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Venezuela under Chávez: Some Truths Are Not All That Complicated

By Leo Casey | Dissent Magazine

Editor's note: The following exchange evidences that not all leftists are as easily duped as those on the Chavez payroll. Leo Casey points at a number of facts that are ever so conveniently omitted from the apologetic official line peddled by the resident sycophants, who show an unfathomable tendency of neglecting that part of history that does not bode well with the premise that Hugo Chavez can do no wrong. Comforting to see that Wilpert's humbug is rebutted by socialist peers and better still to realise that European leftists are listening to their Venezuelan counterparts. Aleksander Boyd

Dissent– Summer 2005, Page 87-92 | THE REALITY OF Venezuela under the rule of Hugo Chávez Frias, Gregory Wilpert tells us, is a “complicated truth” (“Venezuela’s Other Path,” Spring 2005). Whereas many observers see in Chávez another Fidel Castro, an authoritarian caudillo pushing his nation towards dictatorial regime, Wilpert finds such portraits stereotypical, based more on the propensity of both men to deliver marathon speeches than on actual developments in Venezuela. He accepts that Chávez is a charismatic figure who has encouraged a cult of personality, but believes that Chávez’s initiatives have broken through Venezuela’s “ossified democracy,” bringing into the political process those who had been excluded, awakening an “apathetic citizenry” and “energizing civil society.” There is much in Chávez’s rule to celebrate, according to this view.

Ordinarily, one arrives at “complicated truths” by adding contradictory and complex elements, by introducing nuance to an overly simplistic version of reality. But Wilpert “complicates” things by eliminating from his account precisely those features of Chávez’s rule that have been condemned by human rights organizations, advocates of a free press, organized labor, and other segments of civil society both in Venezuela and internationally. The two political criticisms he makes of Chávez’s “effort to transform Venezuela” —that it extended the president’s term from five to six years and that it gave the president direct control over military promotions— would strike most readers as something they would on balance oppose, but are hardly the foundation blocks of authoritarian rule. Compare the import of those measures to the following set of facts, not one of which appears in Wilpert’s essay.

Colonel Hugo Chávez, a paratrooper in the Army, first came to public attention in 1992, as the main leader of a failed coup d’état. He and his co-conspirators were tried on charges of treason and imprisoned, but he won a pardon and an early release two years later. Despite initial misgivings about electoral process Chávez entered the 1998 presidential elections, and won with the support of significant elements of the Venezuelan left and trade union movement. Once in office, his method of governing was that of a military commander, issuing orders and exhortations to the ranks and brooking no dissent. The Chávez record is rife with violations of human rights, disregard for the rule of law, and contempt for democratic norms and processes.

Headstrong and imperious, inexperienced and inept at democratic politics, Chávez soon alienated many of his onetime allies and precipitated needless confrontations with his foes. Conflicts between his supporters and opponents escalated, and growing demonstrations against his regime were violently attacked. In 2003, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), affiliated with the Organization of American States, reported that fifty-five Venezuelans had died in such instances of street violence. After one large and peaceful national demonstration was fired upon by snipers and eighteen protesters killed, all broadcast on national television, the situation dramatically deteriorated. First there was a failed coup d’état led by business leaders, then an unsuccessful general strike led by organized labor.

Working closely with Venezuelan human rights organizations, both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) have found substantial evidence that the Venezuelan police and National Guard used excessive force against anti-Chávez demonstrators and that detained protesters were ill-treated and tortured. These violations of human rights fit into a disturbing pattern of “disappearances” and extrajudicial killings by “death squads” of off-duty police and National Guard that have been documented by Venezuelan and international human rights organizations. HRW found that a death squad in the state of Portuguesa was responsible for one hundred killings alone between 2000 and 2002; there is evidence of substantial death squad activity in eight states and the capital of Caracas. Authorities refuse to seriously investigate and prosecute either attacks on anti-Chávez protesters or death squad activity, human advocates report. In this context, Chavista efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary are particularly ominous. In the past year, Chávez-backed legislation, Allowed him to pack the Supreme Court with his partisans, putting in place a chief justice who declared that any ruling by lower courts “contrary to the revolution” would be overturned. Judges who released opposition legislators detained without evidence of criminal wrongdoing were removed from office. HRW and AI strongly condemned these moves. Scores of government critics are now being rounded up in political arrests—the most recent case involved a distinguished jurist and former president of the IACHR, Carlos Ayala Corao, who has been implausibly charged with complicity in the failed coup—and a compliant judiciary will ensure that they are denied due process of law in what is increasingly becoming a police state.

