Thursday, April 14, 2005

Chavez 's milestones

Up to August 2004, I had followed Chavez revolution from afar. I had not voted for Chavez and I could not understand why anybody would vote for him. I have a very deep social conscience and I believed that something had to be done in Venezuela to improve the standard of living of everybody, but Chavez? A caudillo? A putchist? A populist? A man with no clear vision of how to run a country? At the time, I had just accepted with resignation that the countries deserved the rulers that they elect. Every time I read the newspapers I would get mad about the situation and I decided to just try to forget about it.

Among all the many events that have taken place during Chavez term, there were three that took me out of my political lethargy. They are critical points in my political assessment of Chavez government and, in my view, constitute the three most dangerous milestones in the Venezuela path leading away from democracy. They are:

1. - the persecution of the Sumate directive,

2. - the refusal of the CNE to open the boxes after the Revocatory Referendum,

3. - the changing of the law to pack the Supreme Court and, consequently, the use of the single majority in the National Assembly to elect the judges.

The first event, persecuting the directive of Sumate, showed me the intimidation face of the Chavistas. The government really worked hard to find an obscure article, dating from the time of Dictator Juan Vicente Gomez that could be applied to the only effective opposition organization that was in place in Venezuela. The article (article 132 of the Penal Code) is so archaic that any democratic government would have removed it from its law. Chavez government not only did not remove it, but gave them a convoluted interpretation that could put in prison for 8 to 16 years the directors of Sumate. Their crime? Accepting a small grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. Even if the grant had been illegal, in any democratic country the penalty would be to pay a fine, but not 8 to 16 years in jail!

The second event of importance was the refusal of the CNE to open the boxes after the claims of fraud made by the opposition and after the publication of numerous studies showing inconsistencies in the results. Even though the Carter Center carried out the audit of 1% of the ballot boxes, that audit was considered inadequate and many Venezuelans still believed that there had been a widespread fraud in the Referendum. Under such circumstances, the obligation of any democratic government is to do whatever is necessary to replace people’s confidence in their system. Venezuela CNE refused to take any further steps. This brings two possibilities to my mind: either the government really had something to hide and, therefore, refused to open the boxes or Chavez had won as claimed but was determined to show everybody in Venezuela who was really the boss. Neither possibility is reassuring from the democratic standpoint. One indicates that the results of the RR may not be correct and the other shows an arrogance of power that cannot be accepted in a modern democratic society.

The last event is the latest strike to Venezuela’s fragile democracy. In a country where everything is regulated by law and where there is an abundance of laws to be interpreted, those that have the power to control the interpretation of the laws have, the facto, the absolute power. To get to that control, Chavez strategy was a proposal to increase the number of judges of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia. The so-called ``Court Packing”, condemned by Human Rights Watch, was followed by a swift election of new chavista judges by a single majority vote in the National Assembly instead of the 2/3 of the votes usually stipulated.

Sadly, we are quickly witnessing the results of the last milestone. The TSJ recently reconsidered its own ruling on the acquittal of the military involved in the events of April 11, 2002 opening a dangerous judicial Pandora Box (see Viaje a la Semilla).

To complete the dark portrait given by those three milestones, there is, of course, the infamous Tascon list according to which those that signed to ask for a referendum to revoke the president are blacklisted. There are also two new laws that have been recently added: the muzzle law, which controls the content in radio and television and the modification of the penal code that imposes tougher jail sentences that may restrict in some cases the freedom of expression. More recently, we have also witnessed the increasing militarization of the country, for instance, the government has proposed that 10% of the Venezuelan population be military reservists! (see here and here).

And, going back to the penal code, you may think that since the government had to change the code, they would have got rid of its anachronisms like the infamous Juan Vicente Gomez article, right? No such luck: article 132 is still there.

I really miss my days of political lethargy!

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