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The Intellectual failure of Hugo Chavez' experiment

By Daniel Duquenal

Monday 3, May 2004 - Moral questions in Venezuela, but no way to answer. Early in his political career Chavez did carry the good will of the Venezuelan intelligentsia. For example Mayz Vallenilla, established philosopher, founding father of the Universidad Simon Bolivar chaired the committee to call for a new Constitutional draft. Late 1999 the philosopher was already warning the country. El Nacional, traditionally the more intellectual newspaper, did support indirectly the Chavez campaign, and the wife of its Director, Carmen Ramia, was briefly in Chavez cabinet. Unfortunately by the time Chavez named the candidates to occupy the seats in the Constitutional assembly it was clear that very few of Venezuela's brightest would be chosen. The result was an ill written document that became the 1999 constitution that is bringing some significant problems to the country these days.

As it happened, the new Constitution would be the only intellectual effort of the regime, which quickly imploded in a political mess. Even the best efforts of apologists of the anti globalization movement have been unable to bring some coherence to a discourse that very soon locked itself inside reviving old and failed recipes from a discredited old style left. With Castro as the only moral and intellectual light, and the sole goal to remain in power, the intellectual decay of Venezuela was fast. Moreover for both sides, since none of them is able to propose a real construct that could bridge some of the differences between the political enmities. Perhaps in such a political climate we should not be surprised at the paucity of ideas.

If the opposition to Chavez has a very hard time to create a project for the country and finds its unity only in its desire to remove Chavez from office, chavismo itself is in a much worse situation. This should not be surprising. The authoritarian character of Chavez does not tolerate dissent and the discussion within chavismo is limited to practical matters such as how to dodge the opposition bullets. The consequences are that the moral questions that assure the good conduction of a country cease to be relevant for those in power. That is why in February 27 2004, Chavez was able to let loose the National Guard on an opposition rally. A Constitution much vaunted for its Human Right advances was finally jettisoned by its intellectual creator.

Two recent events bring to light with a crude irony how chavismo now abandoned by ideas and intellectuals limits itself to opportunism, and even adventure.

The Central University of Venezuela holds elections

The Central University of Venezuela, UCV, is the oldest one in the country. Founded during colonial times it became the haven for all sort of liberal ideas during its somewhat distinguished history. Today it is the largest university in Venezuela and its handsome, if dilapidated, campus is even an UNESCO site for the uniqueness of its 1950's architecture and art.

The UCV benefits also, in theory, of a certain autonomy from the Education ministry. As a consequence of the leftist insurgency of the 60's and the radical student movements of the time it has inherited certain oddities such as an electoral system of its own to name its main authorities. Of course when Chavez was elected first he did enjoy a rather large support within the community, and many in Chavez's cabinet came from the UCV until the military started taking more and more seats.

But times have changed. The elections for a new Rector (President or Chancellor in Anglo-Saxon countries) last Friday were a major defeat for chavismo. Effectively, the candidate most identified with the opposition carried 55% and the only candidate identified with Chavez carried a meager 18% in the first estimations, and this with an abstention apparently lower than usual. Not to mention that to try to avoid a major embarrassment some folks tried to block the election through a High Court ruling.

It should be sobering for Chavez and his followers to grasp that in the UCV, arguably the largest collection of intellectuals in the country, his "ideas" are rejected by 4 out of 5 professors. Not only the chavista candidate gets a lower percentile vote than in the last election, but these professors voting against the Chavez model cannot be accused of being manipulated by the media. If there is a place in Venezuela where manipulation is difficult, it is the UCV which is traditionally not particularly linked to the private sector of the country which prefers to deal with private universities such as Universidad Metropolitana or the Universidad Catolica.

The Judicial Coup advances

Chavismo in the National Assembly has failed to come up with an organizational project that would be palatable for the opposition. Normally such a law organizing the judicial system, constitutionally an independent power, should be voted by a 2/3 majority. The idea is that it would represent the will of all Venezuelans through a forced negotiation between the political parts. But chavismo has lost its 2/3 grip long ago. Using the 5 Justices Constitutional Court it has obtained a ruling that states that a law that originally was voted by a 2/3 can be modified by a simple majority. Interestingly that ruling has not been challenged by the full court even if such a decision would affect the sitting 20 Justices.

The opposition in the National Assembly put a brave face, but the iron will of the thin chavista majority has led to the use of illegal parliamentary procedures to approve the new law: reduction from more than 150 articles to little bit more than 20 to shorten debate time, calling for overnight sessions that eventually overcame opposition strength for logistical reasons, and more. Finally last Friday in the morning wee hours the final project was approved.

The new law allows the National Assembly to add 12 more Justices to the present 20 ones, thus packing the court and getting a full majority in every of one of the separate chambers. In addition it simplifies the rules to remove Justices. These two points are really the ones that matter, the ones that will surrender control of judicial power to the legislative power, just as this one feels threatened and needs a safe court to face electoral challenges, and legal challenges for Human Rights abuses. That would be the end of the separation of powers in Venezuela.

All is not lost yet. There are some recourse to stop such nonsense. But one wonders if they will work out. One would be that the 20 Justices wake up and smell the coffee and declare the law unconstitutional. With the authority and pressure that the Constitutional Court seems to have gained recently one should not be too optimistic for this approach to succeed. Another one is to call 10% Venezuelan to sign up for an annulling referendum, followed by a yes vote, only effective if 40% of the electorate participates (article 74). Considering the fate suffered by the Recall Election process signatures one cannot be too optimistic on that one either.

But what is really striking there is that chavismo has chosen the short term solution to a pressing problem. If for some reason Chavez loses office soon, or by miracle they are not able to fudge the coming elections and lose their majority at the Assembly, today's adversaries would be in position to remove the judges and put a court according to their will and pursue chavistas at will. One cannot fail but be impressed not only at the narrow vision of these people, but at their total lack of democratic values, their disrespect for, all the time, tested forms that do ensure a stable democratic system: a strong and independent judiciary system.

Definitely a demonstration of intellectual regression.

Let's not be afraid of words: our democracy is in clear danger to fall into the hands of a legalized dictatorship. If it is nice to see that the UCV is finally waking up, it remains that she is rather guilty of not having provided a clearer guidance in the last decade, too content to criticize politics as something dirty. When the intellectual debate is too separated from the political one, politicians lose moral and ethical principles. We are paying the price.

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