Condemning Venezuelan Democracy In Order to Save It

Venezuela’s strongman Hugo Chávez is at it again, thwarting democracy in his South American country by winning elections, supporting workers, and prosecuting coup leaders. But, never fear, Congress will put a stop to it.

“Whereas Venezuelan President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías chews the heads off of live koalas,” declared Congressman Connie Mack’s (R-Fl) resolution, proposed last week in the U.S. House of Representatives, “it is the sense of Congress that it should be the policy of the United States to actively support the aspirations of the koala forces of Venezuela to liberate themselves from the strongman’s insatiable appetite.”

Actually, the document declared no such thing. But its inaccuracies and anti-democratic resolutions rendered it no less absurd.

The proposed resolution was based on the premise that the United States must intervene in Venezuela because of Chávez’s anti-democratic actions. These crimes fell into six main categories, none of them actually being anti-democratic, or at least any more anti-democratic than recent US actions, and most of them being pro-democracy.  

But the curious aspect of the proposed resolution isn’t as much its regurgitation of commonly repeated inaccuracies or unsubstantiated claims, as it is its purpose. It doesn’t seem to have one.

It’s suggestions as to what the US should do with regard to Venezuela, are exactly what the US is saying it’s doing: supporting the opposition (officially known as the “democratic forces of Venezuela”); working with the OAS; and unilaterally funding the opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID.

It’s also not even original in being the first bill of its sort before Congress. So why does Congress, through a resolution that does not have the power of law, repeatedly dredge up passé excuses to support Washington’s ongoing interference with Venezuela’s internal affairs?

The reason is two-fold. The first is that, as the resolution says, Chávez is trying to “destabilize” countries in the region, by supporting “radical forces” (otherwise known, in many cases, as their governments). This is true in the sense that Chávez is trying to shift the balance of power in the region away from the US. Washington doesn’t like this, for good reason. It may be in the interests of the people of Latin America, but it’s certainly not in the interests of the White House.

The second is that it’s getting increasingly difficult to interfere in South America. The people of Latin America, after 20 years of Washington approved economic policies, have seen one of history’s largest slowdowns in economic growth. And they’re reacting by increasingly electing presidents that are opposed to these neo-liberal policies. These newly elected presidents, at times with the help of Venezuela’s funds, are more and more able to ignore US mandates. And the Venezuelan government has been taking an increasingly hard line against organizations, such as the NED and USAID, which have successfully been used to bend countries’ politics to fall more in line with Washington’s will. So the US is effectively losing Latin America.

This, then, is Washington’s last ditch attempt: an increasingly obvious disinformation campaign. The purpose of this proposed resolution isn’t to change US policy, rather it’s to find another platform to call Chávez anti-democratic. It seems to be the only plan Washington has left at its disposal. And the country needs the smoke and mirrors created by a baseless claim of the anti-democraticness of one man (the rest of the Venezuela government is scarcely acknowledged in the proposed resolution) if it’s to convince the world that it shouldn’t just leave Latin America alone, and let the people choose their own policies … democratically.

The proposed resolution presents no criticisms of Chávez that are new to Washington’s circles, but it is worth taking another look at Washington’s line and seeing what constitutes an “anti-democratic action.” Because once Washington loses the propaganda battle in Venezuela, it is one step closer to learning that condemning democracy in order to save it will no longer work.

Anti-democratic Action 1: Winning

The resolution took issue with three electoral victories of Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) party. To be clear: it does not question MVR’s wins, but rather, the legitimacy of consistent electoral victories leading to more political clout within the country.

It seems that, according to the proposed resolution, the will of the people not withstanding, the democratic thing for Chávez to do would be to lose.

Referring to the August 2004 referendum, the resolution says that the 18-percentage point victory, “enabled [Chávez] to virtually rid the political landscape of any official opposition, thereby eliminating any political space in [Venezuela].” It’s not immediately clear why a victory would allow Chávez to clear the political landscape; it’s logical that the huge electoral loss would not be the cause of the weakness of the opposition, but rather a reflection of it. But even to the degree it is true, the real question is, besides losing, what pro-democratic actions could the MVR have taken to ensure that the opposition remained on the political landscape.

The proposed resolution suggests that Chávez may have been, in fact, working towards an alternative solution, saying that Chávez “attempted to thwart [the referendum] at every turn.” It does not say whether these were the actions of a dictator hell-bent on preserving power, or merely someone altruistically trying to prevent the huge electoral loss that would be yet another nail in the coffin of Venezuela’s old political elite.

