As Venezuelan regional and municipal elections are scheduled to take place on November 23rd, polls seem to indicate that Hugo Chavez is losing in a number of localities. This brings anxiety to this “elected dictator” as last December his project of constitutional reform was defeated.  The actual results of that election have never been made public because Chavez does not want to reveal the extent of his defeat.

In addition, Venezuela’s huge overspending in populist generosity while trying to influence political events in neighboring countries is bringing about the bankruptcy of his own country. The Venezuelan government began an austerity program aimed at reducing public spending. Of course, the situation is aggravated by the international economic crisis and particularly the crisis in the United States. Since Venezuela depends entirely on oil, a reduction in international demand for oil will affect the Venezuelan economy particularly if the price of oil comes down abruptly.

Such economic, social and political deficit brings about despair which is reflected in the increase of government repression.

Not only is Chavez aggressively using the media and disqualifying candidates for office but he is also becoming increasingly violent. Last week a student leader in the state of Zulia, Julio Soto, was murdered under unclear circumstances. At this point an investigation is being conducted but the student was an opponent of Hugo Chavez and associated with the party called “El Nuevo Tiempo”, a party that advocates social democracy and whose leader is Manuel Rosales who ran against Chavez for the presidency in 2006.

Also last week, General Raul Isaias Baduel, a former Defense Minister and now a staunch opponent of Chavez was violently arrested by the Venezuelan police, charged with corruption and forbidden from talking to the press or leaving the country. The world including the United States Government has been indifferent to the struggle of those who bravely speak out against the Chavez tyranny as well as the majority of Venezuelans now living in fear. Regular citizens, academics, people of the right, retired military officers, people of the center and people of the democratic left are living in fear. Now, they are being betrayed by our silence, by our government, by our press, by our left and by our advocates of democracy. Only a few weeks ago, Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch for Latin America was expelled from Venezuela by the Chavez government. If we were sensitive to Tiananmen Square, to the uprisings in Eastern Europe, to the colored revolutions in the former Soviet Republics, there is no reason why we should not express our solidarity with the people of Venezuela in light of Chavez’s aggression.  Where are our voices?

Meanwhile, our sympathy is with the family of student, Julio Soto, and with General Raul Baduel.

 

Ecuador’s Constitutional Reform: A Democratic Transition to Tyrannical Rule

On Sunday, the 28th of September, 2008, Ecuadorians voted to ratify the new constitution. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the constitution (almost 80% supported it while almost 20% opposed it).  The victory appeared to be the result of populist policies carried out by President Rafael Correa to benefit the poorest sectors of society by substantially increasing public spending, mostly in an unaccountable manner. Moreover, these subsides are heavily funded by Hugo Chavez who provides $3 billion a year to the Correa government. This has enabled Mr. Correa to win a majority in the constituent assembly which approved the constitution. The process that led to the nomination of the constituent assembly was full of violent rhetoric and attacks by Correa on the political opposition; including the illegal firing of almost 60 members of Congress.

Yet, the vote was supervised by the Carter Center, which congratulated the electoral process and praised it for the way it was conducted mostly for “the good facilities available for the handicapped”. The socialist countries in Latin America including President Michelle Bachelet of Chile also commended Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, for his victory in the constitutional referendum. With all these great words for President Correa or the process he generated, what was most ignored was the content and the intentions behind this constitutional project.

A constitution is a document whose origins go back to the major enlightened revolution of modern times: The American and the French revolutions but particularly the former.  A constitution is aimed at protecting the natural and inalienable rights of citizens and it establishes government by consent and limitation of government via balance of powers. The constitution is supposed to be a basic contract that includes procedures aimed at maximum empowering of civil society within the framework of reasonable government for the people and by the people.  By the same token, a constitutional reform may be aimed at fixing imperfections in the system of representation or other imperfections that demand amendments from the original constitutional document.

Ecuador, no doubt, was in need of some sort of reform. Indeed, in countries such as Ecuador, the political party system grew apart from civil society. Parties were not seen as true representatives of society as they grew oligarchic, independent from the will of the people, and too often tied to particular interests. In the case of Ecuador, a constitutional reform could have made sense in the framework of political reform aimed at increasing relations between constituencies and elected officials, changing the current system of party-rule (partidocracia) and ensuring that all sectors are properly represented within the system. Unfortunately, this is not what the new constitution does in Ecuador as Correa’s anti-party approach has converted into a new monarchy not only above the parties but at the expense of individual and civil society’s empowerment. Thus this newly approved constitution follows the Chavista model of limiting liberties and increasing the powers of the executive.

