Laura Gamboa, Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 2022.
Price: USD $34.99 | 320 pages
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Colombia and Venezuela each elected charismatic, populist leaders. The two countries shared much in common. Both Álvaro Uribe of Colombia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela adopted a combative posture toward the press, criticized their opponents as enemies of the people, and moved to concentrate power in the executive branch. They also both sought reelection through constitutional reform. Given these similarities, why did democracy decay in Venezuela but persist in Colombia?
Laura Gamboa of the University of Utah answers this question in her latest book, Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy. In doing so, she addresses the larger question of how opposition movements should respond to budding autocrats, a topic that has unfortunately gained relevance across the hemisphere in recent years.
Two Paths Diverged
Gamboa’s book extends the argument that she made in a 2017 Comparative Politics article, in which she examines the presidencies of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). According to Gamboa, factors such as economic development, institutions, and public approval were similar in both Colombia and Venezuela when Uribe and Chávez came to power (Gamboa 2017, p. 460). The old parties of both countries were discredited: “Traditional parties were seen as equally corrupt in Venezuela, and as equally incompetent in Colombia” (Gamboa 2017, p. 459). These factors help explain why both nations were vulnerable to backsliding, but not why Colombia preserved its democracy and Venezuela lost its own.
For Gamboa, opposition strategies help explain this divergence in outcomes. The Colombian opposition worked within institutions such as Congress and the courts. Their goals were generally moderate: to constrain Uribe’s power, not to depose him. As such, they were able to forge alliances with moderate uribistas (supporters of President Uribe), and they persuaded Uribe-appointed judges to block the president from running for a third term.
The Venezuelan opposition, in contrast, usually worked outside institutions in successive attempts to remove Chávez from office. These extra-institutional strategies ranged from frequent protests to election boycotts, strikes, and, most dramatically, a coup d’état against Chávez in 2002. In Gamboa’s telling, extra-institutional strategies with radical goals failed in Venezuela, while institutional strategies with moderate objectives succeeded in Colombia.
An Opposition Playbook
In her recent book, Gamboa provides a deeper analysis of the Venezuelan and Colombian cases, and she extrapolates her argument to the cases of Bolivia, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary. One of her boldest claims—implicit in the paper and made explicit in the book—is that Uribe was “as populistic and polarizing, and as willing to erode democracy, as his Venezuelan counterpart” (Gamboa 2022, p. 19). To back up this claim, the author draws on a wealth of reporting, academic research, and her own interviews. This evidence serves to resurface episodes from Uribe’s presidency that many analysts have long forgotten—from the president’s attempts to limit the power of the judiciary and opposition legislators, to his efforts to rule by decree and extend his time in office.
Some will chafe at Gamboa’s insistence that the status quo in Venezuela is in part due to the failure of the country’s opposition. However, recognizing how Venezuela arrived at this point is not the same as assigning blame. This distinction is important not just in assessing the past, but also in considering how the Venezuelan opposition’s choices today can determine future outcomes. With democratic opposition actors divided on such issues as how to hold primaries, how to use leverage against the Maduro regime, and what negotiators in Mexico can reasonably hope to accomplish, there are several possible ways that the Venezuela crisis could evolve.
Gamboa’s book offers a vital contribution to the academic debate over democratic backsliding. More importantly, it offers practical wisdom. If structural and institutional factors are all that matter, then there is little that democrats can do to resist an ambitious executive. Gamboa makes a powerful case that opposition strategies make a difference and that opposition movements can learn from each other to preserve democracy. As local activists and international actors work together to build a democratic playbook, Gamboa’s work could not be more relevant.
Robert (Bo) Carlson is a Research Associate at Global Americans. He is pursuing his MA in International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has written for World Politics Review and The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @bocarlson1.