Friday, September 26, 2008

Change for Change's Sake isn't Enough

In recent months, I’ve noticed that some of my Venezuelan friends in the US aren’t planning to vote for or support Obama. This really surprises me. After all, he offers an exciting platform of change and hope. He’s dynamic and well-educated. He’s a minority so he should take minority issues to heart. Why aren’t some Venezuelans voting for Obama?

Suddenly, it occurred to me that the similarities between the Chavez and Obama campaigns are striking enough to merit examination. At the core of their message, both candidates promised change, and in both cases, that word sufficed to create a groundswell of support.

In Venezuela, Chavez delivered on the promise of change: he changed every institution, and even prevailing attitudes about government and civil society.

Thinking about the promise of change ten years later, some Venezuelans are weary with the promise of “change” because it opened a Pandora’s Box which may never close.

Change, as it turns out, may not have been exactly what Venezuelans wanted. After all:

1.) Chavez changed the Constitution. In 1999, he formed a constituent assembly and ran a campaign called “Chavez’s Keys” with jingles in which all the names of his supporters rhymed, including his ex-wife’s. People literally memorized the names of his supporters and voted for them. The constituent assembly wrote Venezuela’s new constitution which was considered modern and revolutionary. However, Chavez would later pervert the very document that he promised would bring in a new democratic era for Venezuela. “Ten years ago, Chávez promoted a new constitution that could have significantly improved human rights in Venezuela, But rather than advancing rights protections, his government has since moved in the opposite direction, sacrificing basic guarantees in pursuit of its own political agenda,” ,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. In fact, the new constitution later proved to be too democratic for Chavez who has since tried to amend it to fit his own political and economic goals.

2.) Chavez changed the legislative system. He eliminated a bi-cameral structure and instituted a Cuban-style National Assembly. An overwhelming majority of its members are his supporters who bow to his needs. The legislative branch only bends where the tree trunk bends, and the tree trunk is Chavez. In fact, its roots are also Chavez, and it only represents those who support Chavez.

3.) Chavez changed the judicial system. Human Rights Watch reports that Chavez has disregarded “the notion that an independent judiciary is indispensable for protecting fundamental rights in a democratic society. After the 2002 coup, the most damaging blow to the rule of law in Venezuela was the political takeover of the Supreme Court by Chávez and his supporters in 2004, which effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. Since the 2004 takeover, the court has repeatedly failed to fulfill its role as a check on arbitrary state action and safeguard of fundamental rights.”

4.) Chavez changed the scope of corruption. Chavez ran on a campaign to eradicate corruption, and in fact, there has been great change in this area. Yesterday’s corrupt politicians are still wealthy with homes all over the world. But Chavez’s politicians are even wealthier. Furthermore, Chavez’s largesse has spread Venezuela’s wealth throughout the continent, as we observed during the recent “suitcase-gate”, after men carrying $800K were arrested in Miami while trying to transport cash to Argentina for Kirchner’s election. The men later admitted that they were carrying the cash on behalf of the Chavez government. Moreover, signs of opulent wealth within the administration and military abound, as well as within the finance and business circles closely affiliated with the government. One famous economist who has studied the numbers for years told me: there are billions of dollars, BILLIONS, unaccounted for. Where they are, no one knows.

5.) Chavez changed the economy. Under his command, capital inflows have dried up, as investors have grown weary of the country’s current business climate. The confiscation of private property, endemic violence and kidnappings, and repeated threats to foreigners have made many investors look elsewhere for profit. Even with revenues from astronomical oil prices, economic growth slowed to a four-year low of 4.8 percent during the first quarter.

6.) Chavez changed poverty. While the poor have received benefits such as free medical care and subsidized food products, they also face a crushing annual inflation rate of almost 30% and food prices have increased at an annual rate of 49.9% in metropolitan Caracas. Furthermore, pulling yourself out of poverty carries a high political cost. In its new report, Human Rights Watch said Chavez had "has fired workers who exercise their right to strike, denied workers their right to bargain collectively and discriminated against workers because of their political beliefs. Through its systematic violation of workers’ right to organize, the Chávez government has undercut established unions and favored new, parallel unions that support its political agenda."

7.) Chavez promised to be the champion of human rights. Yet again, in its report, Human Rights Watch said, “Given the gravity of the human rights problems facing Venezuela, the government could greatly benefit from the expertise and input of the country’s human rights advocates and organizations in developing and implementing needed reforms.” Chavez’s reaction to this recommendation was swift. On September 18, he kicked Vivanco and a colleague out of Venezuela, accusing them of working for the empire.

Understandably, the word “change” can be very attractive during moments in history when the course of a nation has deviated from serving the needs and respecting the rights of its people. Especially when the candidate promising change is charming and charismatic. However, crying “change” isn’t enough. I had a friend who used to say that people vote for change during hard times because they believe that “things can't get worse.” But as Venezuelans learned the hard way: things can always get worse. An economy can always tank further. More businesses can close. Freedoms can slowly diminish. My recommendation is that Americans demand that both Obama - and now McCain who adopted the word - define clearly what they mean when they use the word “change” time and again.

Alex Beech

-The end-

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