NO LESS THREATENING are Chavista attacks on freedom of the press. Venezuelan media have been polarized between pro-Chávez state outlets and anti-Chávez privately owned outlets, with conscientious journalists who attempt to provide accurate information caught in the middle. On many occasions, journalists and media outlets have been physically attacked by pro- or anti Chávez mobs; HRW calculates that 130 separate incidents of this sort, predominantly by the pro-Chávez forces, took place from the start of 2002 to February 2003. In an attempt to silence critical media voices, the government has passed new repressive legislation that institutes prior restraint of the press and criminalizes the publication or broadcasting of statements that show a “lack of respect” for government authorities or “insult” government leaders. Media outlets may lose their licenses for publishing such prohibited material, subsequent to action by a national institute controlled by Chávez partisans, and government ministers have begun investigations of the major anti-Chávez television outlets that could result in such license revocations. Criticism of Chávez regime attacks upon the press has come not just from the owners of the private media, as one would expect, but also from such well known advocates of press freedom and the rights of journalists as Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists (the international federation of journalist unions), HRW and AI.

BUT NO SECTOR of civil society has come under stronger fire from Chávez than Venezuelan organized labor, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV). Chávez began his term in office with the declaration that he would “demolish” the CTV, and that “nothing could prevent its elimination.” He suspended by executive decree all collective bargaining in the public sector and the petroleum industry, where the strength of the CTV lay, and organized a national referendum in 2000 to decide on the leadership and national structure of the Venezuelan union movement. The International Labor Organization (ILO), affiliated with the United Nations, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the leading international union federation, condemned such a referendum as a violation of freedom of association, which guarantees workers the right to choose democratically their own organizational structure without outside interference from government and business. Only a minority of the Venezuelan population voted in the plebiscite, in stark contrast to earlier referenda establishing a Constituent Assembly and ratifying a new Constitution.

Following the referendum, the CTV held a one-member, one-vote secret ballot to choose its new leadership, in a national election observed and found to be free and fair by unionist from Europe and throughout the Americas. A new, broader leadership was elected consisting not only of the traditional CTV leadership from the social democratic Accion Democratica (AD) partly but also of other leading parties of the Venezuelan left—the new left and democratic socialist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and Causa Radical, and the far-left Bandera Roja, among others. A few pro-Chávez leaders were elected. Chávez refused to accept the results of the election. Instead Chávez proposed legislation outlawing collective bargaining and strikes in the public sector and the petroleum industry and established a series of rival “Bolivarian” unions under his control, the latest version of which is known as the Union Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT). The international labor movement—the ILO the ICFTU, the regional Latin American Union federation known as the Organizacion Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores (ORIT, together with the AFL_CIO and European trade union movements—have condemned the Chávez administration’s violations of freedom of association and its campaign against Venezuelan organized labor and have provided solidarity support to the CTV. Supporters of Chávez respond to criticisms of his record in each of these areas by attempting to discredit the motives and bona fids of the organizations and individuals making them. Such a strategy may suffice to raise some doubts on a single issue, but when these issues are taken together, one is asked to believe that all of the leading human rights organizations, advocates of a free press, and organized labor unions, in Venezuela and internationally, are unprincipled and wrong about the nature of Chávez’s rule.

Although much of Wilpert’s account of Chávez’s rule is marred by extraordinary errors of omission, he engages in one error of commission. Chávez, Wilpert says, has united the Venezuelan left behind him. In fact, the Venezuelan left has been fiercely divided over Chávez., with the democratic left going into opposition and most of the authoritarian, Leninist left being among his strongest backers. The social democratic AD, the Venezuelan member party of the Socialist International, has always been opposed to Chávez; after support for his initial electoral campaign, the democratic socialist MAS and La Causa Radical and the far-left Bandera Roja went into opposition. By contrast, the Stalinist Venezuelan Communist party and various Trotskyist sects, along with pro-Chávez minority splinters from MAS and Causa Radical, are leading forces in Chávez’s ruling coalition. Whether or not Wilpert is correct that Chávez does not intend to institute a communist style regime, it is clear that Chavistas on the authoritarian left, in Venezuela and abroad, see him as a second coming of Fidel Castro, an anti-imperialist populist who will increasingly take on a Marxist-Leninist hue.

