[This short article was originally intended for publication in Limón, the quarterly newsletter of the University of New Mexico's Student Organization of Latin American Studies (SOLAS).]
As a former military insurrectionist and officer, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Frias is a very easy target for political attacks. It is very easy for people to believe that a leader with such a history is "authoritarian," that he "gags" the press, that he forces everybody to listen to his long monologues, and that he doesn't allow competing voices. While it may be easy to construct such an image of Venezuela's president, it is also quite dishonest and inaccurate.
After recently spending seven weeks in Caracas, I witnessed a political environment that struck me as markedly different from how it is often portrayed in the U.S. press. I found political democracy and freedom of expression to be alive and well in Venezuela.
Democracy and Authoritarianism
Based on my own experience, I find that characterizations of Venezuela's government as "authoritarian" tend to be highly inaccurate and poorly contextualized. From my perspective, some recent descriptions of the Chavez government on the SOLAS list-serve are simply incorrect.
For example, one recent claim is that Venezuela's president "currently controls the executive, judiciary and legislative powers" and that he assigns "almost all executive government posts (ministries, state governorships, municipal governorships) to military officials…"
By what measure does the Venezuelan executive "control" legislative powers? In Venezuela, the National Assembly and state and municipal governors are democratically elected by the Venezuelan people.
As for Venezuela's Supreme Court, its recent expansion was first debated and then approved by the National Assembly. In contrast to the U.S. system, in which the president makes judicial appointments and Congress votes on whether to confirm them, Venezuela's National Assembly selects Supreme Court magistrates.
The Venezuelan executive branch does indeed appoint its ministers (as do all executive branches), but it is simply untrue that Venezuela's president assigns all ministerial roles to military officials. Neither the education minister (Aristobulo Isturiz), the foreign minister (Ali Rodriquez) nor the Vice President (Jose Vicente Rangel) come from the military.
Another claim on the SOLAS list-serve is that the "Chavez government is more centralized and authoritarian than any other government we have had since the start of the democratic era in Venezuela."
I find the above claim to be utterly absurd. One need not go back very far in Venezuelan history to find governments that acted in ways that were far more authoritarian than anything we've seen under the Chavez government. For example, former Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi once shut down a television program simply because it dared to identify the president’s mistress.
In February 1989, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez sent the military into the country's streets to crack down on popular riots against the government's neoliberal "reforms." Estimates of how many people died during the crackdown range from 400 to 1000, but the government obstructed investigations into the precise number of deaths.
Carlos Andres Perez also censored the press. World Press Review reported in February 1993 that, in the wake of two coup attempts in 1992 (one led by Chavez), "the government of Carlos Andres Perez immediately imposed severe censorship on the country's media."
Freedom of the press under Chavez
Another claim on the SOLAS list-serve is that "there is now such censorship of dissent… that we cannot know really what is happening."
Again, I find this claim to be absolutely mind-boggling. While I was in Venezuela, I saw a number of opposition marches. I did not witness any crackdown on political dissent.
As for the private media, most newspapers and television channels are in the hands of the opposition, and the opposition media say pretty much whatever they please.
It is true that some provisions of a new media law are vague enough so as to be interpreted to crack down on opposition media, but that's not what's happening. Nobody is going to jail for insulting the president.
Just two weeks before I returned to the U.S., I turned on Globovision (an opposition news channel) and saw an opposition psychiatrist claiming that Venezuela's president was mentally unfit to rule. The psychiatrist went on and on about his diagnosis of Chavez's so-called dementia.
It was quite obvious to me that the opposition channels were not being cowed into toning down their criticisms of the government. People on all political sides of the equation are quite accustomed to media attacks upon the president, and nobody seems to be up in arms about it. For just about everyone, including people working for the government, this is just part of daily life. It seemed to me that the government was so popular that it was not really concerned about all the opposition media's distortions of its record.
In fact, I would venture to say that U.S. libel law is more restrictive than anything I saw in Venezuela. From my perspective, much of the opposition media are just disinformation machines that constantly behave in ways that would be considered libelous in the United States.
If you spend any time reading El Universal –Caracas' most conservative newspaper– you find that its owner and editors are not the least bit cowed by the government. They call Chavez a "strongman" (caudillo) whenever they feel like it, and there is literally no dissenting opinion in the paper’s op-ed section; virtually every commentary attacks the government.
When you're in Venezuela and you watch the news and read the newspapers, it's just laughable to hear all the claims of press gagging. From my perspective, it was a bit absurd to see the publication of articles with damning claims of "censorship" in the same media that were supposedly being censored.
From my perspective, the political opposition is simply so unpopular and desperate that it cynically screams "censorship" and "authoritarianism" in hopes that foreign media and the international community will take the bait and start screaming along with them.
Make no mistake; assertions of "authoritarianism" and "censorship" in Venezuela tend to be highly disingenuous.
Justin Delacour is a freelance writer and a doctoral student of political science at the University of New Mexico.