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Chavez's Fix | The Nation

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Chavez's Fix

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There's nothing intrinsically undemocratic about a civilian president controlling a country's armed forces or its national oil company. In fact, establishing civilian control of the military has been one of the key challenges facing democracies throughout Latin America in recent decades. What is troubling, however, is when a democratic government openly advocates political discrimination within these and other state institutions, as Chávez and his ministers have repeatedly done. A month before the 2006 election, for example, two private TV stations broadcast a video in which Rafael Ramírez, the head of PDVSA and energy minister, tells employees to give up their jobs if they don't support Chávez. Rather than criticize the speech, Chávez publicly urged Ramírez to "repeat it one hundred times a day" and then called upon all oil workers and military personnel to "go away to Miami" if they were not "with the revolution."

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Daniel Wilkinson
Daniel Wilkinson covers Latin America for Human Rights Watch. His book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror,...

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If you found George W. Bush's 2000 victory in Florida difficult to stomach, imagine being on the losing side of Mexico's 1988 presidential election.

These were hardly idle threats, as Ramírez made clear in his speech, warning employees, "We removed 19,500 enemies of the country from this business and we're ready to keep doing it." Ramírez was referring to PDVSA workers who had been summarily fired after the 2002 oil strike and then blacklisted from future employment in the energy sector. Many other Venezuelans found themselves blacklisted in 2004 when they signed the petition to hold the recall referendum against Chávez. After the petition was submitted to the National Electoral Council, Chávez instructed this supposedly autonomous agency to release their names to a Chavista congressman, Luis Tascón, who posted them online. The resulting "Tascón List" was then used by government officials to exclude Chávez opponents from jobs and services. The official reason for the list was to help weed out fraudulent signatures, while the official justification for the mass firing of oil workers was that their strike had been an act of "sabotage" that severely damaged the country's economy. Whatever the justifications, however, the lesson drawn by many Venezuelans was that opposition to Chávez could cost them their livelihoods.

The most well-known case of political discrimination is Chávez's decision not to renew the license of the main opposition TV station, which resulted in its removal from the public airwaves last May. Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) was one of four private channels that used to provide uniformly antigovernment programming, most notably during the 2002 coup, when it urged viewers to join opposition protests and then blacked out news coverage when the coup began to unravel. Subsequently, the two other stations with national coverage dropped their partisan programming. (The fourth, which has remained critical, is a twenty-four-hour news station with far more limited viewership.)

Chávez's supporters defended the RCTV decision by pointing out, correctly, that the station's broadcast license was expiring. They also argued that its support of the 2002 coup provided ample grounds for the government not to renew its license. Yet what was disquieting wasn't the decision so much as how it was rendered. The government singled out RCTV for condemnation at the same time that it renewed the license of a station that had supported the 2002 coup but subsequently dropped critical coverage of Chávez. And it denied RCTV's owners any form of due process to contest the charges against them. Moreover, Chávez chose to present the decision as an overtly punitive and politically motivated one. And, for good measure, he did so in a nationally televised speech, standing in military dress before rows of troops and declaring that his government would no longer tolerate private media that were "against the people, against the nation, against national independence and against the dignity of the Republic!"

Why the unnecessary provocation? It may have been, as Chávez's critics argue, an attempt to intimidate the remaining opposition media into toning down their criticism. After all, he had wielded the threat of nonrenewing concessions in the past in response to critical coverage. (After stations broadcast the video of his energy minister's discriminatory speech, Chávez publicly warned them, "Don't be surprised when I tell you, 'There are no more concessions.'") Or maybe it was the contrary: Chávez wanted more criticism, not less. Until then, provoking the opposition had been like hitting a political piñata: the harder Chávez struck, the more electoral candy he got. (If that was the rationale, it may have been the worst miscalculation of his presidency, as the RCTV closure helped spawn an opposition student movement that would play a decisive role in his defeat in the December referendum.)

Yet multiple interviews with seasoned Chavistas led me to still another explanation, one that strikes me as the most interesting for what it suggests about Chávez's approach to democracy. All the years under the old regime had instilled in Chávez and his entourage an abiding distrust of the sort of institutional procedures that could have guaranteed RCTV a fair hearing. Even when they control the institutions that administer those procedures, they still don't trust them.

This profound distrust of government institutions is shared by many Venezuelans, especially those who voted Chávez into office in 1998 largely on his promise to repair the country's dysfunctional democracy. But once the Chávez camp came to power, the predominant attitude within its ranks seems to have morphed from distrust into outright disregard. One glaring example is the "enabling" law that Congress passed in January 2007, which effectively surrenders the body's legislative role to the president for eighteen months by granting him the power to pass laws by decree, subject only to an up-or-down vote in Congress.

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