ALTHOUGH DEMOCRATS of the left knowledgeable about the record of the Chávez government will understand the need to oppose it and stand in solidarity with Venezuelan democrats, we need to be discerning about the various forces in the opposition. Some of these figures are no more democratic then Chávez himself and their actions have cost the opposition dearly. The failed coup launched by sectors of the business and military was more than a colossal political blunder. It was a betrayal of the fundamental democratic principle that a duly elected president may only be removed from office by constitutional means, through the election of a successor or impeachment.

By the time the opposition finally fought Chávez on the ground on which it should have met him the first—a referendum vote of the Venezuelan people—it lacked the moral authority and the political credibility to win that battle. Divided and demoralized, it lost. Unfortunately, the entire opposition—and not just the business and military elements that organized the attempted coup—paid the price for betrayal of democratic principle. Even though the CTV leadership condemned the coup before it was clear that it would fail, for example, Chavistas have continually insinuated that it was really supportive. In order to save the Venezuelan democracy that Chávez has done so much harm; the opposition will have to prove itself anew to be the voice of the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people. And to do so, it must be led by unimpeachable democrats.

Fidelity to democratic principle also requires that supporters of democracy in Venezuela hold our own governments accountable for their actions. Considerable circumstantial evidence suggests that highly placed American officials had foreknowledge of the failed coup in Venezuela. The New York Times and the UK Guardian have reported numerous meetings between Otto Reich, undersecretary of state for Latin America, and the leaders of the coup, including chief plotter Pedro Carmona Estanga, in the months leading up to the coup. Although one can only speculate on what was said behind closed doors, it is clear, at a minimum, that American officials took no positive steps to prevent the launching of the coup. And that must be completely unacceptable to American democrats. In a context where so many elements employ double standard—Chavistas opposed to coups against, but not by, Chávez, and anti-Chávez forces in the business and military opposed to coups by, but not against, Chávez—it is imperative that democrats, in the United States as well as in Venezuela, speak clearly and employ a single standard: democracy and human rights must be respected by all. Some truths are not all that complicated. •

LEO CASEY has participated in and written about human rights campaigns and international solidarity work within the American labor movement.


Amnesty International, “Venezuela: Human Rights under Threat.” 2004. []
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela,” 2003.[]
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, “Internationally Recognized Core Labor Standards in Venezuela,” 2002. []
International Federation of Journalists, “Missing Link in Venezuela’s Political Crisis: how Media and Government Failed a Test of Journalism and Democracy,” 2002. []
Human Rights Watch, “Caught in the Crossfire: Freedom of Expression in Venezuela,” 2003. []; and “Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence under Siege in Venezuela,” 2004. []

Gregory Wilpert Replies

I AM GRATEFUL TO Leo Casey for his detailed response to my article. It allows me to explore some of the stereotypes about Chávez and Venezuela that I lamented in my article. There is no doubt in my mind that Casey presents Chávez as what I referred to as “the stereotype of the caudillo (strong man).” His elaboration of this charge is full of false or distorted claims about what has happened in Venezuela.

With regard to human rights abuses, Casey mentions violent attacks against opposition demonstrations. Although it is true that people were killed during demonstrations between April 2002 and March 2004 (hardly before or since that period), there are several facts one should be aware of when drawing conclusions about Chávez government with regard to this violence. First, the violence came from both sides of Venezuela’s political divide and affected both Chávez supporters and opponents equally. Chávez’s security forces, however, were almost never responsible for these deaths. Rather, in all except for one case the deaths were caused either by unidentified shooters (such as during the April 2002 coup), civilians from both sides, or by city police under the control of a city mayor who was with the opposition.

Second, the record of human rights abuses, such as the breaking up of peaceful demonstrations or the torture of arrested demonstrators has been much better during the Chávez government than during the previous governments. Venezuela’s security forces have had an abysmal human rights record for decades, and only during Chávez’s presidency has it begun to improve.

