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Is Venezuela's government legitimate? Part II

From: Gregory Wilpert December 23, 2003

Editor's note: after I received the first response of Mr Wilpert which was posted on this site as agreed, he sent me a second version with the following message:

Aleksander, I accidentally sent you an earlier draft of my response. Would you mind switching the one enclosed with this e-mail for the one I first sent you? It has some additional points that I decided to expand upon in the last minute. I just attached the wrong version by mistake to my e-mail to you. Sorry about that.

I did not posted it last night for I was not near a computer and did not know of his message. However this morning my attention has been brought upon yet another message sent my Mr Roy Carson -whom by the way has a reputation of spinning the facts for his own advantage- disqualifying our effort to debate in a honest and respectful manner. Once again the true colours of Mr Roy Carson are evident.

Dear Aleksander Boyd,

Thank you for this opportunity to debate some issues involving Venezuelan politics with you. When you asked me to debate with you, I did not know that the main purpose would be “to unravel the unconstitutional origin of the components of the Citizen Power, namely the Attorney General, the Comptroller General and Ombudsman.” I will do my best to respond to your questions, but I should inform our readers that I am not a legal expert and will thus leave some of the detailed legal issues you raise to a debate amongst them.

But before answering your questions, I would like to respond to your opening comments. You say that the manner in which the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, and the Human Rights Ombudsman were named, “did away with the legitimacy of the Venezuelan State as it stands today for in inconsiderate and unconstitutional fashion, the independence and democratic origin of powers were impinged.”

It seems to me that the procedure by which these officials were named was indeed questionable. Apparently, even Luis Miquilena, who was in charge of the whole process (and who has since joined opposition ranks) has admitted to it being too rushed. I think there are three issues that one should keep in mind, though, when challenging this process.

First, there was a clear electoral mandate in favor of Chavez’s political program, which clearly stated that the constitution would be reformed and that all of Venezuelan political life had to be reformed. Certainly, even a clear mandate does not mean that laws can be violated. However, what it did mean in this instance, a time when there was a transition to a new constitution, is that what is legal and what is illegal is not always all that clear. The entire process was governed by a kind of legal uncertainty or, at the least, controversy. Such uncertainty is something that deserves to be criticized, but does not, in itself, necessarily constitute a doing away with “the legitimacy of the Venezuelan state.”

Second, the officials in question were all ratified by a two-thirds majority of the newly elected National Assembly. So while the nomination process did not seem to follow the constitutional procedures, the actual naming of the officials did. Part of the problem appears to have been that there was not committee which named the candidates. The reason for this lack of a committee had to do with the transition process, in which there was no one to convoke the corresponding committees (i.e., representatives of the “Republican Moral Council”: Attorney General, Comptroller, and Ombudsman). When there is no committee, the constitution says (article 279) that the National Assembly may proceed to name the officials on its own.

Third, the entire problem of this legal uncertainty actually originated with the old (pre- and anti-Chavez) supreme court. It permitted Chavez to convoke a constitutional assembly, but did not specify too well what its limits were. Also, to a large extent it seems that the old legislature caved-in a bit easily to the Constitutional Assembly’s concentration of power. (These two points highlight the extent to which the need for radical changes was recognized in nearly all Venezuelan institutions.) Finally, the Venezuelan people voted for the procedures for choosing a constitutional assembly which gave Chavistas an overwhelming majority in the constitutional assembly. So, in the end, a lot more people share the blame (if one wishes to call it such) for the rather powerful position Chavez and his supporters found themselves in when the officials for the judicial and “moral” (attorney general, etc.) branches of government were being named.

Finally, you raise the issue that all branches of the Venezuelan government are sympathetic to the Chavez and his political project. This is indeed a problem for the checks and balances of democratic government. However, it is also a problem typical for democracies, which democracies have not resolved particularly well. For example, the three branches of the federal U.S. government is currently controlled by representatives who are sympathetic to the Republican party. I don’t like it, but, one would have to say, at the very least, that Venezuela is no less democratic than the U.S., given the parallel.

So, in light of my response to your introductory comments, I will try to answer your questions now.

1. From an objective participatory perspective, do you think Hugo Chavez’ government is more inclusive than the previous of AD and COPEI?

