Venezuela: Dictatorship or Democracy?

The radically different views of the nature of the Chavez government contribute towards greater polarization because they create a vicious cycle of deepening distrust. Thus, we must find other ways of making sense of the situation than these simple slogans

One of the most striking things about Venezuelan politics is just how diametrically opposed perspectives on the situation here are. In its most essential and simplified form, the perspectives tend to be narrowed down to those who say that Venezuela under Chavez has become a dictatorship and those who say that it has become a real democracy.

This dichotomy of perceptions is reflected in three major issues that have taken center stage in Venezuela recently. The first is the recall referendum process, where the opposition says that the government is doing everything in its power to prevent it and the government and its supporters say that the opposition simply does not have the popular support to implement it. The second issue is the recent capture of a paramilitary force in the country’s capital, where the opposition says that the capture was, at worst a government-staged event and, at best, an exaggeration, while the government says the group represents a serious threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and stability. The third issue, which has perhaps not caught on too much yet, is a new Supreme Court law, where the opposition says it paves the way for a “constitutional dictatorship” and the government says it deepens and strengthens the rule of law in Venezuela.

Recall Referendum: Obstacle Course or Insufficient Popular Support?

Venezuela’s opposition and important international observers, particularly from the U.S., such as U.S. State Department officials or Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, say that “there is very little Chavez wouldn’t do to hold on to power.”[1] The argument for this claim rests almost entirely on the presumption that Chavez controls the National Electoral Council (CNE), since this is where, presumably, most of the obstacles to the referendum have been placed. That is, the opposition says that the CNE has made the recall referendum ridiculously difficult by placing strict controls on the signature collection process by declaring over 800,000 signatures invalid (actually, over 1.5 million, if you add the signatures from the pro-government petition drive to recall opposition legislators) because signers did not fill in their personal data themselves, but had someone at the table do it, and by allowing people to withdraw their names merely because they regret having signed the first time around. To this list one would have to add an obstacle placed by the executive and not by the CNE, which is that public employees were supposedly threatened not to sign and, if they did, to withdraw their signature, lest they be fired.

While opposition leaders maintain that all of the CNE “obstacles” were designed specifically to thwart the referendum, they tend to ignore in all of this that it probably has more to do with the extremely profound suspicion that the CNE board majority have of opposition activity. That is, the opposition never takes seriously the distrust that government supporters have of the opposition. The strict controls on the collection process, the suspicion over the forms with similar handwriting, and the opportunities given to “repenters” to remove their names from the petition are all directly related to this lack of trust. Similarly, what government supporters seem to fail to realize is that the opposition has an equally profound distrust of the government. This is why what to government supporters are security measures appear as obstacles and traps to the opposition. Opposition reference to CNE security measures as intentional obstacles and government accusations of “megafraud” merely feed the vicious circle of mutual distrust.

Currently, the mutual lack of trust on both sides is probably too deep to bridge and any call for some kind of “disarmament,” in which government sympathizers on the electoral board or leaders of the opposition give up their suspicion and trust each other is bound to fail. Rather, what each side needs to do, in order to break the vicious cycle, is to recognize and acknowledge the other side’s suspicion and treat it seriously. In practice this would mean that the opposition agrees to all of the security measures (which should also protect against government fraud) and government supporters maintain the greatest possible transparency in all of the procedures for the recall referendum.

The problem is, though, that each side appears to have good reasons for being suspicious. The most notorious example of dirty tricks on both sides is the evidence that has emerged that employers sympathetic to one side or the other (mostly private businesses in the case of the opposition and government institutions in the case of the government) have put pressure on their employees to sign or not to sign, lest they suffer the consequences.

Electoral Council board member Jorge Rodriguez’ mentioning of the category of “repenters”, who would be able to remove their signatures during the period in which petition signatures would be re-confirmed or “repaired” added fuel to the flame of the opposition’s suspicion. Opposition members argue that the government will use this opportunity to put pressure on public employees to remove their signatures. On the other hand, government supporters say that signers should be allowed to remove their signatures if they were pressured to sign in the first place.

