Venezuela is the front line in the defence of popular sovereignty

Ben Rowswell looks at what’s at stake in Venezuela.

by | Dec 19, 2019


Venezuelans may be united in their desire for change in their country after five years of economic devastation and escalating repression. But the rest of the world is deeply divided. 

The country held its last free and fair election in 2015, electing parties opposed to President Maduro to the National Assembly in an historic landslide.  Since then Maduro has packed the electoral commission with loyal supporters and thrown hundreds of political opponents in jail. He’s gone so far as unilaterally rewriting the constitution to eliminate any potential challenge to his power. Today he rules through force, backed by foreign military and intelligence support. 

Most of Venezuela’s neighbours in the Lima Group, the EU-led International Contact Group and virtually every liberal democracy in the world support the Assembly’s efforts to restore constitutional order. 

But the world’s most prominent authoritarian states continue to back Maduro.  Russia has deployed military troops to guard the strongman. China has bankrolled the Venezuelan state with over $65 billion in loans, and both Iran and Cuba have helped intelligence services to maintain control over a restive population.  The U.S. does not help matters, since its threats of military intervention incentivize security forces to remain loyal to Maduro. 

Caracas is a long way from Moscow, Beijing and Tehran.  Why do these distant dictatorships go to such lengths to prop up a leader rejected by his own population?

These authoritarian states are advancing a rival set of international norms to the principles of human rights and democracy that have enjoyed broad global support for decades. 

Most countries in the world believe that power ultimately belongs to individualsThis is the principle of popular sovereignty – the state exists to serve its citizens.  By contrast, authoritarians believe that power ultimately belongs to the state.  They believe in absolute sovereignty. There can be no constraints – internal or external – on the behaviour of the leader. 

The tension between these norms of popular sovereignty and absolute sovereignty has been with us for centuries. In an ideal world, each country could choose its political system and leave others to their own. But such idealism ignores how power works. 

Political systems built on the principle of the ruler’s absolute authority are vulnerable to the appeal democracy may hold for the ruler’s subjects.  Authoritarians therefore have an incentive to discredit democracy abroad. Discredit the notion of popular sovereignty elsewhere and they can more easily keep their own populations under control.  

Conversely, the concentration of power in authoritarian states poses a challenge to democracies.  Any political system that devolves power to citizens is vulnerable to the rise of strongmen who claim the nation is under threat and use that excuse to centralize power. Those claims carry more weight when democracy is discredited abroad. 

“For democracy to fail in a country with such a deep commitment to popular sovereignty shows how vulnerable all democracies are to the spread of authoritarian norms.”

The norms of popular sovereignty still predominate in most regions of the world. But they are weakening, of all places, in long-standing democracies. Rising inequality and polarized politics has diminished faith for democracy at home. Disillusionment over tragedies such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq has bred skepticism in the intentions of the foreign policy of all liberal democracies. 

As support for international norms of democracy dwindles, the norm of absolute sovereignty gains ground. Citizens of our countries are now more willing to entertain claims that our democracy is flawed, so we have no business supporting the democratic aspirations of others. Or that authoritarian rulers may have the right to rule over their citizens as they see fit. That all foreign policy is little more than a cover for imperialist ambitions by great powers. 

We hear all these arguments now invoked in the case of Venezuela.  That is a sign of the advancing norms of absolute sovereignty. 

It is a tragedy that authoritarianism has come to the country was once the cradle of South American democracy.  It was in Venezuela that Latin Americans first rejected military dictatorship in 1958. It was in Caracas that human rights activists from across the continent found refuge through the 1970s and 1980s.  For democracy to fail in a country with such a deep commitment to popular sovereignty shows how vulnerable all democracies are to the spread of authoritarian norms. 

Millions of Venezuelans that have now fled the country have mobilized to demand that the international community support the democracy movement in their country.  When they are met by non-Venezuelans chanting slogans from the Maduro government’s “Hands Off Venezuela” PR campaign, we can see how far the authoritarians’ bid to replace international norms of popular sovereignty with absolute sovereignty have come. 

To anyone on the ground in Caracas, it is not difficult to see why citizens there want is not, in fact that we lay our hands off, but that we stretch out hands our to them. 

They face severe malnourishment due to a government that diverts the supply of food to its political supporters. Their children are dying thanks to their health care system.

Venezuelans have used every peaceful and constitutional recourse available to them to seek change. People of every social class, every race, every corner of the country have come out to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, united in their desire for change.

It is time for the international community to unite in support of Venezuelans.  It is not only their popular sovereignty that is at stake – ours may be as well.  


Ben Rowswell is the President of the Canadian International Council. Ben has 25 years of experience as a practitioner of international relations. He earned his expertise in international security serving with the United Nations in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, as Canada’s first diplomatic envoy to Baghdad, Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and as the head of the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar at the height of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. He established the Democracy Unit of Global Affairs Canada, worked closely with human rights movements as a political officer in the Canadian Embassy to Egypt, and most recently as Canada’s Ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017.