For the discussion that Aleksander Boyd of VCrisis initiated, see: Debate on the Legitimacy and Effectiveness of the Chavez Government
Colin Forbes writes to Greg Wilpert, March 29, 2004:
Dear Mr. Wilpert,
I truly appreciate the fact that you would take the time and effort to participate in an open debate regarding Venezuela’s current political situation. One of the main problems in Venezuela’s current power struggle is that passions on both sides have become inflamed to the point where there is little or no debate among the parties involved. On the one side, the government and its supporters accuse opposition members of constantly scheming to overthrow President Chávez; while on the other side, opposition members accuse President Chávez of trying to create an autocratic regime in Venezuela. As long as this situation continues, there is the constant danger that either of the parties involved will try to end the stalemate through violent means. In order to avoid this outcome, it is imperative that both sides try to reach an amicable resolution to their dispute through an honest, open, and public debate of their differences. Hopefully, your exchange with Mr. Boyd will encourage others to follow along a similar path. Having said this, there are a number of comments I would like to make concerning the statements you made on December 23 in response to Mr. Boyd’s comments.
I would like to begin on some of the comments you made regarding the Constitutional Assembly’s appointments. Although you recognize that there were significant problems in the appointments of the Supreme Court’s judges, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, and the Human Rights Ombudsman, you seem to justify these actions based on the fact that the whole process of drafting the new Constitution was a bit haphazard and that some uncertainty is inherent in any such process. Let me kindly remind you Mr. Wilpert that it was not opposition members who were demanding that the new Constitution be quickly drafted, but it was the government who seemed to be desperately pushing for a new Constitution. Could it be the case Mr. Wilpert, as it is often said in Venezuela, a muddled river benefits the fisherman? In addition, Mr. Wilpert, you state that the uncertainty surrounding the drafting of the new constitution does not in any way affect the “legitimacy of the Venezuelan state.” Although as you say this does not affect the legitimacy of the state, does it not raise some serious issues regarding the democratic nature of the state? Finally Mr. Wilpert, the ratification of these appointments by an elected National Assembly does not eliminate their questionable nature. The Venezuelan public’s mandate to President Chávez was for him to fulfill his electoral promises; it was not a carte blanche for him to destroy all institutional constraints on the exercise of power.
I would also like to make some brief statements regarding your opinion that President Chávez’s government is more inclusive than previous governments. First you state that one of the ways that Chávez’s government has been more inclusive is through his land reform program, which for the first time has allowed many peasants to own their land. I do have to give President Chávez credit for bringing up such a sensitive issue in Venezuela considering that landowners are such a powerful interest group in the country. However, to the best of my knowledge, Chavez’s government has made little or no progress in land reform and there has been little change from the situation that existed under previous governments. In addition, you mention that citizens have been empowered through the creation of local councils of public planning. Once again, I must applaud the government for having such an innovative idea, but the sad truth is that these councils have little or no input in the decision-making process. I would even venture to say, that many of these councils spend more time trying to monitor the activities of government detractors rather than discussing local politics. I could continue to discuss some of the other examples of public participation you have mentioned, but I believe that the previous two examples are sufficient to highlight what is the basic problem with Venezuela’s current government: that it is yet to fulfill the vast majority of its promises.
Another point on which I respectfully disagree with you Mr. Wilpert is that there has been a modest decrease in corruption during Chávez’s government. As you clearly pointed out Mr. Wilpert, corruption is indeed a very difficult thing to measure. Nevertheless, as you also pointed out in your response, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index is the most authoritative standard used to compare corruption among the different countries. According to this index, however, from 1998 to 2003 Venezuela’s CPI score went from 2.3 to 2.4 (not 2.5 as you mentioned in your comments). This seems to be a rather modest improvement for a government who has often stated that the war on corruption is one of its main objectives. In addition Mr. Wilpert, you highlight the fact that the Chávez government has done a great deal to fight corruption by reducing the amount of funds assigned to the “partidas secretas” (secret funds). One of the main problems with these secret funds was that the lack of control over the use of the funds bred rampant corruption. Do you not consider that the Chávez’s government did a similar thing when it gave the military nearly unsupervised use of public funds through the Plan Bolivar 2000?
In addition, Mr. Wilpert, I find somewhat disturbing your justification for Chávez’s constant disregard for the rule of law. You seem to justify his actions by arguing that Venezuelan society as a whole shows a wanton disregard for the rule of law. This seems to be the classical argument of a child when he is caught by his parent doing something wrong responds, “everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I do it?” The answer to this question Mr. Wilpert, is that the President of a country is not any common citizen. He is under a sworn obligation not only to abide by the Constitution and laws of the country, but also to ensure that these rules are enforced. If any leader is to effectively fulfill this obligation, he must first show that he is willing to follow the precepts of the law. Only then, can he truly demand that other citizens (i.e. the opposition) also abide by the law.
