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Is Hugo Chavez creating a dictatorship in Venezuela?
Saturday May 13, 2006 23:42 by DF - ISN
Critics of Hugo Chavez have renewed their charges of authoritarianism against the Venezuelan leader. How well do these claims stand up?
As Evo Morales moves to reclaim his country’s hydrocarbon reserves, attention has again been drawn to the man seen as the root of Latin America’s creeping radicalization – Hugo Chavez. It’s typical of short-sighted establishment pundits to hold one man responsible for a process that involves millions of people and vast social movements. But there’s no denying that Chavez is the dominant political personality in Latin America, much to the discomfort of right-wing forces.
Clumsy attempts to portray Chavez as a tyrant have stumbled when confronted with the facts. Donald Rumsfeld may have the insolence to compare Chavez with Adolf Hitler, confident that his words will be echoed by Fox News and the rest of the conservative propaganda machine. But anyone who cares to look at the Venezuelan political scene with open eyes will have trouble swallowing such lies. Chavez has been elected and re-elected on multiple occasions since 1998, in votes deemed free and fair by international observers.
A more sophisticated line of attack has been doing the rounds lately, and needs to be addressed. Peter Beaumont of the Observer drew on such arguments in a recent article profiling Chavez: “In his seven years in power he has consolidated personal control over all of Venezuela's institutions. The army answers to Chávez, as does the central bank, the treasury and the state oil-company PDVSA … he has packed the judiciary with his supporters and rewritten the constitution to suit his ends. Most worryingly, he has talked about finessing the constitution to enable him to stay in office until 2030.”(1)
In a similar vein, the Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto made reference in the New York Review of Books to “Chávez's determined assault on the institutions that make representative democracy possible (he prefers his own brand of "democracia participativa", which has little room for opposition parties or civic rights).” (2) These are serious charges, and alarming ones if well-founded.
So do they have any substance? It’s certainly true that Chavez has taken steps to remove army officers who oppose his government. This is hardly surprising, considering that the army command played a key role in the failed coup of 2002. If the coup had been successful, Chavez himself would almost certainly have been killed, and there would have been a Chilean-style blood-bath of his supporters.
In other words, it would have been a shocking dereliction of duty for Chavez to leave the army untouched after the coup: cutting the plotters down to size was essential if any form of democracy, “representative” or “participativa”, was to be preserved. Guillermoprieto herself notes that even so, “an unknown number of military personnel – including several army officers I interviewed – dislike Chavez and his leftist politics intensely, if not openly.”(3)
As for moves to control the central bank and the Treasury – it speaks volumes about the prevailing ideology in the western world that such moves could be seen as “undemocratic”. Leaving the main tools of economic policy in the hands of unelected bureaucrats may be the standard practice in Europe and the United States, where the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve are answerable to nobody. But it is still a travesty of democracy, and no progressive government could be expected to follow suit.
Chavez has also removed a large chunk of the management at PVDSA, the state oil company. Why? Because they organised a lock-out in tandem with the opposition towards the end of 2002. Having failed to unseat Chavez by military coup, his opponents tried again, using economic sabotage as their weapon. Although they did plenty of damage to the economy, they failed to bring down the government. Chavez was certainly under no obligation to leave Venezuela’s key economic resource in the hands of his sworn enemies.
The charges relating to the judiciary appear much more serious at first sight. According to Guillermoprieto: “The high court is now Chavista, and since the National Assembly appoints all judges, the justice system in Venezuela has become almost entirely pro-Chavez.”(4) Surely this confirms her claim that Chavez has attacked “the institutions that make representative democracy possible”?
Not so fast. Reform of the judiciary was always part of the Chavista programme. The constituent assembly elected in 1999 appointed an emergency commission to investigate all judges with more than seven complaints against their record. Opinion polls showed that 90% of the population lacked faith in the existing judiciary. Over 2,000 judges and court officials were investigated for corruption or incompetence.
The senior ranks of the judiciary made their attitude to “representative democracy” clear after the failed coup against Chavez. The Supreme Court halted moves to prosecute army officers implicated in the coup, ruling that the events of April 2002 had been a “power vacuum”, not a coup d’etat. The Chavez government made no attempt to interfere with this absurd judgement, but pressed ahead with its plans for reform.(5)
With this in mind, it appears less than startling that the Chavez government should find it necessary to reform the Venezuelan judiciary – especially when its most senior figures effectively legitimised an authoritarian coup against the elected leader of their country.
It’s true that Chavez has “rewritten the constitution to suit his ends”. Or rather, that one of his first acts as President was to call elections for a popular assembly that drafted the new constitution. Although his supporters had a majority in the assembly, NGOs were invited to submit proposals for change, and many of them were accepted.
One of the key provisions of the new constitution made all elected officials subject to recall by referendum – this clause was used by the opposition in 2004 to call a vote on the Chavez government well before his term was over. In other words, Chavez has indeed reshaped the political frame-work – and made it more accountable to the people.
Finally, the claim that Chavez intends to stay in office until 2030 has been put about by many commentators. This claim is based on a distortion of remarks made by Chavez earlier this year. Chavez appealed to the opposition not to boycott the presidential elections due to be held this December.
Boycott of the electoral process appears to be the last desperate gambit of the opposition. Having failed to unseat Chavez by force, having lost decisively at the ballot box, his opponents then pulled out of last year’s legislative elections, hoping to discredit the vote. The General Secretary of the Organisation of American States summed up their attitude: “We had a problem with the Venezuelan opposition, which assured us that they would not withdraw from the process if certain conditions were met. These were met and, despite this, they withdrew.”(6)
Chavez hopes to avoid a repeat performance in this year’s election. He warned them that if they did not run a candidate and Chavez was re-elected unopposed, he could then decree a referendum to change the constitution and remove term limits, allowing him to run again and again. In theory he could remain in power until 2030 – as long as the Venezuelan people voted for him. Thanks to clumsy (or malicious) reporting by the Associated Press, this warning became a threat by Chavez to make himself president-for-life.
Behind the misleading rhetoric of his critics, there is one undeniable truth – Hugo Chavez has played a commanding role in the progress of the Bolivarian revolution. His personality has been central to the political struggles of the last eight years. This does not make him a tyrant in the fascist mould, as many have implied. Hitler and Mussolini may have been charismatic, larger-than-life personalities - but so were Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
But when Chavez himself is talking about “a new socialism for the 21st century”, reliance on one man is unhealthy. If the revolution in Venezuela is to sustain itself for the future, it will have to create structures and organizations that make “democracia participative” a living reality. Popular power is the real antidote to tyranny, not a phony system of “checks and balances” that acts as a barrier to democracy.
(1) Peter Beaumont, “The new kid in the barrio”, Observer May 7th 2006 – http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1769146,....html
(2) Alma Guillermoprieto, “The Gambler”, New York Review of Books October 20th 2005 –http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18355
(3) Alma Guillermorprieto, "Venezuela according to Chavez", National Geographic Magazine April 2006
(5) See Michael McCaughan, The Battle of Venezuela, (New York, 2005) p.92,133-4,153
(6) Justin Delacour, "Associate Press falsely portrays Chavez as seeking a 25-year term" - http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1723