Friday, April 27, 2007

Gutting civil rights in Venezuela: the Recall Election example

These days where the constitutional changes are discussed in secret by a group of folks appointed by Chavez, there has been quite a few rumors circulating. Whether they are wild rumors or justified fears, the fact of the matter is that we all know what the changes are about: a single one, perpetuating Chavez in office until kingdom comes. The other are accessory changes to make the one that counts as permanent as possible. Does it matter in the end what are the constitutional changes that will be rammed down our throat? In 8 years of Chavez rule we have witnessed so many twisting of the laws that we all know that laws are meaningless, understood as tools to simplify the life and inner workings of the installation of an authoritarian regime.

Thus we have reached the paradox that the "perfect", "most advanced" constitution of 1999 is ALREADY in the dire need of a refurbishing that will include at least 20% of its articles! I personally know of no serious world constitution which required such an overhaul. Usually it is simply easier to do a new constitution.... but what do I know...

Whatever hits the constitutional blue book we know one thing for sure: whenever required by chavismo it will be gutted of all meaning. To illustrate this we have now a rather complete example on how a novel constitutional feature, and political right, of the 1999 document has been gutted of all real value: the Recall Election system. Let's visit this scandal.

Recall Elections in Venezuela

First let's remind the constitutional provision. Under the constitution of 1999 when any elected official reaches its half term, 20% of citizens in his or her circuit can sign a petition for a recall election. If the electoral authorities, CNE, decide that the 20% names have been collected in due form, then it is obliged to call for a Recall Election (ill called "revocation referendum" in Venezuela). To remove the said elected official there is the need to gather more votes in favor of removal than the votes the official obtained for his election. That is all.

Now let's see how this "right" has been twisted beyond all recognition and even democratic value, including profound human rights violation.

The 2004 example

The test case of this provision was a recall election of Chavez planned in 2003 and finally carried unsuccessfully in 2004. The wounds of this traumatic experiment by themselves meant that the Recall system would be useless in the future. How did that happened?

Referendum, plebiscite or election?

First, there was an interpretation of the constitution that made the Recall Vote, originally planned as a referendum, a plebiscite. That is, now it was decided that it was not enough to get more votes to remove a public official than those that were obtained for his election: in addition the people that did want the official to stay had to be less numerous. If in a way there is a certain fairness in demanding that a majority of the people does indeed want the official out, it did change the nature and the objective of the vote. Now, instead of having a vote to evaluate the management of the elected public servant, it became a cryptic political election where there was only one candidate, a plebiscitary event. It is not that it is undemocratic, the problem is that the intention of the constitution was changed.

Still, one could live with that interpretation since after all the National Assembly who was supposed to legislate on Referendum conditions had not done it then (nor as it done it so far, 6 full years after it was required to do so by the new constitution!). One could expect that the eventual law would give the correct constitutional interpretation, but as it has been often proven, all the tricky points of the 1999 constitution, all of those who could rest power to Chavez have been left out of the legislative agenda and will probably be simply cut in the changes to be announced any time soon.

The Tascon list

The legal problems about the real nature of the Recall Election of 2004 in fact pale when one looks at the Tascon List. This list was created on a web site organized by assemblyman Luis Tascon where the ID numbers of all who asked for a recall election were published. That is, you could enter the ID of any people you would know, co-worker, relative, friend, neighbor and you could figure out whether that person was for or against Chavez. Soon that list ballooned with the inclusion of people participating in Chavez social programs (pro Chavez) and people who manifested against Chavez in other activities (e.g. other referendum petitions of anti Chavez nature). That list was actively used by the government to discriminate against people that were perceived or assumed to oppose Chavez. Those people were fired from governmental jobs, denied promotions, and if they were not working for the government could be subjected to all sorts of abuses starting from passport denial.

The objective here is not to discuss these violations which are extensively documented in several links offered on the right side of this page. No, the objective is to state the immediate consequence of such a governmental discrimination: nobody would again risk apposing his or her signature on a recall election least the person being voted upon wins and is able to seek revenge.

This happened because not only the CNE put a heavy and totally unreasonable burden on the process, a burden decried by international observers, but because it also did not take any action to avoid this witch hunt, and in fact all but promoted it by having one of its directors, today nothing more than the vice president of the republic, Jorge Rodriguez, qualify as "pillos" (bandits?) the promoters of the Recall Election drive. That at the end 40% voted against Chavez did never bring an apology from him when he publicly looked down on the 25% who signed, as if they were a figment of collective imagination, making them along the way second class citizens.

As far as this blogger was concerned there would be no more recall election in Venezuela. Unless... called by the pro Chavez sector and thus many people would go and sign up to avoid to be put into another "reverse" Tascon list. But this blogger has been proven wrong as the pro Chavez crowd has managed to diminish further this "right" to recall lousy politicians.

