Friday, February 04, 2005

Venezuela Separation of Powers is Dead. Is this the end of democracy?

I grew up in a young democracy called Venezuela. I remember how proud I was at the time that ours was the most democratic country in Latin America. I was proud that refugees from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay came to Venezuela in search of a good, democratic place to live. I remember their telling the awful stories of Pinochet and Videla, and I thought at the time, with a bit of arrogance, that that could never happen in Venezuela.

It has not happened, yet. Despite my dislike of President Hugo Chavez, I consider it irresponsible to equate him to one of those brutal dictators that flourished in the seventies in Latin America or to the eternal Fidel Castro in Cuba. To say that Chavez’s regime is comparable to the aforementioned cases is equivalent to belittling the suffering of the people of those countries. However, I used the word “yet” (in Spanish: por ahora), that brings special memories to Venezuelans... That was the word used by lieutenant colonel Chavez when he was captured after his failed coup attempt to imply that he would come back. That is the word that we all have in our minds when assessing the current state of our democracy.

In the Venezuela I knew, they taught us that one of the fundamental bases of our young democracy was the Separation of Powers. We learned that we had the President and his ministers, the Congress and the Courts and that all those elements of power had to be separated, independent, for a real democracy to flourish. At that time, the elections for President and for Congress were held at the same time and people would vote with two cards: the big one for the President and the small one for Congress. Each party had a different color. Instinctively many Venezuelans mixed the colors, so that too much power was not concentrated.

Recently, the Venezuelan National Assembly increased the number of Supreme Court Judges and nominated them using a single majority instead of the usual 2/3 of the vote, despite the protest of the opposition that constitutes a very large minority in the Assembly. We all knew that that was a dangerous move towards totalitarism and even international organizations like Human Rights Watch voiced their concern.

Today, after reading the declarations of the newly elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Omar Mora Diaz, I realized that what we feared has become a reality. This judge, of which writer Manuel Caballero exposed the “excellent credentials” (see also The Devil’s citation), was elected almost unanimously, with 30 votes, by the newly designated Court. This, per se, is a bad sign. It indicates vote collusion rather than independence of spirit.

The new Chief declared in the press conference that he agreed with the view of revising the Supreme Court sentence that stated that what happened on April 11, 2002 was a “power vacuum” and not a coup attempt. This is a controversial political issue that if accepted by the Court would create the precedent that no decision is ever final in Venezuela. If revoked, the decision would give the government the green light to charge many political enemies .To me, it is quite surprising that a judge would voice beforehand his opinions on what he knows may be a coming issue to be decided. Two possibilities come to my mind: either he is doing it on purpose to inhibit himself later and clean his hands of the responsibility of deciding over a political hot potato or he just does not care about justice independence.

He also gave opinions about the judges that were responsible for liberating the military personnel involved in the events of April 11, 2002. Today he stated that those judges had been suspended.

Justice Mora made another surprising announcement. He confirmed that from now on the directive of the Supreme Court will have regular meetings with the Parliament, representatives of the Citizens’ Power, the Minister of the Interior as well as the Minister of Justice and the president Hugo Chavez. Therefore, that cherished independence of powers that is so important in modern democracies and that I learned by heart when I was growing up in young democratic Venezuela has now been totally discarded by someone that is supposed to be the guardian of those principles.

Some readers may argue that this is not “yet” the end of democracy. To them, I would answer that Chavez has been strategically placing his pieces for six years and, after this latest move, we are rapidly closing the gap towards a full bloom totalitarian regime.

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