The democratic mask has at last fallen from the face of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, says Mike Indian.
With the passing of several hasty amendments, Mr Chávez has rendered the newly elected national assembly almost impotent. In the final three months of the previous legislature, the centrepiece of the new powers handed to the executive branch was the ability to rule by decree for the next eighteen months. Revised internal procedures means the legislators will not meet for more than four days every month. Members are banned from swapping parties. Speeches in the assembly are limited to fifteen minutes and will be broadcast on government television stations. Should they even have bothered to show up to be sworn in on January 5th?
The rubber stamped legislature bears the price tag for opposition ostentation. A political miscalculation to boycott to the 2005 elections handed Chávez the very weapons he needed to tighten his hold on power, a lame duck legislature and the facade of legitimacy. Whilst their stand may have been a principled one, the decision to partake in these elections came five years too late.
Nevertheless, their eventual participation has won valuable ground. The new political reality for the oil rich South American nation is that the last year’s elections saw slightly more voters backing opposition parties than the government or its allies. Even with heavy distortion of the electoral rules, Chávez is faced with a national assembly where 67 opposition members have deprived him of his precious two thirds majority. Consequently, the executive has been forced to radically change the rules of the political game it was playing. With the new assembly due to appoint new supreme court justices due, the government did not want the chavista loyalty of this branch compromised. Their appointments were rushed through before the new assembly was appointed.
That is not to say that the same thing would not have happened in 2005. The likelihood is that it would. However, Hugo Chávez is a man who has gone to great lengths to construct a smokescreen of rights and authenticity. Deconstructing this is the key to any attempt to discrediting him.
In 1999, the newly elected president won approval for a new constitution that contained strict divisions of power and 116 articles which implemented progressive human rights provisions. These included extended protections for indigenous peoples and women. We are more familiar with the stories of executive power relentlessly spreading into the different branches of government. In the eyes of some, these expansions might be viewed as acceptable if the vision that this man was helping relief the poverty endemic to his country could be maintained. State subsidised supermarkets set up in the poorest slums, where otherwise there is nothing, is one policy that may help allay fears. Better to have strong, decisive government that helps its citizens.
Last year, Franklin Brito, a biologist and farmer, died of a hunger strike he had undertaken to protest at the Venezuelan government granting his land to squatters. Moreover in Venezuelan prisons, the treatment of prisoners is the most violent and the cells the most overcrowded in the Americas. According to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OPV), an advocacy group, four-fifths of prisoners have not even been sentenced. Even elected representatives are not safe. Opposition member José Sánchez has been sentenced to 19 years in prison for his apparent participation in a murder, despite the constitution granting assembly members legal immunity. Hugo Chávez’s ‘strong government’ has come at the expense of tearing down the very frameworks he set up at the beginning of his presidency.
As he has always done, Chávez justifies his actions by claiming to act in the best interests of his people. The passing of the enabling law was framed as a necessary response to the floods that have killed more than forty people in the country. Moreover, opposition to Chávez comes from the expected quarters. Universities, troublesome academics, students and the high proportion of privately owned media in Venezuela make for favourite targets for the poor, indigenous peoples the government claims to represent.
Yet there are signs that Chávez’s has lost favour with his traditional base of support. Many labourers on Western Venezuelan farms have sided with their bosses and have assisted in road blockages to prevent the army from seizing land. The patience of many Venezuelans might just have run thin.
However, before we press for the end of Hugo Chávez, we must ask what we want to see in his place? The chavista cause claims to offer a vision of “21st century socialism.” The imposition of socialist communes as the new basic unit of government is a reflection of the extent to which this vision is being implemented. What alternative can the West offer the people of Venezuela?
Values alone cannot feed the famished.