The answer, it turns out, is neither. Because while Chávez, his administration, the Venezuelan electoral council (CNE), and the Supreme Court were certainly actively engaged in creating and defining the new referendum process, there is no evidence they partook in any significant degree of referendum thwarting, as the proposed resolution asserts.

The opposition complaint of political interference in the referendum process, repeated in Mack’s resolution, stems from two decisions. One was the Supreme Court’s call that the recall referendum could not take place until halfway through Chávez’s term, instead of as a consultative referendum several months earlier, as the opposition had wanted. Chávez himself, of course, had no authority to make this decision, so it cannot accurately be said that the high court’s verdict constitutes referendum thwarting on the president’s part. Chávez had said, however, prior to the Supreme Court decision, that no matter the result, he would not give up the presidency based on the proposed consultative referendum that was to ask, “Do you agree with asking the President of the Republic…to resign immediately and voluntarily from his office?” But even his refusal to agree to resign based on this proposed referendum can hardly be considered referendum thwarting, given the definition of “voluntary.”

The second complaint was that the CNE set up a process that was too restrictive in terms of protocols for collecting signatures and verification procedures. But after the process was finally set up (which took the better part of half a year) neither the CNE nor the Supreme Court did anything to prevent the referendum from taking place. And Chávez’s sole contribution to the process, after the procedures were set up, was to encourage people to go out and vote.

Mack’s resolution goes on to criticize two of MVR’s other wins as having anti-democratic consequences. The 1999 referendum on the new constitution, which passed by a wide margined, “has allowed President Chávez to increase his dominion over the democratic institutions of Venezuela,” it says. Likewise, the resolution asserts that the recent National Assembly elections, where MVR and coalition parties won every seat because of an opposition boycott, has given “Chávez…full control over every institution in the Venezuelan government.” (Presumably by which the proposed resolution refers to the federal government, as there are opposition governors at the state and local levels).

It’s true that the governing coalition now controls the executive and legislative branches, and that the National Assembly has appointed mostly MVR party members to the other three branches of government. However, this is different from Chávez himself having full control over every body; Chávez appoints only other members of the executive, the National Assembly is chosen by election, and the other three branches of government (Electoral Council, Supreme Court, and Citizen Power[1]) are composed of National Assembly appointees.

Chávez’s lack of control over other governmental branches is evidenced by major divisions between them, including the attorney general’s challenge, using largely opposition arguments, to the controversial National Assembly penal code reform. Mack’s resolution does not mention this, nor does it mention that a court’s recent decision to free, pending trial, the three men accused of being the masterminds behind Venezuelan state prosecutor Danilo Anderson’s murder was roundly criticized by the head of the National Assembly, but went unchallenged by the Attorney General’s office. But the resolution did criticize the country for having a loyalist judiciary, saying, “President Chavez has stacked the supreme court and lower courts with loyalist judges, severely crippling the independence of the judiciary.”

Given the well-known widespread corruption throughout the Venezuelan judiciary pre-dating Chávez, it’s unclear what independence was there for Chavez to cripple. However, Venezuelan courts remain well-known for their corruption, despite MVR moves to overhaul the court system. The government’s attempts to remove corrupt judges have led to large numbers of temporary judicial appointees, not uncommon under previous administrations, which compromise judicial independence. Also, the old Supreme Court was dissolved and reinstated under new constitutional processes (temporarily and then permanently), in an attempt to deal with judicial corruption. Later, the National Assembly, when writing the new Supreme Court law, expanded the number of judges from 20 to 32, and weakened the procedures for the confirmation of judges after a highly questionable court decision that prohibited anyone from being charged for the April coup. However, judicial appointments and constitutional changes are made by the legislature, and not the executive branch. So while judicial independence, especially in the lower courts, remains a problem, it is not a reflection of President Chávez “stacking” anything.

But Mack’s specious analysis aside, there have been some legitimate criticisms within Venezuela that the government is, in fact, flawed. Sometimes it works in a less than ideal top down manner during the choosing and promoting of MVR candidates. And its new media responsibility law (which the proposed resolution bemoans) has created FCC-like restrictions on the Venezuelan press. Then too, the government did not set up a secret signatory process for the August 2004 referendum nor did the citizen’s power do all it could to prosecute government (or, for that matter, private sector) employers who fired their employees for participation (or non-participation) in the recall process. And senior government officials’ declarations that they will work to change constitutional term limits so that Chávez can remain in power until he is elected out, as well as the president’s own ambiguous remarks on the subject (he alternates between saying he will step down from presidency in 2012, and saying he will remain in politics until 2021 or 2030, while not specifying in what capacity he would be working) are worrisome.

