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Chavez's Fix | The Nation

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Chavez's Fix

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This, then, is the second major weakness of Venezuela's new "participatory" democracy: the old institutions associated with "representative democracy" remain as weak and dependent as ever. The Bolivarians were right that their country's democracy was incomplete without more effective mechanisms for direct participation. But the obverse is also true: participatory democracy doesn't truly empower people in the absence of strong, independent institutions through which citizens can assert their rights against the state itself.

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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.

I know Chávez supporters who understand this. But there clearly are some who don't, and Chávez himself appears to be one of them. He has lambasted Chavista labor leaders who insist that their unions remain politically independent, inveighing against what he calls the "venom of autonomy" within organized labor. He has assailed Chavista politicians who refused to merge their own parties into a single socialist party, denouncing them publicly as "counterrevolutionaries" who, by questioning his efforts, had joined the "opposition." He has attacked Chavistas who would seek "to neutralize decisions of the revolution, through a judge, or a court, or even in the very Supreme Court, behind the back of the leader of the revolution, acting from the inside against the revolution." In a nationally televised speech, Chávez bellowed that such judicial challenges would be considered "treason against the people, treason against the revolution!"

In another country, such talk of treason might portend political prisons and clandestine graves. But this is Venezuela, where hyperbole is a local inflection; and this is Chávez, whose policies are rarely as violent as his verbal barrages. Still, the president's bully-boy tactics do have consequences. On the positive side, they may have helped to bring down a decrepit old regime by exposing suppressed political differences and propelling people to take sides. Yet they can also have the far more unsavory consequence of suppressing differences and silencing dissent. Such an impact has already been felt in some communities, according to Bolivarian activists I spoke with in Caracas last year, feeding what Wilpert calls a "personalistic politics" in which "faithfulness to the Bolivarian project, loyalty to Chávez and uncritical acceptance of all of Chávez's policies are seen to be one and the same thing." Andrés Antillano, the veteran organizer who drove me through the hills of Catia, described his frustration at repeatedly hearing people at community assemblies cite Chávez's declarations to silence neighbors who had offered opinions different from their own. "This is supposed to be about their views, not Chávez's," he said. Antillano insists that the Chávez presidency has created unprecedented possibilities for empowering the country's poor. But he has mixed feelings about the president's role today: "The great paradox here is that the same leader who played such a critical role in launching and promoting this democratic process could end up being the one who puts the brakes on it."

At its core, the 2007 referendum was all about power. The sixty-nine constitutional amendments proposed by Chávez and his supporters in Congress contained a wide range of disparate measures, some of them quite progressive, such as a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But the main thrust of the referendum was a transfer of state power. The question still being debated in Venezuela today is: transfer to whom?

For Chávez and his supporters, the referendum was a means to empower "the people." But the clearest beneficiary would have been the executive branch. For starters, presidential term limits would have been abolished, making it possible for Chávez to pursue his declared goal of remaining president for another fifty years. Chávez supporters argued that indefinite re-election would be "more democratic," as it would allow the electorate to decide how many terms a president would serve. But Chávez torpedoed this talking point when he explained why the proposal to abolish term limits would not apply to other elected officials. Term limits were needed, he insisted, to prevent these office holders from becoming "caudillos."

Another amendment would have allowed the president to create new federal provinces, cities, districts and defense regions anywhere in the country, and to handpick the officials who govern them. In theory, these new jurisdictions would coexist with already established ones. Yet given the wealth and power of the national government, these appointees could easily be used by the president to supplant the authority of democratically elected state governors and mayors.

A third amendment--a clear threat to human rights--would have granted the president sweeping emergency powers, including the power to indefinitely suspend basic due process guarantees, such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. It would have made it possible, in other words, during states of emergency, to sentence people to lengthy prison terms without having to prove they had committed any crime. Moreover, this amendment would have eliminated the requirement that an emergency had to exist for a state of emergency to be declared. Instead, the mere "possibility" of a "situation capable of generating" an emergency would suffice. While Congress would still have to approve emergency decrees, it would no longer be able to revoke them once they were in place. The amendment would have also eliminated time limits on states of emergency, thus allowing the president to maintain them indefinitely. It would have removed the requirement that emergency decrees suspending rights be approved by the Supreme Court and comply with international human rights treaties (which allow the suspension of some rights during states of emergencies, but only temporarily, and never allow suspension of basic guarantees like presumption of innocence and fair trials).

Chávez supporters justified these emergency powers by invoking April 11. In their minds, the failed coup is a grim reminder that democratic governments must be able to protect themselves from enemies determined to destroy them. Of course, unlike others who employ such formulas (such as the Bush Administration in Guantánamo Bay or the Castros on the rest of Cuba), the Chávez government is to date not guilty of systematically imprisoning people without due process. Chávez supporters pointed to this comparatively clean record when defending the proposal. But their defense raises the question: if Chávez wasn't inclined to engage in such abuses, why did his supporters go to such lengths to empower him to do so?

As for "power to the people," the reforms would have enshrined the concept of "popular power" in the text of the Constitution, creating a "fourth level" of government. It would have given constitutional recognition to community councils, workers' councils, fishermen's councils and half a dozen other councils, as well as cooperatives and communes, through which this "popular power" would be exercised. One amendment would have guaranteed that at least 5 percent of the federal budget be set aside for these mechanisms. Another would have mandated the passage of legislation that would authorize the councils to engage in an array of administrative functions currently carried out by state and municipal governments. What the reforms would not have done, however, was grant the councils the autonomy they now lack. The councils might indeed "empower" people to challenge state and local governments, yet the councils themselves would still rely on the president for official recognition and funding. Consequently, the transfer of power from state and local governments "to the people" would have been, to a large extent, just another transfer of power to the president.

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