Debate on the Legitimacy and Effectiveness of Venezuela’s Chavez, Part III

Colin Forbes and Greg Wilpert continue their discussion of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Chavez government.

For the previous installations of this discussion, see:

By Colin Forbes, April 1, 2004

Dear Mr. Wilpert,

Thank you very much for your prompt reply. One of my main purposes in participating in this debate is to demonstrate how persons who may have completely different points of view can disagree in a civilized manner. I totally agree with your statement that the insults launched by some members of the opposition against President Chávez’s supporters only serve to “dehumanize and disqualify fellow human beings.” It is important to remember that despite our serious differences, eventually we will all have to work together to build a country we can all be proud of. Hopefully, this is something President Chávez will remember next time he chooses to insult all those who oppose his Bolivarian Revolution. Without further delay, I will proceed to answer some of the comments in your letter.

1. Constitutional Reform – You argue that one of the reasons Chávez’s government was so eager to complete the Constitutional Reform process was that it believed that a new Constitution was necessary in order to implement his program and to fulfill his campaign promises. I think the government would be a little bit naïve Mr. Wilpert to believe that by simply drafting a new constitution, they would be able to resolve the deep social problems confronting them. One only has to look at the social and economic indicators since the implementation of the new Constitution to realize the absurdity of this idea. During Chávez’s government, poverty in the country has reached unprecedented levels. According to some generous estimates, approximately 70% of the Venezuelan population now lives in poverty. What is even more disturbing Mr. Wilpert, is that Chávez’s government has benefited for the majority of his period in office from the most favourable oil market since the 1970’s.

Therefore Mr, Wilpert, I would venture to say that somewhat less altruistic motives were involved in the government’s push for the new Constitution. The biggest reason why Chavez and his supporters were so keen on completing the new Constitution was to take advantage of the wave of popularity surrounding them after the elections. He knew that the faster a new constitution was drafted, the higher were its chances of being approved. He also knew that the quicker he held elections for the different posts under the new Constitution (i.e. the National Assembly), the higher were his chances of solidifying his hold on power. I have criticized President Chávez on many different fronts, but even I must admit he is a very cunning and astute politician.

In addition Mr. Wilpert, it would be an understatement to say I deeply disagree with you when you say that “as long as no rules were broken, the democratic nature of the state is intact.” Mr. Wilpert, let me kindly you remind you that the democratic nature of the state does not solely rest on the fact that rules are followed. Even the most barbarous and heinous of states possess laws. Democracy, Mr. Wilpert, also encompasses the accountability of public officials. It is very difficult for public officials to be accountable to the general public when those in charge of supervising their activities are named by those very same officials and are more than willing to overlook any offences. This situation compares to that of a corporation where all the members of the board of directors are named by management. These directors will not be in a position to safeguard the best interest of the shareholders of the corporation since inevitably they will seek to protect the managers to whom they owe their positions. To conclude Mr. Wilpert, a democratic government is one which fosters open discussion and tolerates dissent. Do you consider it democratic when President Chávez threatens to change the Law of the Venezuelan Central Bank simply because it would not give him the ‘insignificant’ sum of US $1 billion? In my opinion, a democratic system is one in which these matters are rationally and openly debated and a solution is reached through compromise and not through bullying and sheer force.

2. Inclusiveness of Chávez’s government – I would define by “inclusiveness” as any attempt made to insert the largest amount of people in the political and economic life of a country. I find it rather odd that you would mention Chávez’s enabling laws within a discussion of inclusiveness. As you mention in your letter, “these laws are what really embodied much of the Chávez government program.” The enabling laws are, however, a perfect example of the exclusiveness and the autocratic nature of Chávez’s regime. Similar to what is currently occurring with the Central Bank of Venezuela, the government’s goal was to exclude any negotiation or compromise and to achieve its objectives through any means necessary. By doing this, however, the government ignored the critical role that the Legislature plays in a democratic state. In a democratic society, the composition of the legislative branch of government should generally reflect that of the general population. Therefore, citizens are expected to obey the laws since they are inevitably the product of a delicate compromise between the different groups in society. By trying to bypass Congress and seeking to institute his programs through executive decree, President Chávez sought to avoid the kind of compromise and negotiation that would be necessary in order to obtain Congress’ approval. Therefore Mr. Wilpert, it should come as little surprise the kind of opposition the government encountered as it attempted to institute its programs through executive decree rather than through the normal legislative process. This kind of opposition Mr. Wilpert is normal when you try to exclude large segments of the population from the decision making process and is not simply the result of a ‘vendetta’ opposition members have against the government.

