Venezuela: Still A Democracy

Planned Venezuelan constitutional reforms are portrayed as 'another
Chavez power grab', a notion challenged by Mark Weisbrot of US
thinktank CEPR

By Mark Weisbrot - New Statesman
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On 2 December Venezuelans will vote on a number of amendments to
their constitution. Generally speaking the proposals have been
portrayed in the media as the next step on the road to dictatorship.

That's because the mainstream media generally abandons quaint
notions of balance and objectivity when reporting on Venezuela.
Curiously, this often extends to left-of-centre newspapers not known to
slavishly follow the Bush administration's lead when reporting on other
oil states where regime change is either sought, Iran, or in process,
Iraq.

The biggest fuss this time seems to be the amendment that would abolish term limits for the presidency.

Perhaps it is because I am from Chicago, and had only one mayor from
the time I was born until I graduated college, that I am unable to see
this as the making of a dictatorship.

Not to mention that if Hillary Clinton is elected next year, we will
have Bushes and Clintons as heads of state for a full consecutive 24
years, and possibly 28.

President Lula da Silva of Brazil defended Venezuela last week,
asking why "people did not complain when Margaret Thatcher spent so
many years in power". He added: "You can invent anything you want to
criticise Chavez, but not for lack of democracy." Lula has repeatedly
defended Venezuela's government as democratic, but these comments are
never reported in the English language media.

Chavez is also castigated for proposing to get rid of the
independence of the Central Bank, which is inscribed in the 1999
constitution. This is portrayed as just another "power grab." However,
there are sound economic reasons for this amendment.

Central Banks that are not accountable to their elected governments
are not altogether "independent" but tend to represent the interests of
the financial sector. In the trade-off between growth and employment
versus inflation, the financial sector will always opt for lower
inflation, even if it means stagnation and unemployment.

The increasing independence of central banks, and the resultant
overly-tight monetary policy is very likely one of the main reasons for
the unprecedented long-term growth failure in Latin America over the
last quarter-century.

There is also an amendment that would provide Social Security
pensions to workers in the informal sector, which would be a major
anti-poverty measure, given that this includes about 41 percent of the
labour force.

Another would reduce the working week to 36 hours. This is being
reported in the media as a 6-hour day, but more likely it will be
interpreted as four eight-hour days plus four hours on Friday.

There are also amendments that would ban discrimination based on
sexual orientation or physical health; provide for gender parity for
political parties; guarantee free university education; make it more
difficult for homeowners to lose their homes during bankruptcy. It is
hard to argue that these are punishing or repressive measures.

Another amendment would reverse the 1999 constitutional provision
protecting intellectual property. This would not abolish patents or
copyrights but would allow more flexibility for the government in
addressing the enormous economic inefficiencies caused by
state-protected monopolies, e.g. in areas such as patented
pharmaceutical drugs. This is difficult to argue against on economic
grounds.

There are other amendments that are more controversial, most of them
added not by Chavez but by the National Assembly (Chavez cannot veto
amendments added by the Assembly; these have to go to the voters).

For example, one amendment would allow the government to suspend the
"right to information" (but not due process, as reported in the
international media) during a state of national emergency. Another
would allow the President and the National Assembly to create new
federal districts and provinces.

Some of these provisions have drawn opposition even among Chavez's
supporters. If they are approved, it will likely be because the
majority of voters trust Chavez and the government not to abuse their
powers.

And there is some basis for this trust: the National Assembly
earlier this year gave Chavez the power, for 18 months, to enact
certain legislation by executive order. The pundits screamed about
Chavez "ruling by decree," but in fact this power has not been used
much at all, except in dealings with foreign corporations.

In any case, the voters will decide, with a far stronger opposition
media than exists in the United States proselytising against the
government. Venezuelans have not lost civil liberties the way people in
the U.S. (or even the UK) have in recent years, and ordinary citizens
continue to have more say in their government, and share more in its
oil wealth, than ever before. It is doubtful that the referendum will
reverse these changes, regardless of the outcome.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from
the University of Michigan and has written numerous research papers on
economic policy.