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Venezuela: What Hugo Chavez Means for Democracy Around the Globe

By Carroll Andrew Morse

Reprinted from TCS - Millions of Venezuelans have signed a petition demanding that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stand in a recall election. Resist any urge to draw a parallel between the Venezuelan recall effort and the California recall of 2003. Venezuela is not California and Hugo Chavez is not Gray Davis. Over the past 4 years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has installed autocratic rule over Venezuelan society, destroying the democratic institutions intended to check the concentration of political power. In the absence of democratic institutions, the only peaceful option the people of Venezuela have left for saving themselves is this exercise in direct democracy.

Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in December of 1998. Almost immediately, he took his first steps towards consolidating all of the power of the Venezuelan state into his own hands. He organized a series of referenda. The first authorized re-writing the Venezuelan constitution. The second selected delegates to a Constitutional Assembly, distinct from his country's legislature, to do the re-writing. The rules governing the election of the Constitutional Assembly featured a few non-standard items. Although no candidates -- neither Chavez's supporters nor his opposition -- were allowed to run under party banners, Chavez used state funded media to campaign for the election of his supporters. This, combined with Chavez's personal popularity, allowed Chavez supporters to win 120 of the 131 assembly seats.

The Constitutional Assembly, with the backing of Chavez, moved beyond re-writing Venezuela's Constitution. In August of 1999, the assembly set up a "judicial emergency committee" with the power to remove judges without consulting any other branch of government. The New York Times quoted the judicial emergency committee chairman as saying, "The Constitutional Assembly has absolute powers. The objective is that the substitution of judges will take place peacefully, but if the courts refuse to acknowledge the assembly's authority, we will proceed in a different fashion."

In the same month, the assembly declared a "legislative emergency." A seven-member committee was created to perform congressional functions, including law-making. The Constitutional Assembly prohibited the Congress from holding meetings of any sort. In a national radio address quoted in the Times, Chavez warned Venezuelans not to obey opposition officials, stating that "we can intervene in any police force in any municipality, because we are not going to permit any tumult or uproar. Order has arrived in Venezuela."

The new constitution -- increasing the President's term of office by one year, increasing the power of the president in general, and placing new government restrictions on the media, among other things -- was approved in a referendum held in December of 1999. Elections for the new, unicameral legislature were held in July of 2000. During the same election, Chavez stood for election again -- restarting the clock on his Presidential term of office. Though Chavez supporters won about 60% of the seats in the new unicameral assembly, Chavez still did not feel that he had enough power. In November of 2000, he pushed a bill through the legislature allowing him to rule by decree for one year.

In December of 2000 there was another set of elections. During elections for local officials, Chavez added a referendum on dissolving Venezuela's labor unions. Though it is unclear what authority was invoked, he attempted to consolidate all Venezuelan labor unions into a single, state controlled "Bolivaran Labor Force."

Put this sequence of events into perspective. Imagine, after winning the October 2003 election for Governor of California, Governor Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger called a second election for a constitutional convention to replace the state constitution with a new document increasing the power of the governor, then called a third election to replace existing California legislature with a new unicameral legislature, then called a fourth election to grant himself another full term of office, then called a fifth election to oust the labor union leadership in California, all within the space of two years. Would these be considered legitimate democratic practices because they involved elections?

The record is clear. Since his election in 1998, Hugo Chavez has engaged in a methodical campaign to eliminate dissenting voices from Venezuelan politics. He has provided the world with a clinic on how to set up totalitarian rule. First, get control of one branch of government. Then, eliminate all opposition within the government by making all other branches subordinate to the one branch you control. Next, use the power of government to prevent any other segment of society from organizing. He has attacked the labor unions, the independent media, the church -- any source of people organizing that is an alternative to the state.

By the time of the December 2000 election, it was readily apparent that Hugo Chavez was, as Jennifer McCoy and Laura Neuman of the Carter Center had worried in a February 2001 Current History article, a populist autocrat -- a ruler who does not seek the consent of the governed, but uses mobs to carry out his own will. With the government firmly under his control, and the organs of civil society smashed, Chavez would have to turn his attention to the final part of the totalitarian program -- preventing the expression of displeasure with the government at the individual level.

Not even populist autocrats can decree that the honeymoon will last forever. Eventually, Chavez's overwhelming level of popular support started to fade. The militarization of schools and social services and the shrinking Venezuelan economy under his rule began to grate on people. Civil chaos ensued. A coup attempt against Chavez in April of 2002 failed when key elements of the military refused to support it. A bitter two-month general strike between December of 2002 and February of 2003 wreaked further havoc. The petition for a recall election emerged against this backdrop of increasing chaos. In May of 2003, Chavez and the opposition momentarily reached an agreement -- the Organization of American States (OAS) brokered a deal that would allow a recall petition to proceed.

