Chávez in Charge

Venezeula's 'enabling' legislation is more likely to prove a path to reform than a road to dictatorship.

Hugo Chávez is a man in a hurry, and this week’s decision by the Venezuelan national assembly to grant him additional powers foreshadows the radical changes that are in the pipeline. President for the past eight years, Chávez has only just begun to scratch the surface of the gigantic revolutionary project that lies ahead. There have been obvious successes. Unprecedented sums of oil money have been diverted towards the country’s poor majority, funding education and health programmes, and providing cheap food. The results are already on show. A freshly mobilised and alert population is beginning to flex its muscles, taking part in political decision-making through a myriad local councils and ad-hoc committees operating at many levels. Nothing like this has happened in Latin America since the Cuban Revolution nearly half a century ago. It is riveting stuff.

Yet all this energy and excitement has been channelled through new institutions, financed directly by the oil revenues, and essentially unmonitored. Again, this is a revolution in progress. At the same time, much of the old, pre-revolutionary Venezuela still remains. The country’s traditional infrastructure is plagued by bureaucracy and corruption, the twin-headed disease inherited from the Spanish colonial era. Bureaucrats, and that means public servants in every ministry and ancient state entity, exist to ensure that nothing ever gets done, while corruption exists to lubricate their powers of inaction. What is true of the state is true of private industry as well. So this week’s “enabling” legislation will give greater powers to the executive at the expense of the legislature, with the hope that Chávez will be able to push through some necessary changes. At some stage, the new institutions and the old bureaucracies will have to be merged.

Is this road to dictatorship or the path to reasonable reform? The nature of the problem is familiar to political scientists, and certainly not new to Latin America. Where should the balance fall between the executive and the legislature? Each country makes its choice, and revolutions provide an opportunity for the balance to be changed.

Allowing the Venezuelan president to issue executive orders is nothing new. It is permitted under the constitution of 1999, as under the previous constitution. Chávez’s recent predecessors availed themselves of a similar facility from time to time, notably when dealing with economic and financial matters. Even Thomas Shannon, the US diplomat in charge of Latin America, admitted in an unusually friendly comment that the enabling law was nothing new. “It’s something valid under the constitution (and) as with any tool of democracy, it depends on how it is used.”

So what is important here is a change in the nature of government rather than a madcap scheme to seize private assets, soak the rich, and nationalise everything in sight by presidential decree. Perhaps the most significant of the planned reforms is the provision of finance and teeth to the “communal councils” springing up in their thousands all over the country. The future “socialist democracy” of Venezuela will depend more on these grassroots expressions of the popular will than the national assembly in Caracas. Since the opposition parties foolishly boycotted the assembly elections, the entirely pro-Chávez assembly has a rather limited use.

For most of the past eight years, Chávez has moved ahead in response to the actions of others. The attempted coup d’etat of 2002, the oil strike of 2003, and the recall referendum of 2004 all led to an acceleration of the revolutionary process. Now he is advancing under his own steam. We know that he wants to retain the commanding heights of the economy, the traditional ambition of Latin American nationalists as well as old-fashioned social democrats. That means oil and gas and electricity, and telecommunications. We know that he hopes to extend the land reform, the essential first step towards rural development. We know too that he wants to improve tax collection and to do something about gross inequality, the untackled evil throughout Latin America except in Cuba. We also know that he is hostile to unbridled capitalism, and has made friendly remarks about cooperatives and other ways of organising the private sector.

Yet the Venezuelan future is still interestingly uncertain and opaque, for the simple reason that Chávez is not a dictator and has never shown the slightest sign of wanting to become one. He has no blueprint that he seeks to impose on the country. He wants to extend press freedom, for example, not to reduce it, and, while curbing the power to make money of irresponsible press barons like Marcel Granier of RCTV, he has also put state funds into the development of community radio and television stations, as well as more ambitious projects like Vive, the new cultural channel, and Telesur, the international news channel. These new lines of communication already provide fresh opportunities for popular participation, the ultimate safeguard of his regime and the source of all future programmes and policies.