Democracy Lab

Venezuela's Middle Ground

Critics charge that Venezuela's anti-government protesters almost exclusively represent the middle class. The reality is more complicated -- and revealing.

One of the most commonly heard criticisms of the cycle of student protests that erupted in Venezuela in February 2014 is that they draw too lopsidedly from the "middle class." In the words of the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, protesters have received "no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods."

The claim that the protesters are "too middle class" implies a double criticism. The first is about values: The protesters are imputed to be embracing values that are somewhat elitist, or at least, unpopular among the bulk of Venezuelans, the so-called popular classes. The second is about politics: The protesters have failed to expand their political coalition. They remain circumscribed to a mere quarter of the population.

These criticisms deserve closer scrutiny. Venezuela has been classified as an "upper middle-income" country for decades. Furthermore, the government claims that the country has seen an expansion in the size of the middle class since 2004. In that case, observing that the protests are too middle class seems unworthy of note: What else would one expect from such a country? If there were going to be discontent, especially about governance issues, it would come from the middle classes.

Data based on official figures certainly shows that the middle classes have expanded since the early 2000s, though less dramatically than the government typically claims. Chart 1, below, shows the distribution of classes in Venezuela, broken down into five categories: poor, low middle classes, middle classes, upper middle classes, and rich, following World Bank definitions. As it shows, the distribution of classes today is very different than it was prior to 2006. The most vulnerable income classes -- the poor and the low middle classes (yellow and green cells) -- now comprise a much smaller sector of the population. (For more information on how this chart was created, please see the appendix.)

The distribution of classes today is distinct from that of previous years in which Venezuela experienced explosions of social unrest. In 1990, for instance, the year after the start of violent anti-government protests that took the lives of dozens, approximately 40 percent of Venezuelans fell in the vulnerable categories (mostly poor). As would be expected, in 1989, the majority of protesters came from low-income groups -- that was a sizeable segment of the population back then. In 2001-2002, the period of heaviest unrest under President Hugo Chávez, the vulnerable population still represented between 40 and 50 percent of Venezuelan society.

But by 2012, the proportion of poor was smaller: only one decile.  Two formerly poor deciles, on average, had entered the lower middle class. One could argue that the size of the middle might have shrunk since 2012 due to the severe deterioration of the economy since 2012. But even assuming the worst economic conditions for 2013-2014, the distribution of classes in Venezuela today would not look as dismal as in the pre-2007 period.

Not everyone, of course, agrees that the middle classes have thrived in Venezuela. In fact, the expansion of the middle classes occurred during only the 2004-2006 period. Despite the continuation of the oil boom, progress in poverty reduction and middle class expansion stagnated in 2007-2012, ironically during the heyday of chavismo. And despite its mostly middle-income status, the quality of life in Venezuela is dismal due to governance failures: inflation, scarcity, crime, infrastructure dilapidation, and overall poor public sector services. A new index of "social progress," which ranks countries according to development outcomes across social, health, and environmental factors, shows that Venezuela falls well below what you would expect given its GDP per capita.

Yet even those who contend that the official rhetoric on poverty reduction is hyperbolic and official figures opaque must still recognize that, by world standards, Venezuela is a nation of mostly middle-class people.

And in displaying middle-class-led protests, Venezuela is actually not alone. Middle classes have expanded in most middle-income countries of the developing world since 2003. That is one reason that the major protests of the last five years -- in Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine -- have been led by middle classes. When governments falter on questions of governance and political representation, as the Venezuelan government has, the middle classes are prone to take note and take to the streets.

Furthermore, there are important factors in Venezuela depressing the incidence of protests in poor sectors. Under the ruling party's populist model, the state has a comparative advantage in establishing links of economic dependence with individuals in vulnerable income categories. The state provides most economic goods in those neighborhoods, while simultaneously undermining the private sector's ability to provide jobs (through anti-business regulations) and affordable retail products (by creating inflation). More, perhaps, than in other countries, Venezuela's vulnerable segments cannot afford dissent.

And Venezuela isn't just a populist state -- it's also a "Big Brother" state. Organized groups with direct links to the ruling party -- either in the form of communal councils or paramilitary colectivos -- permeate low-income neighborhoods. One of the jobs of these quasi-statist groups is to watch and punish politically incorrect behavior. During recent elections, for example, these government-sponsored groups knew which citizens had not voted and drove around to bring them to voting stations. Overall, the effects of state-dependence and state-led authoritarianism (defined in terms of the degree to which citizens depend on, and are watched by, the ruling party) are more palpable in low-income neighborhoods. This is yet another reason that low-income groups, even disaffected ones, should not be expected to be out protesting in large numbers.

For now, the student protesters have achieved a very high approval rating of 71.4 percent, according to a recent poll. Yet, one could still criticize the Venezuelan protesters for failing to establish strong ties with low-income groups. That's a fair point. But politically, this isn't as serious a problem as it was for protesters in 2002. Back then, the poor comprised a larger proportion of the population, and the failure of protesters to connect with the poor left them far more isolated than they are today. That is one of the reasons why those protests failed.