Third, to bring up extrajudicial killings as evidence of Chávez’s repression of the opposition is absurd. To call these the action of “death squads” or “disappearances,” conjures the image that these are politically motivated killings to annihilate the opposition, as was the case in El Salvador, Argentina, and Chile. However, not a single one of these extrajudicial killings was politically motivated. The people who have been affected by actual death squad activity in Venezuela are Chávez’s supporters. More than seventy peasant leaders have been killed by hired assassins in the past four years in Venezuela’s countryside over land disputes. All of these peasant leaders were Chávez supporters. Also, the only assassination of a well-known political figure was of a Chávez government official (Danilo Anderson) who was investigating those involved in the coup.

Fourth, Casey claims, “Scores of government critics are now being rounded up in political arrests,” without saying a word about the circumstances. First of all, only a small handful of political leaders have been arrested, and in all cases there is a clearly actionable case against them: their active role in the April 2002 coup. In almost all cases the individuals in question have been released from prison and are awaiting the results of an investigation or of a trial. In several case, such as that of an oppositional mayor, a judge has ruled in their favor. Not one person has been convicted so far, for a coup that abolished the Constitution and all constitutional branches of government and that placed the president under arrest. If this had happened in the United States, one can be certain that many would be facing the death penalty three years after the fact.

THE NEXT AREA Casey touches upon is the supposed repression of freedom of speech in Venezuela. Perhaps Casey should have mentioned, before anything else, that Venezuela’s media, despite all of the attacks it has supposedly suffered, are still among the most anti-government media in the world. Even now, hardly a day passes when news paper and the airwaves are not full of attacks against the government. As for the “repressive new legislation,” it is true that various groups have criticized it and in some cases rightly so, but the fact is, the law does not establish prior restraint in any way, as Casey claims. There is indeed a law against disrespecting public officials, but this law was on the books for decades before Chávez came to office. True, some of the penalties have been toughened, but, unlike during previous presidencies, this aspect of the law has not been applied during the Chávez presidency a single time. I agree with some of the watch groups’ criticisms of the law, but it is no more restrictive than the broadcast regulations (the law only affects broadcast media) that exist in many other democratic countries in the world. The area that Casey claims has been the most seriously affected is labor. Unfortunately, here too, he leaves out important details that would paint a completely different picture than the stereotype he is developing. He quotes Chávez as wanting to “demolish” the old labor federation, the CTV. It is well known that Chávez’s rhetoric has always been over the top, and such statements cannot be taken literally. In addition, there was a consensus that the Venezuelan labor movement had to be reformed. Polls consistently showed that unions and the union federation were perceived as the least trusted and most corrupt institutions in Venezuela. As for Chávez’s supposedly decreeing a halt to collective bargaining, this is not true. This action was taken by the Constitutional Assembly, which set a 180-day time limit.

Next, Casey claims that Chávez established a new union federation under his control, the UNT. This is simply not true. The UNT has had serious internal debates as to how far it should go to support Chávez on various occasions. There are plenty of problems with this new federation, and it could still implode, but it is false to portray it as the government’s effort to undermine the right to organize in Venezuela.

Finally, Casey tries to discredit Chávez on the basis that he has divided the Venezuelan left and not united it. The fact is that the Venezuelan left used to be far more divided than it is now. The claim that the “Leninist” left sides with Chávez, thereby making his coalition authoritarian, is absurd. Venezuela’s Communist Party plays an insignificant role in the Chávez’s coalition and does not have a single member in the cabinet or in the National Assembly. Much more important is the PPT (Fatherland for All) party, which has its roots in the labor movement and which has several cabinet members, including the labor minister. Of course, the most important party is Chávez’s own, the MVR (Fifth Republic Movement), whose members come from a broad spectrum of parties. The real reason that several parties split from the Chávez coalition has less to do with his abrasive style (although that cannot be discounted) and more to do with differences in policy. For example, those who left, such as Solidarity, wanted to compromise with the opposition over the land reform law while Chávez did not.

Casey concludes that democrats must apply one standard and that this truth is not so complicated. I absolutely agree. The problem is not that such principles are complicated, but that the situations in which such principles would be applied are.

GREGORY WILPERT is a journalist and sociologist who has been living in Venezuela for five years. He edits the Web site and is publishing a book on the history and policies of the Chávez presidency with Verso Books.

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