Wednesday, January 29, 2003

THE WEEK IN REVIEW: FROM VENEZUELA (part 1, a brief analysis)
January 20-27, 2003

A few things did happen while I was away this week. Trying to go back and make sense of all of it is pretty much a useless exercise. Being here 24/24 does not help much, so being away, I let you imagine.

But before describing some of this week events, and considering what has happened in the last two months, I think it is necessary to resume again and elaborate on the root nature of some of the problems that we face in Venezuela. This I hope will allow you to understand better recent events.

The judicial problem in Venezuela

This is for me the main problem that Venezuela is facing and what has allowed things to go so much out of hand. The Venezuelan judicial system has always been a source of trouble in Venezuela. Corrupt judges are not a novelty, nor an invention of South America, but in Venezuela this has become a fine art. Chavez, while writing his new constitution, managed to push through the constitutional assembly and before the new constitution was approved a revision decree of the judiciary that pretty much put into the hands of his cronies the power to appoint judges. Or at least to influence significantly the nominations to the important ones. This of course casts a shadow over the principles of judicial security of the citizen. Unfortunately this problem is aggravated by those that are supposed to bring evidence to the courts.

The new constitution created a 5 “power” scheme. One of these 5 powers, called “moral” power included the General Prosecutor for the country and the Nation Comptroller in charge to supervise the nation’s accounts and to investigate corruption cases. There again he appointed his cronies, pushing the audacity to appoint as general solicitor his Vice-President. The consequences have been terrible.

The Comptroller has not presented any dossier able to put behind bars any important corrupt official be it from the pre-Chavez or Chavez period. Sure, some minor things have made it to the courts but all of the important cases that have hit the front pages these past 4 years have not been bothered further than their names on the papers. Some even have been exonerated without showing clear reasons, nor pointing to another culprit. The comptroller rarely meets the press and when he does so always claims that cases “take a long time”. He has been in office since the last quarter of 2000.

The General Prosecutor is supposed to monitor the government record on justice and prosecution, and be the warrant that the people get a fair deal when they prosecute the state. The state also can use its services. And the GP is the only one that can instruct any trial against the president in office. The unfortunate personage that occupies this seat since the last quarter of 2000 is Isaias Rodriguez, and has claimed personal friendship with Chavez, and uttered his admiration many times. Obviously objectivity is hard to expect form him. The events of April 11 were to be investigated by his office. So far only half a dozen gun totters are awaiting trial, all from the government side. Incredibly, the GP office has shown such ineptitude that the guys had been released and had to be jailed again after public outcry. Of course one of them run away. And they are in a deluxe prison. Meanwhile the government claims for the head of some of the opposition leaders and although the GP office has not been able to put together a grand jury of sorts to try to jail a few people, its diligence there has been striking.

You might think that the GP attitude might be a political coincidence, but you would be wrong. Chavez has received several lawsuits, some for crime against humanity. None of them has yielded anything. But the Spanish courts this week have accepted such a lawsuit from a dual Venezuelan-Spanish citizen that was hurt on April 11. And all the injunctions (OAS and other international agencies) to protect the Venezuelan press have been ignored and the GP office has failed to prosecute the pointed offenders. And corruption cases that have made it to the GP office, well, they are stored somewhere, we think. I will stop the litany here, but I will mention that the GP has not been supportive of the installation of a “truth commission” to investigate April 11-13 events.

It is quite clear that seeking repair in the courts for governmental abuses is pretty much useless today.

The military problem

As the electoral fortunes of Chavez have been dropping, Chavez has tried to purge the army. He accidentally reached some of this goal after April 11 when he was able to dismiss many of the officers that showed support for the ephemeral Carmona government. To replace them he has brought shamelessly to the higher positions officers that did not meet the requirements to access such positions. What mattered was declared loyalty to the leader. This creates further tension in the army and yet more opportunity to purge. And to keep this new crop of officers happy money flows, either directly or by appointing pro Chavez generals to positions where they can control the flow of money and goods.

This corruption started during the early months of Chavez when he created the Bolivar 2000 plan which pretty much made the armed forces staff an emergency plan to solve some of the social problems that Chavez encountered. These problems have not been solved but the army seems to be there to stay.

In fact Chavez strategy is quite clear: as his support within the population dwindles dangerously he tries to replace it by making the army his main “political party”. As we have been seeing lately he might be pretty much from reaching his objective.

The oil problem

This is actually very simple. The state Oil Company, PDVSA, one of the main oil corporations in the world, is run sort of OK like a normal corporation. That is, parts of the profits have to be reinvested in the company. As Chavez is running out of money he wants to squeeze more and more from PDVSA. A little bit like the goose of the golden eggs. The management refuses to go along. With the general climate a strike becomes almost unavoidable.

The fact is that Chavez wants the oil money for his political project first, the country next. He clearly sees himself to have been entrusted with PDVSA to do as he sees fit. He has pushed hard through the OPEC to strengthen the cartel as he prefers to sell oil at high prices rather than produce more and refine it. He also uses cheap, discounted oil to foster Castro’s Cuba, and rumors are that Castro is reselling it at higher prices and not even paying back Venezuela. Full access to these accounts is restricted. This of course clashes even further with the corporation spirit that has ruled PDVSA until Chavez started to take over. And the question on how Chavez finances allies overseas, or his own assault troops are burning questions.

The media problem

This is the real problem for Chavez as all the other ones could be solved faster if it were not for the pesky press investigations. We can only thank the press and the media for the fact that we are not yet in an open dictatorship. Closing any media would create an international outcry and remove the thin veneer of pseudo democracy that Chavez wants people to see. So judicial procedures have started to try to shut up two of the private networks, “legally”.

Meanwhile Venezuela is the only country where journalist must don bulletproof vests for their routine work. Less routine work requires bodyguards, tear gas masks, etc…

The Chavez problem

I could go on and say more things, or repeat some of my previous posts. The point that should be clear to all is that Chavez is not a democrat. He has ceased to rule as a democrat since November 2001 when he signed the laws allowed by the fast track set up. In the past two months the actions of the army speak volumes. Chavez has publicly said that generals need to obey the “superior interests of the nation and the revolution against the rulings of corrupt judges”, he being the one that defines interest and corrupt. People have been arrested or searched without warrants. Merchandise has been seized and sold for profit by the people seizing it. The judiciary not only stays mute, but also goes ahead of Chavez wishes by, for example, canceling a consultative referendum.

Venezuelans today do not think they have doors to knock for redress, that no free elections are in sight, ever since the judicial has stuck at the current set up and Chavez will have a chance to name a new electoral board. This is why we are in the streets, we cannot wait for Chavez good will. He has none.

We are already under a military regime. Even if all the trappings are not yet apparent.

You may write your congressman.


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