Yes. Definitely. While to a certain extent the “Bolivarian Revolution” was the kind of revolution where one set of leaders is replaced by a different set, it is also a kind of revolution in which some fundamental patterns of citizen participation have changed. First, with the rural and urban land reform programs, via land committees, more people than ever are participating in making their lives better. Second, another area belongs to the “consejos locales de planificación publica” (local councils of public planning), in which ordinary citizens can have a greater say in local politics. These councils are still only in the beginning phases and have numerous problems, but all indications are that once they get off the ground, they will increase local accountability dramatically. Third, there are the provisions in the constitution for naming officials of the judiciary, the “moral” branch, and the electoral branch. While it is true that the naming process has not worked too well so far, the problems that have existed are traceable to the intensity of the current political conflict (in the case of the electoral power, which had to be named by the Supreme Court instead of the National Assembly, since no 2/3 majority could be reached there) or to the transition from the old to the new constitution (as was outlined above, in the case of the judiciary and the citizen power). Fourth, there are numerous other areas where the law on Citizen Participation, passed by the Chavez government, allows for increased citizen participation in the government, such as ordinary citizens introducing law proposals and referenda and organizing citizen assemblies whose decisions are binding for local governments. Fifth, in terms of including minorities, the Chavez government has been exemplary on a continental scale, providing numerous rights to marginalized groups of Venezuelan society, particularly to women, indigenous peoples of Venezuela, and the poor (all of whom are treated in terms of affirmative action when it comes to land reform, education programs, or micro-credits, to name just some examples).

2. Have corruption levels during his tenure decreased?

This question is almost impossible to answer definitively. Lacking a precise way to measure corruption, it is something that always remains in the area of perceptions. It is no wonder, thus, that the perhaps most authoritative measure of corruption, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, is just that, a measure of perceptions. According to that scale, Venezuela has consistently ranked in the bottom third of the countries TI has surveyed. A quick comparative look at the index for 1998, the year before Chavez took office and 2003 shows that the CPI score went from 2.3 in 1998 to 2.5 in 2003, a modest, but perhaps statistically insignificant improvement.

So, instead of looking at the perceptions index, which is something that is manipulable if you have a national and international media climate that is opposed to a government (as is obviously the case with Venezuela), let’s look at the actual anti-corruption measures of the Chavez government. Perhaps the most important measure that the government has introduced is the reduction by 80% of “partidas secretas” (secret funds) that ministries and government agencies have. According to many, this used to be one of the largest sources of corruption because these secret accounts were not accountable to the public. By dramatically reducing these, an important source of corruption was dramatically reduced. Also, public financing of political parties, of the church, and unions have been eliminated or reduced. The financing of these might not have constituted corruption per se, but it certainly encouraged corruption’s close relative, patronage.

However, many other sources of corruption remain, such as kick-backs, bribes, favoritism, etc. According to the comptroller’s office, thousands of cases have been filed against people in the public administration for committing acts of corruption. So, all in all, while it is extremely difficult to tell, it seems to me that some modest progress has been made in reducing corruption.

3. Taking into account the aforesaid and the coup in 1992 led by him, can you honestly say that Venezuela’s president has high regards and respect for the rule of law?

As I’ve said elsewhere, I think the rule of law and a political culture in which the rule of law is respected is fairly weak in Venezuela as a whole. As such, President Chavez constitutes no exception to the ambiguous relationship that Venezuelans have to the law (I myself find myself running red lights in Caracas because people behind me are furiously honking at me to go on and ignore the red light).

As for the 1992 coup attempt Chavez led back then, it seems to me that Chavez and Venezuela have changed quite a bit since then and that both are sufficiently different to say that Chavez appears to be committed to democratic electoral politics. I have not seen any evidence to the contrary. Besides, if you were to believe Chavez himself (which, obviously, few in the opposition do), the 1992 coup was precisely a coup to restore democracy in Venezuela, not to abolish it. But discussing the accuracy of that statement is much too long a story that we can’t get into here.

Given the weak political culture of respecting the law in Venezuela in general and what Chavez has said and done in the course of his lifetime, I would say that Chavez generally respects the law, but is occasionally willing to “bend” it to suit him, just as Venezuelan politicians (and politicians throughout the world) have always done.

4. Do you think that the following “the essential purposes of the State are the protection and development of the individual and respect for the dignity of the individual, the democratic exercise of the will of the people, the building of a just and peace-loving society, the furtherance of the prosperity and welfare of the people and the guaranteeing of the fulfillment of the principles, rights and duties established in this constitution” has been in any way accomplished?

