frankness on the weapons delay appears to be questionable when looking at the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) recent report on Syria.

In its report, HRW reveals seven large-scale demolitions that took place between July 2012 and July 2013. It also provides satellite images where the demolitions took place. The report also mentions that such destructions took place in neighborhoods that had supported the opposition. A total of, at least, 145 hectares were destroyed which are comparable to “200 football pitches.” With this, credibility of the al-Assad regime by global civil society and several members of the international community, albeit secretly, is under suspicion. Yet, is it the al-Assad regime the only one to blame? Quite honestly, we must look deeper down the rabbit hole so as to perceive a clearer picture.

Syria’s conflict is not only run by the government and the opposition. The government’s weakening has created a power vacuum that non-state actors have taken advantage of. In an article, the New York Times mentions that President al-Assad’s government does no longer hold control of its oil and gas resources. Rather, two splinter groups from Al Qaeda are the ones holding power over these resources and even selling them to the al-Assad government. These groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. The opposition has been accusing the government for working with these radical groups and protecting them. Some experts also indicate that the Syrian government has been relying on regional oil imports from Iran and Iraq. Perhaps, it is in the government’s best interest to keep this armed and rebel groups on their side, in case they need their help to fight the opposition. Moreover, perhaps one of the reasons against intervening in Syria is that, if Bashar al-Assad’s government were to lose power, then Al Qaeda related cells could take over the state.

Other opposition groups are seemingly not present in the table. Pablo Estrada’s previous post mentions the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Committee and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It is highly likely that the parties sitting on the negotiations table are the softliners in the government and in the opposition. In this regard, we should first question what is the role of these former Al Qaeda cells and how are they preventing the conflict from being solved. Are they influencing the government from abstaining from offering the olive branch? If so, to what extent is their influence? This could be key. In every negotiation, softliners are the ones sitting on the table. However, what happens when we realize that we may be missing key decision makers (in this case, non-state actors)? Then, we are clearly avoiding to advance democracy and preventing any possible progress in any political transition. Indeed, some may say that it is unethical to deal with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda because it would imply their recognition and giving them unnecessary attention. Yet, in order to reach peace, some degree of empathy must be shown by listening to our greatest enemy.

Jan 27, 2014
Jonathan Evans

Call for Papers

Democracy & Society Vol. 11, Issue 2 (Spring-Summer 2014)

Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society is seeking well-written, interesting submissions of 1,500 – 2,000 words for their Spring 2014 publication Democracy & Society. Covering the themes below, the submissions can be new publications, summaries, excerpts of recently completed research, and works in progress. Submissions for this issue will be due on March 16, 2014. Please email all submissions along with a brief author’s bio to

Ten Years of CDACS: The State of Democracy and Democracy Studies

2014 is a watershed year for both the Center for Democracy and Civil Society (CDACS) and the study of democracy. On the one hand CDACS celebrates its 10th year anniversary. On the other hand it is now 40 years since the Carnation Revolution and the beginning of the Third Wave of democratization. This issue of Democracy and Governance invites scholars, practitioners, and students to share analysis, advice, and lessons-learned about the state of democracy and democracy studies. What have we learned about democracy and governance over the past 40 years? What has surprised us and what lessons were possibly missed? What new puzzles do scholars of democracy still need to address and what analytical tools might they use?

We are seeking articles that address the following issues and questions:

The Global State of Democracy: There is growing consensus that the past decade has not been conductive toward democratic reform. Indeed, in recent years we hear more of democratic backsliding, crises of governance, and the rise of electoral authoritarianism. Is this an accurate assessment of the state of democracy or is it premature to lament the global spread of democracy? What factors are impacting democratic and non-democratic trajectories at a global level?

New Insights into Democratization Theory: Theories of democratization have evolved since the Third Wave, concurrent with new empirical evidence from the former Soviet Union, Sub Saharan Africa, and more recently the Middle East. How have scholars adjusted their understanding of the factors contributing to electoral transitions and democratization? What cases have helped shed new light on theories of democratization and how?