Today's farce

In a surprise development since the mayors and governors elected in 2004 reached their half term last October we have seen a flourishing business of launching recall election petitions. The casual observer could be mistaken in thinking this a demonstration of democracy considering that the huge majority of elected officials today are in Chavez camp and thus the overwhelmingly mount of politician that might be subjected to election are within chavismo.

But the observer would be dead wrong upon this observation, an observation that by the way the regime tries to put forth as an evidence of its democratic bent. But it is a fraud alright.

The first element of that fraud is that even if about a third of the folks elected are under threat, this threat is weak: none of the 20% signatures has been collected yet and my bet is that there are few cases where such a collection might actually be successful. After all the opposition is very unlikely to participate in that masquerade and many in chavismo either do not care nor do understand why so many chavista are under ballot threat! Weren't these politicians named by Chavez to run for the seat they are presently holding?

But the comedy does not stop there: of the two opposition governor only one might go for a Recall election whereas up to 13 chavista governors might be subjected to it! This is already suspect, but more about it later.

Thus we could look for some credibility in the way the operation is undertaken by the CNE. But we observe that the provisions to organize a Recall Election have still not been approved by a law, these provisions having the same arbitrary nature as the ones in 2004. And this is as good as any a moment to remind the reader that in 2004 the purposeful delays of the CNE sabotaged effectively the collection of signatures for Recall Election for other folks than Chavez. The ones that were gathered by chavistas then were never validated and the Recall Motion was simply called off by the CNE. Quite a nasty precedent of this year process, no?

Btu it gets better: the CNE has announced that this time they will audit only 4% of the collected signatures. Let's remember than in 2004 the CNE decided to review all the collected signatures, and forced hundred of thousand of folks to go through the public humiliation to go again RATIFY their signature. Nothing of that this year.

You could ask how the safety of the voter will be covered. The CNE very magnanimously announces that the officials subjected to a Recall Election petition will be allowed to view the signatures but not be allowed to copy them for their own check up. Huh? So Chavez was allowed to verify every single signature but this time the guys in office will be allowed to only see that indeed the CNE collected the signatures but not verify them themselves? In other words they are supposed to trust 100% a CNE which has demonstrated amply that it cannot be trusted with anything.

However what is missing from the CNE announcement is an effective policy on will leaks be punished. Let's not forget that the data will be on disk somewhere and could easily be leaked to the interested party, ready to use that list for later political "revenge". And as for anyone using improperly such list, no sanctions are previewed. After all Tascon keeps running around as if nothing, cashing his fat pay check while the thousands of people whose life he ruined have to resort, if they can afford it, to international courts to try to get a redress. But of course, punishing Tascon woudl imply punishing Chavez who approved of such a list, thus dooming the safety of the voter willing to risk his neck against an elected official.

How can one expect the present process to succeed?

But it gets worse: apparently the unexpected amount of Recall Election petitions seems to be originated from a few group of people who organize these drives in states where they are not residing. That is, the Recall Election process is intended for the people to deal directly with the official they elected, but apparently there are some people within chavismo that have made it a cottage industry to submit such petitions anywhere they care to do so, even if a few months ago they did not even know of the existence of the person that they are working hard now to unseat.

This is in fact so bad that the CNE has taken the unusual step to offer a "regret period" for the people who are abusing this right. That is, if after May 18 they have not withdrawn their petition then the CNE would examine whether these people are indeed allowed to solicit such a petition. See, it seems that in fact chavismo is using the Recall Election system to settle internal accounts and to purge a few people that are not considered revolutionary enough. That is right, what is being judged in this new wave of Recall Election drives is not the management skills of a given elected official but whether this official is more faithful to Chavez or to the people who voted for him or her in October 2004.

Conclusion

Thus we have seen a case study on how a new civil right enshrined in the 1999 constitution has been twisted beyond recognition to become an instrument of state sponsored discrimination (the apartheid like Tascon List) or of political manipulation and purge (this time around).

But this is also happening with all sorts of political rights. For example this week Chavez has announced that the decentralization that started in the late 80ies will be severely curtailed and such things as medicine will be completely centralized in Caracas. Or when we observe how property rights are increasingly menaced. Not to mention how the closing of RCTV is understood by all as the first step in curtailing freedom of expression. There is a clear pattern. In the case of the Recall Election we have the complete strategy now completed. Maybe this is due to Chavez being the first "victim" of this Recall right. He is going to make sure that it does nto happen to him anymore.

For all practical purpose the Recall Election system is dead and the current drive will more than likely fail miserably unless Chavez intervenes personally to force people to go out and sign.


-The end-

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