Even more troubling has been Chávez's handling of the country's judiciary. A main plank of his 1998 campaign was the promise to rid the courts of rampant corruption and political interference. The Chávez government created a historic opportunity to do so with its 1999 Constitution, which created a new Supreme Court and established strong protections for judicial independence, such as the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote of Congress to impeach a sitting justice. But once this new court's rulings began to manifest the same divide that had polarized the country--with the justices split equally for and against Chávez--the Chávez camp abandoned these protections and launched a takeover. In May 2004, the Chavista-led Congress passed a law that added twelve seats to the twenty-member Supreme Court and created new mechanisms--in flagrant violation of the 1999 Constitution--to remove sitting justices.
The results were predictable. Congress filled the new seats with committed Chavistas, including Luis Velásquez Alvaray, a main sponsor of the court-packing law, who proceeded to fire hundreds of lower-court judges, only to be removed from the bench two years later by means of one of the unconstitutional measures he had helped design (he was subsequently impeached). The official reason for the justice's removal was corruption. The real reason--the justice claimed in a dramatic news conference before fleeing the country--was that he had resisted pressure from members of Chávez's cabinet to fire a judge on political grounds.
The principal justification for the court-packing legislation had been a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that absolved military officers of their role in the April 11 coup against Chávez on the absurd grounds that what had occurred on that day was not a coup d'état. And the new, packed court promptly overruled that earlier decision in March 2005. Yet remarkably, six years after the coup, no one has been successfully prosecuted for his role in removing Chávez (and thanks to an amnesty Chávez announced in December, it looks like no one will be). But then again, it did not help that the same Chavista Congress that expressed such outrage at the court's attempt to deny the reality of the coup had itself rejected calls for an independent truth commission that could have determined, once and for all, what actually happened on April 11, 2002.
For more than five years, Chávez has exploited the events of April 11 much the same way Bush has exploited September 11:
as a basis for expanding executive power. The coup has provided the main justification for purging the military, packing the Supreme Court, removing RCTV from the public airwaves and, most recently, proposing a constitutional amendment that would empower the president to suspend due process rights indefinitely. Chávez and his supporters have repeatedly condemned presumed coup supporters in the court of public opinion but have shown less interest in trying them in a court of law. In this sense, they have proven themselves to be, like many of their opponents, more concerned with pursuing power than promoting the rule of law.
Of course, concepts like "the rule of law" and "due process" have often been manipulated, in Venezuela and elsewhere, to perpetuate political exclusion. A degree of distrust of such concepts is understandable and perhaps even healthy, especially if it encourages efforts to promote effective new forms of democratic accountability. Venezuela's "participatory democracy" seeks to do just that through something called the "social audit," one of the more appealing notions of the Bolivarian project, which has been incorporated into a variety of laws governing public administration in recent years. The aim is to allow ordinary citizens and community organizations to monitor government agencies and programs rather than passively depending on institutional mechanisms to hold officials accountable for them. It is a role that Chávez supporters I've spoken with clearly relish.
It's one thing to criticize the Chávez government, however, and another to criticize Chávez. During my visits to several Caracas barrios last year, I repeatedly heard Chávez supporters vigorously denounce the corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement of government programs but argue in the same breath that Chávez himself wasn't to blame. The problem, they insisted, was that state institutions remain bloated with bureaucrats from the "old regime," or that the president's cohorts aren't cut from the same revolutionary cloth as their leader. What's more, they pointed to these failings as reasons for granting Chávez more power, not less. Chávez, it would seem, has succeeded in molding a persona out of a material more potent than Teflon. Complaints about his government don't just bounce off him. They make him stronger.
The real test of how powerful the new "popular power" actually is may come the day any of these community groups becomes disenchanted with the president. Right now, it's unclear how far most would go in challenging Chávez, since they depend on the president's office to certify their community councils, approve their projects and allocate the bulk of their funding. In fact, such dependency is a major weakness of the current model of "participatory" democracy in Venezuela, and eradicating it would require granting the councils greater political and financial autonomy. But even if they were more autonomous, how would local councils actually challenge state power? How could any community-level organization prevail against a powerful national president? Realistically, the only way would be by turning to other powerful state institutions for protection or support.
But in today's Venezuela, where would they turn? The courts? The 2004 court-packing neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. The Congress? Since the opposition's 2005 electoral boycott, the legislature has been controlled almost entirely by Chávez supporters who, as Chávez has publicly observed, owe their seats to their affiliation with him. What about labor unions? While the Chávez government has encouraged the formation of new labor organizations, it has also systematically undermined union independence--according to the International Labor Organization--by interfering in union elections, creating obstacles to collective bargaining and discriminating against non-Chavista unions. It may be true, as Chávez supporters argue, that these institutions are no more politicized than they were before Chávez. But this fact--however useful it may be for exposing the double standards of some of his critics--is small consolation for the people who need these institutions to promote their interests and protect their rights.