The Promotion of Democracy and Governance: The field of democracy promotion has undergone fundamental changes since the Third Wave. What lessons have practitioners of democracy learned from their experiences on the ground, and which of these lessons have been internalized by democracy promotion organizations (and which have not)? How has the field of democracy and governance promotion addressed the changing international landscape, especially as foreign aid becomes a less effective tool?

Teaching Democracy and Governance: Teaching democracy and governance at the graduate level is a recent development, and CDACS’s M.A. in Democracy and Governance is one of only a handful of programs dedicated to these themes. Are current educational efforts (offered by universities and professional organizations) adequately preparing students for the contemporary challenges of democracy and governance promotion, as well as for the professional demands of the field? What forms of training and education have proven effective and which are missing form current educational offerings?

Please visit for further details on this call for papers.

Jan 27, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Power of the Many

Protests in Ukrain / APF

Protests in Ukrain / APF

Recent protests in Ukraine can be thought of as objections against reversing the victories gained during the Orange Revolution. Recent decisions adopted by President Yanukovych such holding back from increasing interconnectedness with the European Union, are one of the causes that sparkled demonstrations. These protests seem to be greater in number and in indignation degree than those of the Orange Revolution. Yet, how can the power of the many counterbalance the power of the most powerful (oligarchs) if the former holds a grip on decision-making?

In November 2013, Ukraine and the EU were about to sign a comprehensive trade and association agreement that would help embark Ukraine in europeanization. It would also require releasing from jail former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had contended with current President Viktor Yuschenko for the 2010 presidential elections. Yakunovych confessed to Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite that the reason he had not signed the treaty was due to Russia’s threat in blocking Ukranian imports. When earlier this month, the government overused its coercion power for silencing demonstrations, a greater number of people poured to the streets and, hence, protests became more strident.

Nevertheless, these en masse protests do not only derive from the unwillingness to sign the accord. They represent the discontent against reversing Ukraine’s hope for democracy and, thus, better living standards for all. After his election, Yakunovych reversed the democratic gains of the Orange Revolution by curtailing the parliament’s power. The parliament was no longer able to influence policies of the executive branch by nominating the Prime Minister but it was now the President responsible for this. These protests are about Ukrainians calling for change. One evidence of this is that the two main figures in the opposition have refused to accept the President’s proposals that offered them two cabinet positions in exchange for ending the protests. In addition, the President also offered to review the Constitution that could possibly constrain presidential powers. However, the propositions do not suggest having new presidential elections nor do they seek to abrogate the new laws constricting freedom of protest.

But ‘feeling afraid’ for losing trade benefits with Russia seems to be just a veneer covering the interests of the rich and wealthy. During the last few years, the President’s party “Party of Regions” developed strong connections with Russia. Yanukovych also appears to be defending the Russian card since numerous members of his political and business allies have strong linkages with Russia. Despite the denunciations of slashing freedom of expression, other features about Ukranian democracy stand out. During the 2004 election, Yakunovych’s campaign members were accused of having committed fraud and other electoral malpractices. If Yakunovych left such a terrible precedent, then why was he voted in 2010? Perhaps there was more money to buy expensive allies.

Oftentimes, democracy comes about through the power of the people on the streets. Leaders come to power if the strongest and best organized coalition backs them and win. While waiting for election results, we democrats hope that the wining –and best organized– coalition is the one that is truly committed to advancing democracy. In the case of Ukraine, the power of the people is there. Hopefully, the power of the pro-EU allies is stronger than that Russian allies. If Yakunovych and his clique were left to determine the kind of institutions that govern Ukraine, the effect would be devastating. It could be even more devastating if the oligarchs were to extract as much as possible in the least possible amount of time if they perceive that their reign is about to fade. The country would be, unfortunately, drained of democracy and hope.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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