One could go farther and argue that it is the government, more so than the middle-class protesters, that should worry more about the political behavior of the poor this time around. Low-income groups might not be protesting, but they aren't in the streets defending the government, either. In previous incidents like this, when the government needed political help (during the protests of 2002 and to a lesser extent 2007), it succeeded in mobilizing low-income groups to organize counter-protests. In those years, there was a larger pool of low-income Venezuelans ready to take the streets to defend the government.

Today, this pool has shrunken in size, but also perhaps in intensity of preferences. According to a recent poll, only 19.5 percent of the poorest Venezuelans would take the streets to defend the government if asked by Maduro to do so (see Chart 2). After the rich, the lowest quintile is the least likely group to go out into the streets to defend the government, far below the average for pro-government Venezuelans. It seems, therefore, that the size of passionate ordinary chavistas in low-income groups seems to be in decline. The middle class protesters might have weak ties with the poor, but the government's ties are weak, too.

This withering relationship is one reason that colectivos have taken center stage during the current cycle of protests. In the past, Chávez could have relied on volunteers to go out into the streets to defend the government. Maduro, on the other hand, does not enjoy that loyalty. His government has to resort to paid mercenaries, rather than enthusiast supporters, to carry out counteroffensives. These colectivos, incidentally, have been documented repressing not just the protesters, but also individuals in low-income neighborhoods. No wonder disaffection in poor neighborhoods is increasing.

In conclusion, the middle-class nature of Venezuela's protests should not be surprising. That's the largest share of the population. In fact, when you see the economic winners protesting, you can be sure that something is going deeply wrong. This government -- which claims to derive its key support from poor sectors -- might want to reconsider its accusations and worry a bit more about its own fate. Reconnecting with the poor won't be enough. Delivering better economic conditions for the middle classes won't be enough either. To successfully pacify the country without force, the government will need to end sectarianism and address issues of governance and representation. These are the issues that middle classes, and thus the majority of Venezuelans, care about.



The Musharraf Boomerang

Could the new Pakistani government’s pursuit of the country’s former dictator be its own undoing?

During his first two stints in power in the 1990s, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif clashed with four heads of the powerful Army, the last of whom deposed him in 1999. Now, a year into his third stint as prime minister, tensions are rising once again between Sharif and top Army officers, who are incensed over developments surrounding the prosecution of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who, incidentally, is the man who overthrew Sharif in 1999.

On March 31, Musharraf was indicted for high treason by a special court constituted by the Sharif government. In a bid to deter potential coup-makers, the civilian framers of Pakistan's 1973 Constitution included an article that designates the suspension or abrogation of the Constitution as an act of high treason, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment. The government has opted to prosecute Musharraf for his 2007 imposition of emergency rule, not for his 1999 coup, which had been endorsed by many politicians and judges who have since come to oppose him. Prosecuting Musharraf for the latter would probably force the government to prosecute other Army officers and government officials who aided Musharraf's 1999 coup, opening up a broader confrontation with the Army.

Still, the Army brass has been discomfited by the fact that a former senior commander and war veteran -- one who was president of the country for seven years, no less -- stands accused of treason. And so the brass appears to have taken measures to aid Musharraf as he sought to avoid indictment. After months of delay tactics, including the convenient discovery on more than one occasion of small, undetonated bombs along Musharraf's route to court and three months holed up in a military hospital, the former president finally appeared before the special court at the end of March to be indicted. On March 31, Musharraf became the first military ruler in Pakistan's history to be indicted for subverting the Constitution.

The circumstances surrounding Musharraf's decision to show up before court are murky, however, and are cause for growing distrust between the civilian government and the Army. Some figures close to the military, including politician Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, have alleged that elements connected to the civilian government had indicated to the military leadership that Musharraf would be allowed to leave Pakistan on medical grounds upon being indicted. Indeed, at the time of Musharraf's indictment, Islamabad was rife with rumors of a plane sitting at a military base near the capital, waiting to whisk the former president off to Dubai. Najam Sethi, a prominent talk-show host close to Sharif (who appointed Sethi as head of the high-profile Pakistan Cricket Board), had also argued that there was a deal in place to let Musharraf leave the country. Indeed, it is possible that the Musharraf camp and the Army was duped into having the former military ruler appear before court, believing that it was part of a quid pro quo allowing him to exit the country.

The stance of members of Sharif's own government toward Musharraf also hardened in the lead-up to the former Army chief's indictment and afterward. Their criticism of the Army has further inflamed civil-military tensions. In a speech to the National Assembly in late March, Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique said ominously of the Musharraf trial: "This is a golden day. And this moment was destined to come in Pakistan. This moment also came in Turkey. Our voice will not falter in saying this. Those Army generals who commit treason against their oath, Article 6 proceedings will be initiated against them." Days later, he told the press, "Gen. Pervez Musharraf is a traitor. He's the biggest criminal in Pakistan." He called on the former military ruler to "become a man" and present himself before the court. Pakistani television networks have been adding additional fuel to the fire, playing Rafique's statements ad nauseam, along with a fiery anti-Army address from 2006 by Khawaja Asif, now the defense minister, in which he called Pakistan a "welfare state" for a "specific class" -- the Pakistan Army.