3. Corruption – In your letter you state that opposition members only complain about corruption but offer little or no advise on how to remedy the situation. Corruption Mr. Wilpert, and I think we both would agree on this, is a very complex issue and as such also requires complex solutions. In order to begin to eliminate the problem or corruption not only must we begin to offer public employees better remuneration, but we must also create more opportunities and jobs in the private sector. In addition, we must begin to create an atmosphere where people know that administrative crimes will be prosecuted and that any public official convicted of such crimes will be punished. Regarding my latter suggestion, I would suggest that a useful starting point, and this was suggested earlier, would be to place truly independent individuals at the head of those institutions in charge of supervising government activity. This is precisely the opposite of what currently occurs with Venezuela’s Attorney General’s office. It is impossible that a person who is so openly a Chávez supporter (in fact, he was his Vice-President) to fulfill his Constitutional obligation to ensure that public officials responsible for illegal administrative acts be brought to justice (1999 Constitution, Art. 285(5)). Even Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government, which the President and his supporters, denounce as one of the most corrupt governments in Venezuela’s history, had an independent Attorney General who successfully prosecuted Pérez of embezzlement and misappropriation of government funds.

As the list of charges of corruption against Chávez’s government continues to grow, it is imperative that these charges be properly investigated in order for the government to maintain any semblance of public credibility. This investigation, however, will continue to be neglected as long as government supporters remain firmly in charge of those institutions in charge of investigating and prosecuting administrative crimes. This may be the main reason why Chávez’s government has yet to be convicted of any crime. Quite simply Mr. Wilpert, without prosecution, it is impossible to have convictions.

4. Referendum Process – Regarding the referendum process you state that the government and its supporters have no doubt of their legitimacy and therefore this is not a valid reason to hold a recall referendum (RR). In my opinion, however, it is possible for a government to lose legitimacy during its time in office. A government even though it was initially elected by a majority of its citizens, seizes to be legitimate if during its time in power its popular support decreases up to a point where it can no longer be considered legitimate. When governments in Parliamentary systems experience a loss of support that virtually makes it impossible for them to carry out their agenda, they are dissolved and early elections are scheduled. Despite the fact we might continue to disagree on the matter of Chávez’s government’s legitimacy, we do agree on the fact that a RR is essential to achieve political stability in Venezuela. However Mr. Wilpert, you state that it is perfectly valid for the government to stall a RR for political considerations. Is a valid political consideration to try to maintain office at the expense of the welfare of an entire country? Let me kindly remind you Mr. Wilpert that what is at stake here is not only the life of President Chávez’s regime, but the lives of many Venezuelans. I do not believe I exaggerate when I state that as long as a democratic solution is not found to this problem there is a real possibility of a civil war in Venezuela. Furthermore, without a RR it will be impossible to create a climate which fosters economic activity in the country. If President Chávez truly is concerned about the welfare of the Venezuelan people, he should immediately remove any obstacles in the way of the referendum. Then maybe we can all begin to build a better country.

Best regards,

Colin Forbes

P.S. Congratulations to Venezuela on their historic victory in Uruguay. Arriba la Vinotinto!!!

