Judge Fernando Ramón Vegas Torrealba, the First Vice President of Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) and President of the Electoral Hall of the Supreme Court, was an honored guest at the National Lawyers Guild Convention in Chicago this past weekend. I was able to interview him while he was there about the current situation in Venezuela.
Judge Vegas has been an esteemed lawyer in Venezuela for nearly half a century, having received his law degree in 1971 from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). He has practiced law since that time and has also served as a Professor of Legal Sociology at the UCV School of Law. Justice Vegas was elected to the Supreme Court by the National Assembly in 2005. Recently, he was the Education Director of the DISIP (Venezuela’s intelligence service) where he had a notable impact on changing paradigms for the training of officers in order to teach them about the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela – a constitution created through public participation and debate and ratified by referendum in 1999 — and universal norms of human rights.
As Judge Vegas explains, the Supreme Court has tried to carry out Chavez’s goal of “opening up the judicial process to the people.” This is demonstrated by the fact that the Supreme Court hears and rules upon thousands of cases a year. According to Vegas, “the people now have confidence in the Justice system,” and that’s why they feel comfortable in seeking redress from the Court. Moreover, “justice is now free,” in the sense that people can now initiate cases with absolutely no court fees.
The justice process, moreover, reflects the general revolutionary process since 1999 of providing better and more affordable services to the people, and of sharing the country’s wealth more equitably. This includes free health care, education and housing. In terms of housing, Vegas explains that the government built and provided 600,000 new housing units to the poor in a mere 2.5 years. And, this provision of housing continues apace, with 2500 housing units given away by the government every Thursday of every week.
Vegas, who has a good vantage point as President of the Supreme Court’s Electoral Hall, explains that the government has also made great strides in the past 15 years in “deepening participatory democracy.” One key way the government has done this is by instituting an electoral process which, in the words of Jimmy Carter, is “the best in the world.” As Vegas relates, the electoral system developed since Chavez in nearly fool-proof in that voting machines will not even open unless the voter presents his/her fingerprint, and the machines also will not open if the individual with that fingerprint has already voted.
Justice Vegas made a point to say that, since he has served in the Supreme Court’s Electoral Hall, the Court has sided with opposition candidates in electoral disputes over the Chavista candidates when the facts and the law have warranted. He noted that this happened, for example, in 2008 when the Court found in favor of the opposition candidate for Governor of Thachira, Cesar Perez Vivas, and declared him the winner in a very close vote. He explains that the Court has also awarded elections to opposition candidates for mayor as well.
I asked Justice Vegas to address the recent unrest in Venezuela, and he was adamant that, contrary to how the mainstream media has portrayed the situation, that unrest was not country-wide. As he explained, it is “not true that the whole country was in flames” as was being portrayed. He believes that not more than 3,000 people in the country created the havoc which was reported earlier this year, though they had significant financial backing from both inside and outside Venezuela by forces intent upon removing President Maduro from power. And, while there were 41 people killed in the unrest, Vegas states that only 6 of the deceased were members of the opposition. He explains that the 41 figure also includes bystanders as well as pro-government demonstrators and security forces killed by the opposition, including by sniper fire, during the protests. Vegas also emphasized that those responsible for killing the 6 opposition demonstrators have been arrested, are in police custody and are being tried for these killings.
Similarly, he stated that claims of misconduct, including torture and cruel treatment, by state security forces, have been investigated thoroughly by the government and that five members of the security forces are in fact in state custody and will stand trial for abuses against demonstrators. At the same time, he explained that, unlike in the U.S., police keeping order during demonstrations are not allowed to carry any firearms, even while some of the protesters themselves were well-armed and in fact did fire upon National Guardsmen.
Justice Vegas explains that the demonstrations have largely subsided, and that the current struggle is an economic one. Vegas believes that there has been an economic war waged against the Maduro Administration which is very similar to that waged, with the backing of the U.S., against Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 – a war which ended up helping to topple Allende and bring to power the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Vegas relates that the Venezuelan government has learned from this historical lesson, and is moving to bring stability to the economy and the lives of the poor and middle classes by cracking down on smuggling and reselling of subsidized goods (e.g., gasoline and food stuffs) out of the country; by cracking down on merchants who have been artificially creating shortages and lines for groceries; and by importing basic goods to make sure that grocery shelves are adequately stocked. Vegas also relates that the government is successfully combating crime, reducing kidnappings by 50% this year over last and homicides by 20%.
In short, Justice Vegas is optimistic about Venezuela’s future and believes that the democratic process began by Hugo Chavez 15 years ago will continue and grow.