In this context, it should come as no surprise then that the recent Carter Center and OAS statement, which compared the petition signing to a vote, where there is no retroactive removal of one’s original indication of will, caused a tremendous uproar among some CNE board members. For government supporters such a statement appeared to favor the opposition’s dirty tricks because it was a clear statement against removing the signers who had signed under pressure. The vicious cycle of distrust or of cheating, depending on your perspective, thus continues.

Paramilitary Forces: Chavez’s “Reichstag Fire” or Real Threat?

Although the historical comparison has, to my knowledge, not yet been made, the opposition is, by and large, arguing that the recent discovery of a group of 130 uniformed Colombian paramilitary fighters on the outskirts of Caracas is a show designed to crack down on the opposition, just as Hitler’s 1933 Reichstag fire was a show to persecute his opposition.

Numerous homes of opposition military officers and some civilian leaders have been searched on the grounds of having links to the paramilitary group. Unfortunately, once again the vicious cycle of mutual distrust has set in, such that government suspicion that parts of Venezuela’s opposition are involved in the plot have led to blanket denials and to suggestions that the paramilitary force was planted by the government in order to persecute the opposition. This type of denial, on the other hand, strengthens government suspicions because the reality and the threat of the paramilitary force is undeniable to them and to do deny it nonetheless suggests culpability. As government suspicion expands to cover large parts of the opposition, the opposition just becomes more convinced that the supposed paramilitary threat is actually a plot to discredit the opposition.

Only the more level-headed members of the opposition and the government have recognized the importance of making a distinction between radical opposition elements who are entirely capable and willing to organize a paramilitary force to overthrow the government, and the more moderate or mainstream opposition that does not have or want anything to do with such tactics. The radical opposition is gathered together in a group called the “Democratic Block” and includes several notorious extreme right wing or even fascist elements. The groups in the Democratic Block were at one time members of the more mainstream “Democratic Coordinator,” but split off from them over two years ago, when it became clear that the Democratic Coordinator explicitly rejected “civil-military rebellion” as the preferred means for ousting Chavez.

The Democratic Block, which enjoys relatively little public media presence in Venezuela, has been publishing pamphlets and printing full page newspaper ads, calling for the population to join the military in a coup against the Chavez government. Several of its members, especially Roberto Alonso, the wealthy Cuban-Venezuelan on whose ranch the paramilitary group was discovered, have been linked to the paramilitary plot. Some government supporters, however, argue that there are plenty of connections between the Democratic Block and the Democratic Coordinator, suggesting even that one acts as a front group for the other. While it is probably true that there are connections between the two, they do appear to be two different and distinct groups. Each of the two groups has, on occasion, issued strong criticisms of the other. Lumping them together once again only fuels the flames of mutual distrust between opposition and government.

It is difficult to imagine that 130 paramilitary fighters could overthrow a government. However, what they could have done is spread confusion, chaos, and instability using urban guerilla warfare tactics against the government, placing bombs and assassinating political leaders on both sides. Their aim, presumably, was to cause enough instability so that Chavez would issue a state of siege, which would then be the necessary pretext for outright intervention by the Colombian armed forces, U.S. Plan Colombia “advisors,” and/or more paramilitary mercenaries. Such a scenario might seem far-fetched, but the recent efforts of the Colombian government to purchase Spanish tanks that could only be used for a land invasion do not bode well. Also, U.S. efforts to diplomatically isolate the Chavez government on the thin pretext of human rights violations (which bear no comparison to those of U.S. ally Colombia), appear to be preparing the ground for tougher measures against the Chavez government.

Government supporters’ fears of a military confrontation, either with a paramilitary force or with an outright invading army, are real, even if the opposition does not believe it. Most people who are in government today come from political parties whose leaders and political activities were persecuted during the 40 years of “democracy” that existed prior to the Chavez presidency. Also, the April 2002 coup attempt left an indelible mark on the psyche of most Chavistas. This is why Chavez has recently proposed strengthening the country’s defense forces. Specifically, he has called for increasing the size of Venezuela’s military, deepening the “civic-military union,” and involving civilians in national defense.[2]

Since most people in the opposition do not give any credence to government supporters’ fears, they naturally assume that the new policy of strengthening national defense represents, in their minds, yet another strategy for repressing the opposition. Opposition leaders are now claiming that Chavez is planning on creating civilian militias, presumably recruited from the pro-Chavez activist groups known as “Bolivarian Circles.” Defense Minister Jorge Garcia Carneiro, however, recently denied such notions, saying that only a reserve of formerly active duty forces is being organized, in accordance with the constitution.