Finally, Mr. Wilpert, I would like to know if in light of the latest decision by the Electoral Council and the Supreme Court, you would reconsider your statement that Chávez’s government has advanced “the democratic exercise of the will of the people” through the creation of the referendum mechanism. It seems to me that the creation of such a mechanism is of little use when you create an endless amount of obstacles before it can be implemented. I understand the government’s concern that these mechanisms be carefully regulated in order to eliminate any possibility of fraud. Nevertheless, it seems to me that what should be carefully supervised is the referendum itself and not process leading up to that referendum. It would only seem logical that the government given the amount of political instability over the last couple of years would be more than willing to submit itself to an election process that would dissipate any doubts concerning its legitimacy. Do you not agree, Mr. Wilpert?
Thank you for your patience, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Greg Wilpert replies to Colin Forbes, March 30, 2004:
Dear Colin Forbes,
I must say, I was pleasantly surprised to see you pick up the conversation that Aleksander Boyd and I had barely begun, but which ended prematurely for reasons that are unclear to me. What made the surprise pleasant is the respectful tone that you chose to re-start the conversation in. I agree with you 100% that passions on both sides of the debate on Venezuela get in the way of having any kind of productive dialogue and so it pleases me to have this opportunity to reply to someone where insults don’t take the place of reasoned argument. The insults I have seen recently launched against those supporting the Chavista interpretation of events in Venezuela, whether on VCrisis or CaracasChronicles, serve no purpose other than to dehumanize and disqualify fellow human beings. The final result of which can be all too often quite tragic. So, I want to thank you for your foray into this debate in this manner.
Let me proceed by dealing with each of your points one by one.
1. Constitutional Reform – You state, “…it was not opposition members who were demanding that the new Constitution be quickly drafted, but it was the government who seemed to be desperately pushing for a new Constitution.” Yes, I am aware that it was the government that pushed for rushing the constitutional reform. While it makes sense to take such a serious process slowly, I think it also made sense to rush the process because Chavez could fulfill his campaign promises only via such a reform process. That is, he wanted to implement his program as soon as possible, but he and most Venezuelans believed that in order to do so he had to reform the constitution first. As such, this whole issue really is one of strategy and not of legitimacy. I mean, as long as the process was legally legitimate, which to me it seems it was, whether the process was right or wrong beyond that had more to do with how and why Chavez and his supporters were pursuing their goals.
You then ask, “does [this process] not raise some serious issues regarding the democratic nature of the state?” Well, all I can do here is to repeat what I said before, which is that as long as no rules were broken, the democratic nature of the state is intact. As far as I can tell, you and Aleksander have not pointed to a clear violation of the rules, but only to some problems, which, as I also said, don’t appear as clear violations, but as matters of some constitutional interpretation and debate in Venezuela. If there had been a clear violation or illegality, then surely the opposition could or should have organized general strikes back then, prior to the referendum on whether the constitution should be approved. This did not happen and so, it seems to me, there was general acceptance that the process was valid and legitimate.
Next you say, “The Venezuelan public’s mandate to President Chávez was for him to fulfill his electoral promises; it was not a carte blanche for him to destroy all institutional constraints on the exercise of power.” I agree that no president ever has a “carte blanche” for anything. But for this argument to have any weight we would have to discuss exactly how Chavez supposedly destroyed “all institutional constraints on power.” As long as I don’t have those arguments there is not much I can reply to.
2. Inclusiveness of the Chavez government – You say, “Chavez’s government has made little or no progress in land reform and there has been little change from the situation that existed under previous governments.” I obviously disagree. According to government sources (I know: people in the opposition give them no credibility) and according to numerous campesinos I have talked to, almost as much land has been redistributed in the past two years as under the entire period of the last land reform (which was instituted in 1960 and quickly forgotten). Over 2 million hectares have been distributed to over 117,000 families (that is approximately 500,000 people). So far this has been government-owned land, so that privately owned land has (practically) not been affected. This land redistribution has been accompanied with low-interest credit, training, and farming equipment, in consultation with the experts from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This program has the potential (it is too early to tell for sure) to be one of the most effective land reform programs in recent Latin American history.
Next, you say, with regard to the local participatory planning councils, “the sad truth is that these councils have little or no input in the decision-making process.” This is another matter that is too early to know for sure. Most councils have been put into place only recently. However, I know for a fact that there are thousands of councils working actively to make their local government more accountable. True, there are many problems with their effectiveness, but this is a program that takes much time and very few people in Venezuela have any experience as to how to make it work properly. The real point here is that something concrete and viable is being done to make local government more accountable and less corrupt.