Reply by Gregory Wilpert, April 2, 2004

Dear Colin Forbes,

Let me jump right to the issues we are discussing:

1. Constitutional Reform – You say, “The government would be a little bit naïve, Mr. Wilpert, to believe that by simply drafting a new constitution, they would be able to resolve the deep social problems confronting them.” That would be naïve indeed. However, I did not mean to imply in any way that this is what the government believed. Rather, what they believed was that constitutional reform was a pre-requisite for reforms elsewhere, such as in the inclusion of excluded sectors of Venezuela’s population, such as women and the indigenous peoples or the revision of Venezuela’s entire legal system. The new constitution required the passing of a large number of new “organic” laws, such as the Law on the protection of children (LOPNA), that would not have happened had the constitution not been reformed first. While I agree that much remains to be desired in terms of the implementation of the constitution and the “organic” laws, they are among the most advanced laws in Latin America and thus open the path for real social change in Venezuela.

You are absolutely correct, though, when you say that an important motivation was for Chavez to “take advantage of the wave of popularity surrounding them after the elections.” On the other hand, it’s not as if constitutional reform was a surprise strategy. Chavez had always announced his intention to revise Venezuela’s constitution once elected. So it is fair to say that Venezuelans both knew what they were voting for and that they wanted the constitutional reform. He had a clear mandate to do so.

With regard to the democratic nature of a government, I certainly did not mean to suggest that the following of any kind of law would ensure democracy. I was clearly talking about the Venezuelan state and its laws, which I believe are supposed to provide the framework for a liberal/participatory democracy in Venezuela. Perhaps you disagree with me that Venezuelan laws are supposed to that in Venezuela, but I doubt it. All I meant to say is that as long as these laws are not broken, then we are still talking about a (liberal) democracy (with many participatory elements).

You go on to say that the lack of separation of powers undermines the democratic nature of the state. This is certainly true, but Venezuela’s situation in this respect is not much different from many other democracies. That is, it is quite common in democracies all over the world that the same political party controls all three (OK, in Venezuela’s it’s five) powers, simply because either the executive or the legislature appoint the other powers. President Kennedy appointed his brother as Attorney General. George Bush appoints good friends and ideologues to the judiciary. Until societies find a better way to avoid this from happening this will be a fact of life. One way that Venezuela has found to make sure that appointees to the judiciary and the moral powers are not there due to a simple majority is to appoint them via a two-thirds majority of the legislature. This is exactly what happened when the Supreme Court and the Attorney General were appointed. The fact that opposition folks changed their minds about them after they helped put them into office is nothing to blame Chavez for. They only have themselves to blame. Any politician, ANY, would have done the same in Chavez’ position with regard to the appointments: appoint people that they feel they can trust.

This does not mean that Chavez controls them. That’s another favorite opposition claim that has no substantiation. Believe it or not, Chavistas can think for themselves – it just so happens that more often than not they tend to agree with other Chavistas than with the opposition. There should be absolutely nothing surprising about that.

1b. Poverty – With regard to the increases in poverty that you mention, there are several responses to this. First, one has to acknowledge that poverty indeed has not really declined since Chavez has come into office. There are several reasons for this, but the most important, in my opinion, is that with the April 2002 coup attempt and the 2002-2003 two-month oil industry shutdown, the economy received severe blows that certainly had an effect on poverty levels. Before these politically induced economic crises happened, the Venezuelan economy has growing in 2000 and 2001 (though, it did drop already in late 2001, due to the falling oil prices at that time). There are indicators, though, that suggest that some aspects of poverty have improved, ones that are not directly connected to income, such as infant mortality rates, which dropped from 21 deaths per thousand live births to 17, in the period between 1998 and 2002. Others improvements include the illiteracy rates and the school attendance rates.

2. Inclusiveness – You say, “I find it rather odd that you would mention Chávez’s enabling laws[1] within a discussion of inclusiveness.” Yes, it does not surprise me that you would find it odd. Indeed, the concept of an “enabling law” is rather undemocratic. However, here one should keep in mind that this is not something that Chavez invented. Such laws were already in existence during Carlos Andrés Perez first presidency. Personally, think they are pretty stupid, very much like the “fast track” authority that the U.S. congress gives the U.S. president for trade agreement negotiations. But still, one should, first, keep in mind again that the authority for these laws were given by at least 60% of the National Assembly, which means that people who are now with the opposition voted in favor of giving the president that authority. Second, (and I know the opposition denies this) many of these laws were discussed within their respective sectors quite extensively before they became law. Perhaps not as much as they should have, but in the context of Venezuela’s history I doubt it was all that unusual.