Accomplished? No. However, Venezuelan society has moved closer to some of these goals in important respects. Perhaps the most important ways in which Venezuelan society has advanced in this regard is with respect to the greater inclusion of the previously excluded. Sure, the main form of exclusion, poverty, is still a major problem and has not improved much since Chavez has come to power, but I would place most of the blame on the opposition’s sabotage of government economic policies, via coup attempt and oil industry shut-down for that. But there are many other important ways, some of which I mentioned in point 1, in which “the furtherance of the prosperity and welfare of the people and the guaranteeing of the fulfillment of the principles, rights and duties established in this constitution” have been advanced. Also, the “democratic exercise of the will of the people” has been advanced through the introduction of referenda (recall, approbatory, rescinding, and consultative).

One has to keep in mind that the opposition’s continuous sabotage of government actions, via filibusters and similar tactics have meant long delays in passing several important new laws in the National Assembly, thus denying citizens from many of the rights they are supposed to be enjoying thanks to the new constitution.

5. Could you say that this government has reached a sound and just equilibrium in its relations with those who disagree politically?

I am not sure what you mean by “equilibrium” in your question here. If you mean that the balance of power is somehow even, I would say no. But then again, that’s not exactly a necessary goal or even one that the government should work towards.

If you mean by “equilibrium” some sort of balance in the give and take of opposition-government relations, in other words, a constructive and dialogical relationship, I would say no to that that too. This would, though, be a worthwhile goal that the government and the opposition should both pursue, for the sake of Venezuelan’s peace of mind and tranquility, if nothing else. The relationship has been excessively tense between opposition and government and I would place an equal amount of blame for that on both sides. However, I would also want to add that the opposition has made unreasonable and absolutistic demands (such as the president’s resignation over the past two years), which make negotiation somewhat difficult if not impossible. On the other hand, Chavez has contributed to an atmosphere in which name-calling has become standard practice in Venezuelan politics. These kinds of disqualifications on the part of the president also make dialogue with political opponents practically impossible.

Finally, I can think of a third type of equilibrium, one in which government and opposition enjoy equal rights. Here I would say, yes, such an equilibrium exists, more or less, though, with the aforementioned branches of government tilting towards the Chavista side (just barely, I might add), the government is at a slight advantage.

6. Have the campaign promises met the expectations of the electorate?

I don’t think there is any such thing as “the expectations of the electorate.” Voters expect all kinds of different things from a government, even those who all vote for the same candidate. It seems to me, though, that the ones who are most disappointed by Chavez are in the middle class. Chavez has done little to nothing for them and they had high hopes that they would benefit, once again, from Venezuela’s supposed wealth if Chavez were elected. Instead, they have suffered from economic and political (and by extension severe psychological) crises. I think this sector of the electorate was crucial in electing Chavez and will most likely vote overwhelmingly against him in any future elections.

As for the other main voting block which voted for Chavez, the poor, the degree of fulfillment is mixed. I think those who have benefited from government programs, whether the old one, such as Plan Bolivar 2000, new educational opportunities via Bolivarian schools, rural or urban land reform or more recent programs, such as the Missions Robinson, Sucre, Mercal, Ribas, etc., the support is bound to be there. I also think there is a large group of people who live in the barrios who have not benefited from government programs, but support Chavez nonetheless because of either his charisma, his ability to speak in a way that the poor can relate to, his addressing of their concerns, of speaking from their perspective in many cases. All of this has produced a large segment of people who support Chavez and whose expectations he has perhaps not met completely, but come a lot closer to meeting than any other president in recent Venezuelan history. On the other hand, one also has to recognize that there is a sizable segment in the barrios who have not benefited from government policies and who are not attracted by Chavez’ rhetorical style or charisma.

7. Lastly, could you elaborate on the differences in political tactics between former presidents Carlos Andres Perez and Rafael Caldera, and Hugo Chavez vis-à-vis power hoarding?

Carlos Andres Perez and to a lesser extent Rafael Caldera had atrocious human rights records, if we include that in the concept of “power hoarding.” Print media were regularly censored during their presidencies. It was not unusual for people to open a newspaper and see numerous blank spots where articles had been removed by government censors. An almost empty front cover of the main newspaper El Nacional, the cover of El Universal with a text saying CENSORED, and the closing of Radio Rumbos by the political police DISIP, are examples of the tactics used by Carlos Andres Perez as recent as ten years ago. The jailing for a month of an astrologer who predicted the death of then president Caldera, also comes to mind.

During periods of unrest hardly a month would pass in which a demonstrator would not be killed by the police. In a press conference with the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, its director, Carlos Correa confirmed that human rights abuses during the Carlos Andres Perez period were quite severe. Another major issue was election fraud, which was apparently quite common and well known during these two president’s terms in office. Despite what some members of the opposition claim, these have not been the tactics of the Chavez presidency.

--Gregory Wilpert


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