The problem with a program such as Chavez’s is that it cannot be implemented in a short amount of time. This is why the constitutional reform process was rushed and this is why many of the results are still not visible. One has to keep in mind that the entire first year (1999) was mostly devoted to constitutional reform, the next to elections, and it was not until the end of 2001 that the government really began implementing its political program, via the 49 “leyes habilitantes.” These laws are what really embodied much of the Chavez government program. However, the program’s implementation faced much opposition, via the coup in 2002 and the oil industry shut-down in 2002/3. With all of these political and economic disruptions it is no wonder that the results are slow in proving themselves. I realize that the opposition says that Chavez has only himself to blame for the ferocity of the opposition. I believe that there is some truth to that argument, but it’s only part of the story. The other part is that there are many people in Venezuela who did not want Chavez to implement the program he was trying to implement, no matter what the cost to the country.
3. Corruption – I agree with you that the progress made in this area has been “rather modest improvement for a government who has often stated that the war on corruption is one of its main objectives.” But rather than complain about the state of affairs Venezuela’s opposition ought to come up with concrete proposals as to how to limit corruption. I don’t mean of the kind “throw the crooks in jail”, but systemic or institutional ones. Accusations of corruption in Venezuela are used as a political weapon all of the time. I know this for a fact. People who I know very well to be completely free from corruption have been accused of it, solely because the accuser hoped to gain political points by making it. As such, these accusations by themselves mean nothing.
As for Plan Bolivar and the corruption involved in it, I agree that this program appears to have had some serious problems in this regard. However, I think that this can be accounted to Chavez’ relative political inexperience and his tendency to blindly trust people without implementing proper checks on their behavior. From what I can tell, he has since learnt from the experience and all those who were in any way suspected of corruption in that program have been removed from office. Subsequent programs, from what I have heard, are much more tightly controlled. I know many people who work in the government and it is ridiculous how difficult it is to get it to fund even the most legitimate projects, all because of controls on limiting potential corruption.
Ideally, of course, Plan Bolivar law breakers should be prosecuted. This is indeed one of the government’s greatest weaknesses (which it shares with previous governments): its inability to prosecute its own.
4. Rule of law – this closely relates to the previous point. You say I “justify [Chavez’s] actions by arguing that Venezuelan society as a whole shows a wanton disregard for the rule of law.” In going over what I wrote I can find no support for what you say. First, it is a touchy issue whenever someone tries to explain something; it is all too easily read as a justification. Second, I never meant to imply that “Venezuelan society as a whole shows a wanton disregard for the law.”
Let me repeat exactly what I wrote. I said: “I think the rule of law and a political culture in which the rule of law is respected is fairly weak in Venezuela as a whole. As such, President Chavez constitutes no exception to the ambiguous relationship that Venezuelans have to the law (I myself find myself running red lights in Caracas because people behind me are furiously honking at me to go on and ignore the red light).” This, to me, is not saying that there is a “wanton disregard for the law.” More importantly, I do think that Chavez should be held to the highest standards of upholding and abiding by the law. I have absolutely no problems with that.
However, I think it remains to be proven, as to whether Chavez has actually violated the law in any instances. I know; the opposition points to cases such as the diverted FIEM money (the Macro-Economic Investment Fund). Come to think of it, other than that, I cannot think of any decent examples. As far as that issue is concerned, I think the opposition yet has to prove that there was real law breaking involved.
5. Referendum process – Here you suggest that Chavez has created “endless amount of obstacles before [the referendum] can be implemented.” While I agree that the obstacles towards organizing a recall referendum (or any referendum) are extremely high, I disagree that Chavez has created these. Certainly, he has favored them, in his self-interest, but that does not mean that he has in any way influenced or controlled the national electoral council into creating them. As far as I can tell, the pro-Chavez council members (and I know one of the principal members and one of the substitutes personally) do not take any orders or advice from Chavez, directly or indirectly. So, as long as there is no proof that Chavez has unduly influenced the process, the argument that he is an opponent of democracy falls apart.
You conclude by saying, “It would only seem logical that the government given the amount of political instability over the last couple of years would be more than willing to submit itself to an election process that would dissipate any doubts concerning its legitimacy.” I don’t think that Chavez or anyone else in the government have any doubts that the government is legitimate. So that would not be a reason for them to support a recall referendum. However, I do think that political instability would be a good reason for supporting it. But that is a purely strategic consideration and not one that has much to do with proving one’s legitimacy. I personally think a referendum would be a good idea, but I can also see why many in the government would not.
With regard to whether the referendum or the petition for calling a referendum should be closely supervised, I tend to agree with you that it is more important to regulate the referendum itself. But, again, I think these are all issues that are debatable and enter into what I would consider a politician’s strategic considerations. Being in favor of or against a referendum by itself is not the mark of a democrat. Rather, it is whether you abide by the rules of democracy. And, as far as that is concerned, many in the opposition, via the April 2002 coup attempt, have shown a worse track record than Chavez. In my mind, it has not been proven at all that Chavez has broken any of democracy’s rules (while he was president). I know opposition folks vehemently disagree with this, but to clarify this, one ought to debate the specific instances that, according to them, prove Chavez is not a democrat, instead of throwing around slogans such as “Chavez is a dictator.”
I look forward to your reply.