Alas, the government's anti-democratic behavior continued unabated. In September of 2003, The Economist reported that the government used a "rapid reaction" squad to raid the offices of the National Electoral Council (CNE), the government body overseeing the petition drive. The Economist also reported that the government punished Venezuelan citizens for signing the petition. Names of signers were leaked to a pro-Chavez legislator who published them on his website. Military officers who signed the petition were disciplined. Venezuela's state run oil company would not hire people known to have signed the petition.

Despite the continuing intimidation, the petition drive continued and 3.2 million signatures were gathered. Eventually, the CNE rejected the petition by a vote of 3-0 with 2 members abstaining. They ruled that signatures collected before the mid-point of Chavez's term were not valid under Venezuelan law.

A second petition drive began, the drive currently in the news. Again, the opposition collected over 3 million signatures. This time the CNE questioned the validity of individual signatures, saying that disputed signatures must be re-confirmed individually. The petitioners appealed the Electoral Chamber of the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) -- the Venezuelan "Supreme Court." The court reinstated over 800,000 of the disputed signatures, bringing the total to 2.7 million -- well above the 2.4 million needed to authorize the referendum. However, about a week later, the Constitutional chamber of the TSJ overturned the Electoral chamber's ruling.

The pattern of government intimidation repeated itself. Again, the names of petition signers were posted publicly. The president of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation was quoted in the Associated Press as claiming that the government has began firing petition signers from government ministries, the state oil company, the state water company, the Caracas Metro, and public hospitals and municipal governments controlled by Chavez's party. The Associated Press also quoted Venezuela's Health minister as justifying petition related layoffs by saying that petitioners were engaged in terrorism against the state.

The last procedural hope for the recall lies in an appeal to the full 20 justices of the TSJ. The full court has shown flashes of independence over the past few years. Numerous sources cite that Chavez cannot count on the court to rubber stamp his wishes because several judges have aligned themselves with former Constitutional assembly leader Luis Miquilena whose relationship with Chavez turned sour some years ago. Most notably, the TSJ ruled 11-8 to dismiss charges against several military officers associated with the 2002 coup attempt. Most recently, the TSJ has gone against Chavez's wishes by ruling that Cuban doctors cannot practice medicine in Venezuela without a review of their qualifications. Chavez, of course, wants to change the rules. He wants to increase the TSJ membership to 32 so he can appoint more justices loyal to him.

As of three years ago, in Chavez's Venezuela, the election process, by itself, was an all-powerful source of legitimacy. Elections were called at irregular intervals whenever they suited Chavez's purpose of eliminating opposition, inside or outside the government -- seven elections in two years by McCoy and Neuman's count. Now, when election outcomes are not reliably pro-Chavez, the government is doing everything it can, both legally and illegally, to stop elections from happening -- even when millions have called for an election in accordance with the law created under Chavez's guidance. Were the consequences not so serious, the history of elections in Chavez's Venezuela would be the perfect comic parody of the totalitarian dream: you can hold as many elections as you want, whenever you want, so long as you are not allowed to vote against the incumbent.

It is a tribute to the resilience of the Venezuelan people and their belief in democracy that, faced with a leader who relies on intimidation rather than deliberation, they are still willing to work through the democratic institutions that have been nearly obliterated. The democratic spirit lives on in the Venezuelan people. Because of this, Venezuela, in many ways, is a more critical test of the viability of democracy within the existing international system than is Iraq or Haiti. The usual justifications for inaction against a dictator do not apply to the case of Venezuela. The logistical problems for democracy in Venezuela are not overwhelming. The necessary institutions exist and the memories of democracy, imperfect though it was, are fresh. No nation building is necessary to rescue Venezuelan democracy.

If the people inside of Venezuela can organize themselves to throw off the chains of a dictator, should not the people outside of Venezuela be able to organize to help them? The outcome in Venezuela will reveal much about whether the existing international system helps or hinders organizing in the name of freedom. The OAS and the Carter Center have performed commendably in Venezuela; their actions provide some measure of hope that countries are beginning to learn how to cooperate with one another for the advancement of democracy. Let us hope that their work is not negated by "sophisticated" internationalists who insist that the international community put its authority behind stabilizing any dictator who holds a United Nations vote.

Carroll Andrew Morse recently wrote for TCS about The Bias Towards Brutality and Totalitarianism.

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