Venezuela’s Turn? Age Structure and Liberal Democracy in South America

View the article, “Venezuela’s Turn?”, originally published on New Security Beat.

Over the coming months, political demographers will be closely watching the evolution of events in Venezuela. Why? Theorists in this field expect states to rise to stable levels of liberal democracy when they meet two criteria. One is demographic, the other political. For the first time, Venezuela meets both. Nonetheless, the lead choice for a new liberal democracy in South America is Colombia, which (according to Freedom House’s most recent assessment) is on the verge of entering its “Free” category — at 3.0 and trending upward. Next year’s assessment will hinge on the success or failure of the government’s FARC demobilization process.

For those following the “2008 prediction” made in the Wilson Center publication “Half a Chance“, Colombia’s climb to liberal democracy would mean the fulfillment of both predictions (at least one FREE in North Africa, at least one in the northwest corner of South America by 2020).

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Attachments

The 2008 Prediction for Liberal Democracy

The 2008 Forecast of “at least one, maybe two” liberal democracies (FREE in Freedom House’s end-of-year survey) among the five Mediterranean North African states (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt), and among a three-state cluster in South America (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador) by 2020. This prediction is published in two articles before the Arab Spring: Cincotta, R.P. 2008. “How Democracies Grow Up: Countries with Too Many Young People May Not Have a Fighting Chance for Freedom.” Foreign Policy (165):80-82; Cincotta, R.P. 2008/09. “Half a Chance: Youth Bulges and Transitions to Liberal Democracy.” Environmental Change and Security Program Report 13:10-18. (the following is excerpted from a recent submission).

 

Relationship between median age (i.e., age-structural maturity) and the probability of being assessed as FREE by Freedom House. Estimates for PARTLY FREE and NOT FREE are shown as well.

While not the Age-structural Theory’s only prescient forecast, this initial set of forecasts more than two years prior to the Arab Spring remains the most dramatic display of the theory’s ability to “out-do the experts”, and the most illustrative of the theory’s yet unexplored potential.

Based on an age-structural model, in a 2008 article in Foreign Policy (Cincotta, 2008; a similar quote appears in Cincotta, 2008-09, p. 15), I wrote:

The first (and perhaps most surprising) region that promises a shift to liberal democracy is a cluster along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of which has experienced liberal democracy in the recent past. The other area is in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, each of which attained liberal democracy demographically “early” but was unable to sustain it. Interpreting these forecasts conservatively, we can expect there will be one, maybe two, in each group that will become stable liberal democracies by 2020 (p. 82).”

I first presented this forecast at a US State Department-sponsored expert meeting on the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) in February 2008, where I repeated this forecast and suggested that Tunisia, because of its sustained near-replacement fertility and the rapid maturing of that country’s population age structure, was a likely launch point for democratization before 2020. Most of the nearly two dozen attending academics specializing in the MENA Region (including several natives of the region), plus government analysts in attendance, burst into raucous laughter—so much laughter that the meeting’s chairman was forced to terminate the session.

In October 2010, two months before demonstrations erupted across Tunisia, I submitted the following unclassified forecast to a US intelligence agency requesting the submission of “low probability, high impact events” that might occur over the next two years, affecting US interests:

In this scenario, a North African state, probably Tunisia, undergoes a “color revolution”—a swift and non-violent transition to liberal democracy. This may bring Islamists into power—or maybe not.  However, the possibilities for spreading democracy through the region and for new political dynamics to play out in an age-structurally maturing Arab state could produce both risks and opportunities for the US.

After Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions successfully upended what Middle East analysts had assumed to be rock-solid autocratic regimes, Nasim Taleb and Mark Blyth (2011) identified the North African uprisings as the culmination of an extended build-up of suppressed social forces, culminating in a politically explosive event, the nature and timing of which were impossible to predict—a “Black Swan.”

Yet, regime change in North Africa was clearly not impossible to predict. More than two years prior to the North African revolutions, I had used Age-structural Theory to confront influential academic Middle East experts and US government analysts with what I consider to be a “reasonable image” of this future—an image generated by associating the attainment of liberal democracy with a phase of the age-structural transition. They simply chose to believe that this image, and the method that conveyed it, were absurd.

The forecast of “one, maybe two” North African liberal democracies before 2020—states assigned Free status, rather than Partly Free or Not Free, in Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties—was realized in 2014 with Freedom House’s assessment of Tunisia as Free (Freedom House, 2015). Since then, Colombia’s peace process has lurched haltingly forward, making a second published forecast from the original 2008 forecast look increasingly promising for 2017 (in Freedom House’s 2018 assessment): the rise of a liberal democracy before 2020 among the three-state cluster of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador (Cincotta, 2008; 2008-09). In its recent assessment at the end of 2016, Freedom House (2017) placed Colombia on the very borderline between Partly Free and Free—a Freedom Score of 3.0, trending upwards toward Free.

One well-known Middle East scholar laughed until he was in tears. Because the laughter did not subside, the session’s chair ended the question and answer session. Later, when the group was polled by the convener, only two of the roughly two dozen scholars at the session believed that there were any lessons to be learned from this politico-demographic analysis. After the Tunisia’s demonstrators had ousted President Ben Ali, I called or emailed several of the individuals who attended the meeting, inviting them to learn more about the method or to collaborate to help analysts overcome the problem of “timing”. I received no positive response from those I contacted.