But there is a simple solution to these problems, at least for the opposition.

It could win an election.

None of the laws Mack’s resolution mentions are substantively stricter than those of the US; most are significantly less so. So, given that the government isn’t enacting anti-democratic laws, the MVR coalition’s domination of all branches of government, and subsequent ability to make laws, is not anti-democratic, but rather the definition of democracy. People vote for the candidate they want, and the candidates who the most people vote for become their elected representatives. They are held accountable by referenda and future elections; gains of a party are seen as citizens’ vote of confidence, losses as citizens’ discontent with a party’s performance.

So the problem, from the US’s point of view, isn’t so much that democracy isn’t working, as that it is.

Anti-Democratic Action 2: Controlling Oil Prices

“President Chávez was the only head of state to visit Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf war,” Mack’s resolution declares, “[and he] also associated himself with other dictators including Muammar [Kaddafi], Kim Jong Il of North Korea, and the totalitarian regimes in Iran and the People’s Republic of China.”

After all of the resolution’s concern that President Chávez is destroying democracy by winning elections, its concern about the democratically elected leader’s association with non-democratically elected dictators is refreshing. After all, this is a humanitarian argument. Associations with Hussein or Kaddafi could have allowed the strongmen to strengthen their international image, thereby increasing their grips on their countries, and contributing to further repression.

The proposed resolution was also consistent with Mack’s criticism of US President George W. Bush’s round of hand-holding with the Saudi Crown Prince last April. “I am very concerned with the President’s relationship with Abullah. Saudi Arabia has a barbaric human rights record, especially in relation to women, and the US should not be seen to support such practices,” he said. “Plus, holding his hand made him look queer,” he added, presumably to placate his conservative base.

Of course, in reality, Mack did not come out with any criticism against Bush’s visit with the crown prince, though, given his voting record, he probably would have been more concerned with the gay-ness of it, than any negative human rights implications.

And the proposed resolution’s criticism of Chávez associating himself with China belies the fact that the US has permanent normal trade relationship with the country. Mack himself supported this, having voted to kill an amendment which would have required sanctions against China if it was found to be selling illicit weapons of mass destruction.

So if the concerns are not humanitarian, then where do they stem from?

It’s more likely the main purpose of Chávez’s visits with dictators in Iraq, Iran, and Libya was the real problem. Unlike the resolution implies, however, that was not to hatch evil schemes Gotham-style. It was to revamp the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). And Venezuela has repeatedly said that it wants to diversify its export sales of oil, in particular, quadrupling the amount of oil sales to China in the next 7 years. But while increasing oil prices and diversifying oil markets, in some Washington circles, may amount to a Scarecrowesque plot, it certainly cannot be considered an anti-democratic move on Chávez’s part. Rather, the Venezuelan economy depends on the price of oil, and the social programs which the oil profits are going to are giving many Venezuelans the chance to get healthcare, an education, and have more control over their futures, all of which are core democratic rights.

Anti-Democratic Action 3: Prosecuting Coupsters

The resolution also criticizes Chávez’s treatment of those who have sought to overthrow the government, saying that he “has used the legal system to persecute opponents.” But it’s hard to pinpoint the complaint. It may stem from the leader’s failure to follow in the US’s footsteps after the World Trade Center massacre. In many cases, the US stopped using its legal system to persecute its opponents, choosing instead to simply disappear people. Perhaps the resolution is criticizing Chávez’s softness: he should instead be persecuting opponents in other, non-legal, ways.

After all, after the two-day April 2002 coup, which replaced the president, and dissolved the National Assembly, Supreme Court, and constitution, the Venezuelan government did not set up secret prisons, where prisoners are kept in eternal darkness, chained in positions where they can’t lie down, and forced to listen to loud music for days on end, as the US reportedly did in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It did not proceed to invade neighboring Colombia when the ephemeral dictator, Pedro Carmona, snuck into the country and was granted asylum, as the US did with Afghanistan. It did not then invade Chile, claiming unsubstantiated likes between coup plotters and the Chilean government, as the US did in Iraq. And it certainly did not send DISIP agents to investigate people who bought Carmona’s book recounting his side of the coup, as the US has now done with a college student reading Mao’s Little Red Book for class.