However, the military will be strengthened, both in terms of its numbers and its arsenal. Chavez even warmed up the old cold war slogan, “he who wants peace must prepare for war.” Ironically, Chavez made this statement just around the time that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachov was visiting Venezuela; someone who advocated just the opposite strategy by saying that real peace can only be had if we make the potential opponent feel safe. Preparations for war merely lead to arms races and eventual confrontations. Chavez, by scaring the opposition with a military buildup, and the opposition, by making fun of Chavista fears, thus, once again, merely end up fueling the vicious cycle of antagonism.

Supreme Court Law: Constitutional Dictatorship or Stronger Rule of Law?

As if the confrontations over the recall referendum and the paramilitary presence were not enough, pro-Chavez legislators have recently passed a highly controversial new Supreme Court law. Venezuela’s 1999 constitution requires such a new law and also specifies that the entire judicial system is subordinated, not just procedurally, but also administratively to the Supreme Court. Most of the law’s 29 articles are relatively uncontroversial. However, three provisions in the new law have raised the opposition’s ire.

First, the new law increases the number of Supreme Court judges from 20 to 32. The opposition says that such an increase is unwarranted and that it would allow Chavez and his supporters to pack the court all over again, now that only half of the current judges appear to be sympathetic to the government. Government supporters, however, argue that the current number of judges is insufficient for the case load of the court and that the current number of judges corresponds to the old Supreme Court of the 1961 constitution which had only three chambers, while the new one has six.

Second, the new Supreme Court law allows judges to be named with s simple majority, should three previous efforts to name judges with the constitutionally required two-thirds majority fail. Here the opposition argues that this subverts the previous two-thirds majority requirement that the earlier Supreme Court law had set, allowing the legislature to name judges with a simple majority. Pro-Chavez legislators point out, though, that given the current impasse in the nearly evenly divided legislature, an escape hatch for naming judges must be found. Besides, naming judges by simple majority is not all that unusual in the international context. U.S. Supreme Court judges, for example, do not need more than a simple majority.

Third, the new law allows the legislature to suspend judges who are accused of wrong-doing, until a trial is held. Also, should a judge be found to have lied about fulfilling the pre-requisites for being named a judge, that judge’s naming may be reversed with a simple majority vote of the legislature. Here the opposition argues that this provision makes reduces the independence of judges because the legislature could threaten them with removal. This would certainly be the case if judges are named who do not fulfill all of the requirements set by the constitution or those who commit a crime. However, this type of suspension or removal is not all that easy in that it depends upon the cooperation from another independent branch of the state, the attorney general’s office. In other words, it hinges upon just how independent the judicial and the “moral”[3] branches are from each other. Structurally, according to the constitution, these branches are completely independent from each other, in that no other branch, such as the executive, can remove them at will.

Given the opposition’s suspicion of any action that will give the government an advantage, especially in the Supreme Court, which is one of the last state bastions (besides the National Assembly) where the opposition still has an important share of power, it should not come as a surprise that they would do just about anything to stop the law. As a matter of fact, on several occasions the opposition organized exhausting 24-hour filibusters in their efforts to stop the law from passing.

It is difficult to identify to what extent the opposition’s resistance to the Supreme Court law is born of a real fear of Venezuela becoming a “constitutional dictatorship” and to what extent it comes from protecting their “turf.” Surely most opposition supporters no longer distinguish between protecting opposition territory and protecting Venezuela’s democracy because in their minds, the opposition has become synonymous with democracy and Chavez and his supporters synonymous with dictatorship.

