Monday, February 14, 2005

Rains and the Quest for Absolute Power: Chronicle of a Criminal Negligence

The most tragic event that has happened in recent years in Venezuela was the death of tens of thousand of people due to the rains and mudslides that took place in December 1999.

Since he was elected, in 1998, president Hugo Chavez referred to the old Venezuelan Constitution issued in 1961 as the “moribunda” (“the dying”). Even when he took power on February 2, 1999, he said that he swore on the “moribunda” constitution that he would make whatever necessary for Venezuela to have a brand new constitution. The question is why? What was so wrong about the old democratic 1961 Constitution? There was nothing wrong. Nothing that could not have been fixed with a normal constitutional amendment. There were, however, two important roadblocks to prevent Chavez’ quest for absolute power:

1.-the old Constitution stated that the presidential mandate lasted 5 years and was non-renewable. A former president could be re-elected but only after ten years of having finished his mandate. He needed more time to carry out his “revolution”. His idea was to have a presidential term of 6 years renewable to be able to stay at least 12 years in power.

2.-The maximum judicial figure in the country was the CSJ (Supreme Court). The judges had been nominated in previous presidential mandates. Chavez understood that to have total control of the country he needed a brand new Court and that was only possible if a new type of court was created in a new Constitution.

At that time, Chavez did not have the majority in Congress, which was needed to pass any Constitutional amendment. He then lost no time to pass a law for a referendum on the creation of a Constitutional Assembly. The Constitutional Assembly, without having any solid legal grounds, decided to dissolve the Congress and, in a record time, produced a brand new Constitution that contained all Chavez’ wishes. That new Constitution had to be approved by referendum. This takes us to the fatidic date of December 15, 1999. In what follows, I go through the news that appeared the days before and a few days after the Constitutional Referendum of December 15, 1999 to revisit the tragedy and the political climate that Venezuelans were living.

On December 4, 1999 there was already a major emergency in the Litoral, the strip of land that borders the sea north of Caracas. There were already people death, 20 collapsed houses, two major collapsed streets and the flights from and to Maiquetia airport had been re-routed

On December 7, 1999 people that lost their houses asked for help and claimed that the government aid was marginal. The authorities alerted that there will be new rains. They were right.

On December 9, 1999 new houses collapsed. The Civil Defense indicated that some regions should be evacuated. There had been mudslides in all Vargas state. The Cupira River overflowed and towns of the Miranda state were also inundated.

On December10, 1999 the civil defense informed of the emergency that was being lived in the whole country. Two collapsing bridges were also reported in Miranda.

On December 12, 1999 it is reported that many houses were destroyed by the rain in the Metropolitan Area of Caracas and in Miranda. The situation in Vargas worsened.

On December 13, 1999 the rains were affecting 17000 new people. The civil defense reported having met the CNE to see how it could be possible to take affected people to go to vote on December 15, 1999.

On December 14, 1999 Miranda Governor Enrique Mendoza declared the state of emergency in his state. Meanwhile, that very same day, the president of the CNE declared that everything was “on wheels” referring to the preparations for the Constitutional Referendum.

On December 15, 1999 the referendum process started despite the heavy rains. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appeared on TV and asked the Venezuelan people to go massively to vote and to vote early. He said that nobody should be prevented to go to vote because of the rains. He reminded Venezuelans of the old sentence by Simon Bolivar “If Nature is against us; we will fight against her and make her obey”. Many centers could not open and many table witnesses could not be present because of the rain situation. Problems were reported in several states. Members of the church with the CNE directory prayed to God for the climate to improve. Evacuations started in the state of Falcon.

On December 16, 1999 the country realized the magnitude of the disaster. Vargas state was completely cut from the rest of the country. Some Constitutional Assembly members celebrated the referendum win but others, like Isturiz, asked for restraint.

On December 17, 1999 Chavez addressed the nation and said that he was “touched” by the tragedy. Some survivors reported their ordeal (see these two links).

On December 24, 1999 the judges of the new Supreme Court, baptized “Tribunal Supremo de Justicia” (TSJ) were swore in. They were hand-picked by the so-called “Congresillo”, a subset of the Constitutional Assembly that had taken the role of the dissolved Congress. In the turmoil that followed the disaster, very few eyes were paying attention to this very important nomination. The smooth transition that was supposed to take place from the old to the new Constitutional rule did not take place given the state of emergency.

So, by the end of December 1999, Venezuela had a brand new Constitution and a brand new Supreme Court. Chavez had won the first round for the absolute control of the country. There were however tens of thousands deaths, a major economic disaster and entire areas of the country to be rebuilt. If the government had declared the State of emergency sooner, stopped the referendum and evacuated as quick as possible the affected areas thousands of lives could have been saved. They did not do it because they put their political agenda before the well being of the Venezuelan people.

To me, that is criminal negligence.

History will be the judge.

Jorge Arena

A personal note to the readers: this is my last post as a ghost blogger. I would like to thank you for your support. I loved the experience but I must confess that it was quite a challenge. In fact,I know how much you appreciate Daniel style and how good he is at what he does. Therefore, I knew it was not going to be easy to replace him.

I would also like to thank A.M. Mora for being such a good team mate. Many thanks too to my fellow bloggers Miguel and Alek that were always ready to answer my questions and give a helping hand.

Daniel has asked me to contribute from time to time, which I will do if I have something interesting to write. I would like to publicly thank Daniel for his confidence.

My final thought goes to President Hugo Chavez and the MINCI guys. They provided me with so much material that I sometimes had the embarrassment of choice, making this neophyte blogger's job quite easy. In normal conditions this would be a somehow humorous statement but it has become a sour note given the recent events and the sad state of affairs in Venezuela.

Jorge Arena

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