3. Corruption – I am happy to see that we agree on the complexity of the problem. All too often it is portrayed as something that ought to be simple to deal with. I especially agree with you that the low level of public employee salaries is probably one of the most important factors in the persistence of corruption.[2] In any case, as I meant to suggest in my earlier reply, we probably don’t disagree all that much that corruption remains a serious problem in Venezuela. I should add, though, that highlighting the Carlos Andrés Perez case is a bit misleading because the Attorney General who prosecuted him did so only after his Perez’ own party, Acción Democratica, abandoned him. No Attorney General, as far as I know, ever did anything about the 1,000 or so people it massacred during the Caracazo (or the countless people who were tortured and disappeared during that regime).

4. Referendum process – I’m afraid we disagree 100% when you say, “A government, even though it was initially elected by a majority of its citizens, [ceases] to be legitimate if during its time in power its popular support decreases up to a point where it can no longer be considered legitimate.” Legitimacy is of course also a complex topic, but by modern political theory standards, popular support between elections, by itself, has no bearing on legitimacy. As I said before, a government would have to break the rules of the democratic game for it to lose (democratic) legitimacy. By this standard that you mention, governments all around the world, once they drop below a certain percentage would have to organize new elections. Most framers of constitutions were smart enough to realize that it would be impossible to govern a state like this, which is precisely why they instituted specific time periods for elected officials’ terms in office.

You say, “When governments in Parliamentary systems experience a loss of support that virtually makes it impossible for them to carry out their agenda, they are dissolved and early elections are scheduled.” Well the response is quite simple: Venezuela does not have a parliamentary system, but a presidential one (like the U.S. and France).

As to whether it “Is a valid political consideration to try to maintain office at the expense of the welfare of an entire country,” I would say that the real question is what is the welfare of the country and who determines it? Generally it is the majority of the citizens during election time and between elections it is the elected representatives (or their majority). Also, every citizen has the right to say what they consider to be the best for their country and in this sense President Chavez has not been doing much else than any other citizen: in the light of a suspicion of fraud he is voicing his opinion that everyone who has a say in the matter, such as the Electoral Council and the Supreme Court, should make sure that a potential referendum is called only on the most solid and transparent basis. You or I might disagree with his opinions, but this is his right and this is all, as far as I can tell, he has done until now. True, his supporters, such as the Comando Ayacucho have filed court cases, but so has the opposition and all sides are simply exercising their rights. We might disagree with them, but there is nothing per se wrong with what they have done.

You are correct in pointing out the dangers of the situation and the danger for civil war. However, it is extremely difficult to say what is more likely to lead to an escalation: the lack of a recall referendum or a recall referendum called under what Chavistas feel are dubious circumstances. The best scenario would be, and I think you’ll find many Chavistas would agree with this, is that there is a recall referendum, but only when it is crystal clear that the signatures that convoked the referendum were legitimate. I know, the opposition thinks that the claims of “mega-fraud” is just a smoke screen. And it might be for some. However, it is not for most Chavistas. If these do not feel that the decision to have a referendum was legitimate, then all hell could break lose. People on the opposition must understand this. If all sides feel it is legitimate, then I don’t think there will be any problem with having one.



[1] For those who do not know, “enabling law” refers to a type of law where legislature gives the president the authority to pass laws on certain issues by decree, within a limited time period. At least 60% of the Assembly must vote in favor of granting the president this type of authority (Constitution, Art. 203).

[2] It is not unusual for a minister to earn the equivalent of $1,000 per month (at the black market exchange rate). While some First World folks might think that’s probably not so bad for a Third World country, one should keep in mind that the income calculated to keep a family over poverty level in Venezuela is estimated at around $200 and that rents in middle class neighborhoods tend to hover around at least $300 per month.