What the opposition does not seem to realize is that government supporters see it exactly the other way around. To Chavistas, the opposition is synonymous with dictatorship and the government with democracy. Every effort of the opposition to prevent government policies and laws from being implemented are thus seen as turf protection and not as a genuine concern for democracy. As a result, once again, the more the opposition resists government policies, the more the government and its supporters feel justified in implementing them.

Venezuela: A Rorschach Test in Macondo

Some observers of Venezuela have commented that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magical realist story of Macondo, in which nothing is as it seems, is applicable to Venezuela.[4] To a large extent this Macondo nature of Venezuela is traceable to the media and to the exaggerated claims of Venezuelans on all sides of the political spectrum. Most of our impressions of what is real are indirect, that is, mediated by others, either in face-to-face encounters or, especially with regard to politics, by the mass media. Venezuelan mass media, whether private, state, or community, present vastly different images of Venezuelan reality so that it is impossible for most people, even for experienced observers of Venezuelan reality, to know what is real.

With regard to how people actually interpret Venezuelan reality, the Macondo nature comes to resemble a Rorschach test. A Rorschach is the inkblot test that psycho-analysts use, where they ask a patient to look at a randomly created inkblot and to say what representational image they see there. Anyone who attempts to interpret Venezuelan reality is confronted with a similar test, in which what they see is essentially a random assortment of contradictory pieces of information, where one picks and chooses which of these pieces are relevant to create a meaningful image of what is going on. The resulting impression or interpretation ends up being a stronger indicator of the interpreter’s psyche than of the underlying reality that is being perceived.

Thus, to a die-hard anti-communist the Venezuelan conflict is about the battle to defeat communism, to the dogmatic Marxist it is a typical class struggle, to the hard-nosed neo-liberal it is about assuring the triumph of economic rationality over fuzzy wishful thinking, to the postmodern multi-culturalist it is about giving power to the marginalized indigenous and dark-skinned peoples versus the whites of European origin, to the nationalists this is a fight against U.S. imperialism.

Of course, international observers, such as liberals like John Kerry and the editors of the Washington Post, are not in the least bit immune to this Rorschach test in Macondo. To them, Venezuela is just another struggle between a populist military caudillo (similar to Peron) and the forces of liberal enlightened democracy.

However, it is never that simple. The fact is, Chavez—the anti-democrat and caudillo according to those who oppose him—has acted in a less repressive manner than any Venezuelan president before him. Previously the National Guard would use real bullets in order to control a rowdy demonstration, now they don’t. Previously journalists who insulted the president would either be censored or face prison, now they don’t. Previously citizens who wanted to recall elected representatives had no recourse, now they do. Previously people who live in the poor neighborhoods, in the barrios, had no voice in the mass media whatsoever, now they do. Previously the poor had no hope of ever acquiring title to their home or to a plot of land, now they do. Previously any education at all was beyond the reach of the poor,[5] now most poor Venezuelans are involved in one free education program or another.

On the other hand, the heart of what insures that the rule of law is paramount in any country, the judicial system, still is a shambles.[6] As a result, the opposition is correct to point out that there has been little to no progress in fighting corruption, in stemming politically motivated judicial persecutions, in assuring that human rights violations of the National Guard and other state security forces are punished, or in preventing political patronage when it comes to disbursing government funds.

So the question of whether Venezuela is a dictatorship or a democracy is actually a misleading question, one which merely feeds into the dichotomous vicious cycle of polarization and mutual distrust. Rather, what observers should examine is whether there has been progress towards more democracy in Venezuela. Posed this way, the answer is, I believe, an unequivocal yes, but that there still is a very long way to go.

[1] Anonymous U.S. State Department official quoted in Washington Post, May 21, 2004.

[2] For an explanation of this program, see: Marta Harnecker, Venezuela’s Oligarchy Imports Soldiers Because It Cannot Recruit Them At Home

[3] The moral branch includes the attorney general, the comptroller general, and the human rights ombudsperson.

[4] A Hundred Years of Solitude, referred to, for example, in: Report on Venezuelas Trade Union Situation

[5] Here one must distinguish between the period from the mid 70’s to the mid 80’s, where education was readily available to the poor and the late 80’s until Chavez’ election in 1998, when access to education was more and more limited for the poor.