Monday, November 17, 2003

Reasons for a Recall Election on Chavez
II- Justice on the verge of extinction
Sunday 16, November 2003

Perhaps the worse problem faced by Venezuelan society is the lack of judicial security. The clamor for a fair and accessible justice was in part what brought Chavez to power. Though I personally never saw in his 1998 campaign any evidence that he would be able to improve what had become a tradition of sorts, the politicization and ensuing corruption of justice. [1]

The claim that a new constitution would effect improvement in the administration of justice sounded hollow at best: institutions are no better than the people that serve them. But the new administration could not even wait and using some specious arguments the constitutional assembly decreed that the judicial system overhaul should start before the new constitution would be promulgated. Thus, during the constitutional debate the newspapers could alternate their headlines on the new constitutional provisions with listings of dismissed or suspended judges. Judicial chaos threatened soon and many of the suspended judges discretely got their seats back. However the Chavez administration had scored a coup: the numbers of judges that could oppose its policies had been “legally” reduced, even though one must recognize that a few of the most corrupted ones were booted. Booted maybe, but I cannot recall any of them going to some form of trial. Quite an omen for what was about to happen.

The new constitution voted on 15/12/1999 carried in its transitional provisions the substitution of the high court, provisionally, through a vote of the Constituent Assembly. Since Chavez held 95% of the Assembly it is easy to guess that January 2000 welcomed us with a pro-Chavez High Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ). Not only that, three offices had been granted constitutional rank: a general prosecutor (Fiscal General), a general comptroller of the nation’s accounts (Contralor) and a nation’s ombudsman to offer protection against abuses of public servants (Defensor del Pueblo). These three officials, named by the National Assembly, were made a 4th power unto themselves though they should have belonged to the judiciary. Of the three provisional appointments two of them quickly run into trouble with Chavez, just for doing their job. By the end of 2000 they had been replaced in a rather dubious legality by more reliable folks. Chavez has had no complaints.

The new “Fiscal” had been Chavez vice president for 6 months. As one could have foreseen, Isaias Rodriguez, that is his name, has revealed himself a failure. He has been unable, or rather unwilling, to be an effective prosecutor of Chavez administration officials incurring in illegal acts, even going to the extent of effectively blocking investigations of the April 2002 events, his job, supposedly.

As for the Contralor Clodosvaldo Russian, nobody is sure whether he is alive. But one thing is certain, since his appointment in 2000 not a single important case of graft, many duly reported in the press, has had a ruling. Nor has he offered evidence to jail notorious corrupt officials from previous administrations. Only minor cases have been documented and passed to the courts where they languish

The third character, German Mundarrain, “defender of the people” has become a figure of ridicule. His biased position in favor of the government is already bad enough, but in a country where so many public services work so badly he is nowhere to be seen to protect the folks requiring these public services, usually the poorer strata of the society. All is politics for him. He has no qualms attacking the opposition moves as if he were a Chavez foot soldier. Well, maybe he is but I did not read it in his job description.

This by itself is already quite bad. It would require a major overhaul with a serious National Assembly, responsible for the appointments. But the story of the definitive high court, appointed late 2000, is even more pathetic. The new constitution decided on 20 justices divided in specialized courts. One of them, the constitutional court had become the eye of the storm. The problem is that the division among chavistas in 2001 has reflected itself in the court who is reputedly divided 10/10, or rather 8/8 with perhaps 4 justices floating. It turned out that the constitutional court is 3/2 for Chavez. The constitutional court has tried to ignore as much as possible requirements to work with other justices and has tried to become the “impartial” supporter of the Chavez administration.

One result of this political TSJ split are the continued delays in naming new judges and a predilection for “temporary judges” who of course would get their permanent appointments once they exhibit a tract record of favorable decisions.

A more disastrous result for Chavez is that the TSJ is unreliable. For example, in a famous decision it ruled that April 11 2002 was not a “coup” but a power vacuum. That this power vacuum eventually allowed for Carmona power grab is another decision that one day the court might take. Meanwhile it brought down with a crash part of the elaborate propaganda edifice that tried to portray Chavez as a lily white victim of April 2002. Since then the court has received all sorts of menaces, pressures and even assaults from Chavez supporters that had to be repealed with tear gas.

But the court has also been good for Chavez. The very latest and scandalous example is the dissolution of a specialized court just under the TSJ and whose role was to pronounce itself on administrative matters. Using a flimsy excuse of a pseudo-illegal dossier transfer the three judges of that court have been dismissed by the simple expedient of dissolving that court and deciding to replace it by two new specialized courts. The real crime of that court was elsewhere: it had been taking a few decisions declaring illegal some governmental acts. One of these adverse decisions must have been particularly hard to swallow for Chavez as it forbade the exercise of medicine to the plethora of Cuban doctors that he had been importing in yet another propaganda ploy and, at the very least is an excuse to financially help his mentor, Fidel Castro. Instead of appealing to the TSJ, Chavez refused to abide by the ruling and had the TSJ dissolve the court a few weeks after before the court would try to enforce the ruling.

Apparently, the timing for the dissolution was none too soon. It seems that the court was about to emit a ruling declaring the seizure of Globovision equipment by the TV regulation agency, CONATEL, one month or so ago. Incidentally, CONATEL is in the hands of one of Chavez minions, Jesse Chacon, a military officer known for his bloody assault of the state TV during one of the 1992 coups against democracy. Truly a case of the fox guarding the chicken. Since then Globovision, the CNN like Venezuelan TV station has had problem operating fully, which is a form of press control. The beauty of the court dissolution is that it will take as long as needed to the TSJ to “reorganize” it , and a slew of potentially dangerous decisions against Chavez will be held on hold until past any electoral deadline that might come this way.

But all of these interferences in the judicial power are not enough. For the past 4 months the National Assembly has been embroiled in a never ending debate on a proposed law to “organize” the TSJ. Even some chavista assembly men seem to have trouble to stomach the proposed law and the chavista direction has been using more and more subterfuges, even illegal ones, to fend off the opposition delaying tactics. The reason? The new rules would allow the National Assembly to increase the numbers of the TSJ up to 32 form the current 20. The reasons is clear, Chavez wants to “pack” the High Court. But what is even more insulting to the intelligence is that the justices now would be named or removed by a simple congressional majority, ensuring the total politicization of the High Court.

It is important to stop all this meddling in the administration of justice in Venezuela. We will never be able to have a semi functioning judicial system as long as we have a president that has trouble accepting the rulings of a fair an independent court, trouble accepting that institutions can require accounting for his actions.

A recall election on Chavez does not guarantee an independent and fair justice for the Venezuelan people. But we have ample evidence that we will not be getting an independent and fair justice as long as Chavez is in office.

[1] There are too many links on the fate of the judicial system in Venezuela through recent years. Daily, new articles pop up in the press. One of the best sources to find information on the judicial problem in Venezuela is actually El Universal, who as the main business reference takes great care in following economical news and judicial decisions. Whether one approves of El Universal anti Chavez posture, they have amassed quite a dossier that is yet to be refuted.

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