It would seem the US should be praising Venezuela for its show of restraint against those which, with the prior knowledge of the US, sought to overthrow democracy. But, of course, it is doing no such thing, saying that Chávez’s legal prosecution amounts to “violating citizens’ civil and political rights.” The courts have convicted one person for the oil industry shutdown and three more are in jail, pending trial, for their role in the coup. That covers Venezuela’s political prosecution. And it is a mind-blowingly bad show for a man who, according to the resolution, also controls the courts. But, it does prove that if you try to overthrow the government using illegal means you run a very small risk of facing trial or jail.  

The resolution specifically mentions one case of what it sees as political persecution. “President Chavez is using the Venezuelan court system to prosecute and jail for up to 16 years four officers of the pro-democracy organization Súmate (Join up) for voter education activities, and helping to collect signatures for the constitutionally-sanctioned presidential recall referendum,” it says.

While the resolution, being more concerned with attacking Chávez than taking a look at Venezuelan democracy, doesn’t sweat the details, it is worth mentioning that Chávez can’t use the court system to do anything, rather, it’s the Attorney General who brings charges against people. And, in Venezuela, like in the US, campaign donations from foreign governments or foreign government institutions, like the fully Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, are illegal.

The Attorney General’s case against the Súmate members is two-fold: the group set up what the Attorney General’s office views as an alternate Venezuelan Electoral Council, and also used NED money for the recall referendum. Súmate denies these claims, saying that the NED money was used only for non-partisan citizen education workshops. But the AG’s claims are strong enough that they certainly appear to warrant a trial.

But perhaps the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon shed some light on US government’s widely spoken about concern over the case. “The ability of a small amount of money linked to an organization still can have a great deal of impact” in influencing a country’s political situation, Shannon said at a recent hearing on democracy in Venezuela.

So it appears, then, that the democratic dilemma boils down to whether a sovereign nation has the right to prevent the US from using a small amount of money to “have a great deal of impact” on the country’s political situation.

Anti-Democratic Action 4: Worker Support

Coming from a proposed resolution in the US, a claim of union busting would be serious stuff. After all, this was the country that, last week, two-days into a transit strike in New York City, started threatening to throw union leaders in jail. But when the proposed resolution mentions Chávez’s relationship to unions, it’s unclear if they’re accusing him of trampling on workers rights, or supporting them. “President Chavez undermines traditional labor unions in Venezuela by creating parallel, competing, government-affiliated unions within the same company,” it says.

Few blue-collar workers would question the need for an alternative to the country’s traditional labor union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). The union is well known for its corruption and pro-management actions. A recent CTV president, for example, did not support government wage increase and non-layoff laws. The union did, however, in the mid-1990s come to a distinctly anti-worker deal with the Caldera administration. But a worker’s support for an alternative to the CTV is clearly not the same as a workers support for a government-affiliated union trying to siphon away workers from the current system.

But it’s not clear what makes the new union, the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT), “government-affiliated”—or in what sense Chávez “created” it. It is not government funded, nor are government officials among the leadership.

However, its leadership certainly supports the government, and it remains to be seen whether that is because of the government’s positive pro-worker record, or the ideological bent of the leaders. So while it is too soon to say whether the UNT will continue to act in the interests of workers, or instead become government lap-dogs, they don’t appear to be “government-affiliated.”

And, for the moment, the fact that the UNT seems to be is undermining traditional labor unions in Venezuela, is a victory for worker’s rights, and therefore democracy.

Anti-Democratic Action 5: Maintaining a Sovereign Foreign Policy

And then, of course, there is the matter of Chávez’s foreign policy. “President Chavez is supporting radical forces in Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador,” said the resolution.

In the case of the latter two, the proposed resolution appears to be referring to their elected governments. And it certainly seems out of place for a US resolution to be criticizing Venezuela’s relationship with “radical forces” in Colombia, given Chávez’s close ties to Alvaro Uribe’s government. Perhaps the bill would do well to let Colombia take the lead on that issue.

Then, of course, the proposed resolution mentions Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba. “President Chavez has developed a close relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro who is providing President Chavez with advice, medical teams, sports coaches, and assistance with his intelligence and security services,” it says.

Who knew Chávez had sports coaches? Or for that matter, more than one medical team?

But perhaps what the resolution is trying to get at is that Cuba is providing Venezuelan residents with these professionals.

In that case, what the resolution doesn’t mention is that Canada’s former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau also had an extremely friendly relationship with Castro, who attended the former Prime Minister’s funeral in 2000. But, in fairness to the proposed resolution, Canada wasn’t the recipient of a large-scale immigration of Cuban doctors or sports coaches, already having universal health care and preferring hockey to baseball.