On April 7, in what the military's press office described as a response to the "concerns of soldiers," the new Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, said that the Army "will resolutely preserve its own dignity and institutional pride." Two days later, during a monthly meeting at the Army's headquarters, senior Pakistan Army commanders reportedly expressed displeasure with Asif's statements, with some Pakistani television reports claiming they went as far as demanding Asif's resignation. Rather than disappearing, however, Asif has continued to come on television talk shows, avoiding controversial statements, but at the same time indicating that neither he nor the civilian government will back down. In recent days, Asif has gone out of his way to praise the military -- but in the larger picture, such verbal concessions by the civilian government are minor given that Asif remains as defense minister and the trial of Musharraf continues.

The Musharraf trial is not the only recent development that has inflamed civil-military relations. At the end of January, the prime minister was expected to announce a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, something that the Army had been advocating since December. Instead, he made a last-minute reversal as momentum for military operations was reaching its peak and announced the formation of a peace committee. Peace talks have sputtered along since then, with the Army still uncomfortable with the process but having no choice but to go along with the civilian government's directives. A number of Pakistani media commentators have also made allegations that the civilian-run Intelligence Bureau has been spying on the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Although the Sharif government has made concessions to the Army on other issues, including pushing forward the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (decried by activists as comparable to the U.S. Patriot Act), it is clearly challenging the Army on issues that hit close to home.

Sharif's gamble might just work. The Army is embroiled in multiple counterinsurgencies, and its new chief, Gen. Sharif -- who came into office at the end of November -- is just getting settled, though he's gaining a reputation for swift and decisive action. Prime Minister Sharif, meanwhile, has the backing of the Army's primary allies: Beijing, Riyadh, and Washington. In 2013, China announced a proposal to make tens of billions of dollars' worth of energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia recently gave Pakistan $1.5 billion in aid. And the United States has been supportive of Sharif's economic reform efforts, and the bilateral relationship is on a stable trajectory, with the countries resuming their strategic dialogue process and intelligence cooperation.

The federal government's opposition is also weak and ill-positioned to push for early elections or the government's ouster. The public face of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the country's second-largest party, is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who cannot speak publicly in Urdu unless it's scripted. Most of his public statements are tweets. The out-of-touch Zardari spent at least $1.5 million in government funds on a cultural festival in the PPP-governed Sindh province, while dozens have died since December of malnutrition in the province's Thar region. Meanwhile, the country's third-largest party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is in a state of crisis, facing internal dissent and possible fracturing.

Still, to weather a storm from the Army, Sharif would need the backing of other political parties, lest they bandwagon with the Army against him. After Musharraf's indictment, Sharif reportedly consulted with Imran Khan of PTI and Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP over whether to let the former dictator leave the country, which he ultimately decided against. It is unclear whether Khan and Zardari offered their support to Sharif at the time. Even if they did, however, it is no guarantee of continued backing in the future. For example, in an April 10 television interview, Khan distanced himself from the trial he had once ardently supported, saying that it is being viewed, by the Army in particular, as selective justice. For his part, Zardari, in a public address in late December, pledged to support Sharif against Musharraf, whom he described as a "tomcat" who "has been trapped." But after egging Sharif on, in a major address on April 4, Zardari made no mention -- direct or indirect -- of Musharraf, who had just been indicted. On April 16, Sharif and Zardari held a meeting in which they vowed to protect democracy. The meeting of the heads of Pakistan's two largest political parties strengthened Sharif's hand vis-à-vis the military. But such a boost could be fleeting should the prime minister's political standing erode. And it is Sharif -- not the Dubai-based Zardari -- who is taking the risk in prosecuting Musharraf.

When it comes to the Musharraf trial and Pakistani Taliban peace talks, Pakistan's Army brass has had to go with the flow and adjust its red lines to accommodate an increasingly assertive civilian government. In the end, Sharif might manage to secure Musharraf's conviction without jeopardizing his position as prime minister. But even short of a full-fledged clash, the hardening of civil-military tensions will be bad news for Pakistan.

Facing a Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas, an ethnic separatist insurgency in Baluchistan, and leadership transitions in Afghanistan and India, a civil-military consensus on major issues is imperative for Pakistan's security. Normalizing relations and pursuing accountability are also essential for Pakistan to become a healthy democracy. But in its persistent and, at times, aggressive pursuit of Musharraf, the Sharif government has made the once-reviled dictator sympathetic in the eyes of many in Pakistan. As a result, Sharif risks having the tables turned, losing his own trial in the court of public opinion, and fomenting a backlash from other power brokers, including the Pakistan Army.

Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images