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Attacking Democracy In Venezuela

Editorial |

06.07.05 | Latin America: Since 9-11, the U.S. has tried to spread democracy not by buying candidates, but by encouraging civic institutions. It's in everyone's interest. One country, however, wants to throw someone in jail for it.

Today an outrageous court hearing will take place in Caracas, Venezuela. Organizers of last year's recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez are facing potential charges of treason. Their crime? Taking a U.S. National Endowment for Democracy grant to advance democracy. It's not just political revenge from a victorious Chavez. It's also an attack on civic institutions and, if successful, opens the door to dictatorship and anarchy.

Maria Corina Machado and two others from a nongovernment organization called Sumate are facing 16 years in prison for accepting a $53,000 grant from NED, a bipartisan foundation sponsored by the U.S. Congress. The purpose of the grant was to strengthen democratic institutions.

And that's all it was. Sumate took the money and used it to exercise its existing constitutional right to gather signatures petitioning to recall Chavez. Sumate took no sides and made no statements on any preferred outcome. It only sought to make the process happen.

Any Venezuelan has the right do that; Chavez himself instituted it when he rewrote the constitution in 2001. What shocked him is someone took him up on it. And that Sumate attracted 40,000 volunteers, vastly more than anyone anticipated, a groundswell of democratic organizing that was led capably and competently.

Chavez hurled legal roadblocks every step of the way and tried to stop the volunteers. He told them their signatures were no good. His courts changed rules midway. He threatened to put signers on a blacklist. And still it went on.

Chavez, who sees no difference between himself and the state, could only call an effort to offer citizens the option to replace him "treason." He won the recall referendum last August amid charges of irregularities. But what's important is that it happened at all.

Recall what Venezuela was like in recent years. Churning crowds filled the streets demanding the resignation of Chavez. They said he was crushing the private sector, turning the state-owned oil company into a soup kitchen and relegating state power to agents of Fidel Castro. Hundreds of thousands continuously took to the streets. A vast oil strike nearly shut the economy down.

Chavez could have easily gone out like a president of Ecuador. But it didn't happen. Rather than let the discontent turn into civil war, Sumate sought to channel that popular discontent into legal institutions instead of street riots.

We see plenty of "street" in Latin America, but very few institutions. Only the bravest like economist Martha Beatriz Roque, who organized Cuba's civil society effort last May, and Joyce Ginatta, who put together a network of business groups to force Ecuador to dollarize in 2000 undertake it at great risk.

But institutions are not what Chavez is all about. Chavez is about chaos and "Bolivarian revolution." He is systematically dismantling Venezuela's real institutions and replacing them with proxies held together by political loyalty a parallel army, a parallel educational institution and a parallel Cuban health system.

As beneficial as civic institutions are, even to Chavez, they are the last thing he wants to see. He wants the state to replace independent institutions, which says a lot about his intentions.

The U.S. is right to try to encourage independent institutions, and must continue to do so. It's not just the U.S. doing this but, on a much larger scale, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and the U.K. That the grant came from the U.S. has a lot to do with why this hearing is taking place and why democracy efforts must go on.

Congress and President Bush should warn Chavez there will be consequences for crushing civil society efforts. Or Venezuela's sidelined institutions and angry streets may eventually do it for him.

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