And Venezuela’s receipt of Cuban assistance in developing their intelligence services is only worrisome if they are being used to undemocratically spy on residents of the country. The resolution presents no evidence of this.

The proposed resolution goes on to criticize Chávez’s purchases from abroad. “President Chavez has purchased 100,000 Russian AK–103 assault rifles and plans to procure the technology to produce additional rifles and ammunition, has signed an agreement with Spain to purchase Spanish built warships, and has initiated discussions to buy Brazilian fighter aircraft,” it says.

It would have seemed that Washington would have been happy with Venezuela’s decision to update their armed forces 50 year old FAL rifles, and with their acquisition of military assault planes, given its constant criticism of the Venezuelan government’s lackadaisical fight against drug trafficking. But this seems to be a no win situation for the country…it’s either anti-democratically failing to fight against drugs, or anti-democratically acquiring weapons in order to fight against drugs.

But all of this begs the question of how Venezuela’s foreign policy is Washington’s concern. While the vast majority of the proposed resolutions foreign policy complaints were based on policies clearly in the national interest of Venezuela, some were not. There is no obvious strategic reason, for example, that Venezuela should seek to have normal diplomatic relations with North Korea. But what business is that of Washington’s? Venezuela as a free democratic nation can have relations with whoever it chooses, and, should the Venezuelan people object to their government’s foreign policy, it is for them to lobby, protest, and vote, until the policy (or the administration promoting it) is changed.

Anti-Democratic Action 6: Generally Irritating the US

On Monday November 28, travelers to Caracas’ international airport were treated to an incredible sight. The president of their republic stood in front of a planeful of US Congressmen, preventing them from entering the country.

Or so the proposed resolution would suggest. “President Chavez recently refused entry of a senior United States congressional delegation that was to meet with President Chavez to try to ease tensions between the United States and Venezuela,” it said.

Actually, what happened was much more mundane. A plane being used by the Spanish Ministry of Defense was at the gate designated for use by official visitors, inhibiting Hyde’s plane from disembarking. The airport authorities wouldn’t allow the delegation to take a bus off the plane, so after waiting for over an hour, they Congressmen flew to Aruba. In fairness, Washington had objected to the purpose of the Spanish Minister of Defense’s visit, so perhaps in this sense, Chávez was, in fact, personally guilty of hindering the visitors entry.

But, even assuming this “incident” was just a bureaucratic mix-up, Chávez does always seem to manage to get Washington’s knickers in a twist.

In October, after televangelist Pat Robinson—well known for having close ties to the White House—called for the assassination of Chávez, Chávez ordered a group of evangelical missionaries out of the country, saying they had links to the CIA, but providing no evidence. The proposed resolution takes issue with this, saying that it challenges “the democratic principle of freedom of religious expression,” a statement which ignores the reason for their expulsion (ties to the CIA), the right of Venezuela to determine its own immigration policy, and the right of Venezuela’s indigenous to choose their own religion without US influence.

But, in addition to bemoaning Chávez’s ongoing irritation of Washington, not the least of which is caused by his continued vitriolic remarks toward the US President, and his accusations of US interference in the country (at times unsubstantiated, at times backed up by significant evidence), the proposed resolution offers a solution. It “calls for an end to the continued verbal assaults on the United States and the politically-motivated attempts to prevent honest dialogue between the United States and Venezuela meant to help ease tensions between the two countries.”

The solution, it would seem, is for Chávez to just shut up. Yes, the US knew about the impending 2002 coup, but said nothing, preferring instead to initially blame the golpe on the president. Sure, the congressionally funded NED is giving money to organizations attempting to remove Chávez from power. Granted, the International Republican Institute gave democracy training to the parties that decided to withdraw from this month’s legislative elections. But there’s no reason for Chávez to keep talking about it. It’s almost like he’s exercising his freedom of expression, a right which everyone in Venezuela fully enjoys. And free speech that doesn’t support the US must be anti-democratic.

It looks like democracy in Venezuela stands a good chance of surviving despite Washington’s condemnation.  Because the facts keep getting in the way. If Chávez only was being anti-democratic, if he only was “crush[ing] the hopes, dreams and rights of the Venezuelan people,” as Mack asserted, then they might be able to garner public support throughout the Americas for intervention. Unfortunately for the US, poverty is falling, economic growth is healthy, and the human rights violations the resolution implies, don’t exist. So, defaming Chávez is going to be hard, maybe impossible, work.

Eventually people will realize the obvious: koalas, after all, live in Australia, not in Venezuela.

[1] The branch known as Citizen Power consists of the Attorney General, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, and the Comptroller General.