If we follow our previous definition, a constitution should not be a document aimed at generating substantive policies such as establishing economic, social or foreign policies. This belongs to the realm of political policy and should be the outcome of public and congressional deliberation. A constitution that defines policies to be pursued establishes not a social contract that enables an open-ended realm of possibilities but it steals territory from the domain of democracy and public discussion.

Indeed, this constitution grants a special role to the government which assumes a number of responsibilities that go well beyond any constitutional project.  The state is responsible not merely for guaranteeing or expanding liberties and rights but by being in charge of the “good life”.  The good life means a series of economic, social, and cultural rights which in modern countries have always been the goal of specific government policies subject to permanent scrutiny.

This new constitution uses language that gives it an appearance of democracy and even extension of democracy and citizenship. Indeed it extends the right to vote to more people as the minimum age to vote has been lowered to 16 years. It also “enlarges” the division of powers to include not only the traditional division between executive, legislative and judicial powers but it creates also the “Electoral power” and the “Social Control and Transparence Power”. What looks like a revolutionary form of radical democracy turns easily neutralized by a conspicuous empowerment of state functions and a strong prerogative power to the executive branch.

The constitution empowers the state as the guarantor of education, health care, food, social security, and water resources for its inhabitants. The state is also in charge of national planning, eradication of poverty, and making sure that national wealth is distributed in an even manner among its citizens.  The state also must ensure the right of citizens to live in a pleasant environment and proper eco-system. The state would also guarantee equal conditions in terms of radio and TV broadcasts and will prevent the formation of oligopolies and monopolies over the means of communications. The state will also make sure that those sectors of the population who have limited resources will have access to proper communication and information technology.  In addition, the state would act through a mechanism of national planning by exercising control over strategic sectors of the country. The strategic sectors that fall under the decision and exclusive control of the state are those that play a crucial role in influencing the economy, society and the environment. Therefore, those sectors must be re-oriented to serve “the social interest”. Those considered to be strategic sectors are the energy sector in all its forms, non-renewable natural resources, transport, hydrocarbons, mining, bio-diversity, water and other sectors that the law may determine. By the same token, the Central Bank (Ecuador’s Federal Reserve) in charge of monetary policy will be part of the executive power.

If the constitution provides so much power to the state to promote what is considered to be the “good life”, namely the socialism of the XXI century, what are the options available to bodies other than the executive branch?

The constitution establishes that the legislative power has the power to fire cabinet ministers but can do it only after three years of government. Both the legislative and executive powers could be dissolved and this can lead to new elections. However, legislative ability to act against the President is limited in so far as it depends on the approval of a “constitutional court”. The court at the same time is appointed by representatives from the executive, legislative and the transparency and social control powers.  Under conditions where Correa’s party is expected to control Congress, no challenge against the executive branch should be expected. The power of Control and Transparence are mostly composed of regular citizens, appointed by free competition and scrutinized by citizens commissions but the problem remains the same once Correa‘s party begins to dominate most domains of public life. By the same token, the electoral power which will be in charge of supervising the electoral process is based on a system of appointments and nominations which will be controlled by Correa.

In other words, what is at stake here is not individual rights and liberties but social policies aimed at “benefiting collective interests”. This means that the government will assume an increasing role in planning, regulating, controlling or exercising any prerogative the state considers to be of vital “social interest”.  Paraphrasing Frederick Hayek, this constitution is nothing but the road to serfdom.  Unfortunately, what Ecuadorians voted for was the birth of a totalitarian or semi-totalitarian project that unavoidably will bring about future conflict.

What we are now seeing is a “democratic” transition to tyranny. It has been celebrated as a feast of democracy by “useful idiots” like Jimmy Carter, Michelle Bachelet and other fools across the continent. However, this development represents a serious danger as it is the founding of an absolutist model-state which is the first stage of what will inevitably become part of a larger ominous regional coalition led by Hugo Chavez. Absolutism and elimination of internal dissent is only a first stage towards a menacing foreign policy that can affect many countries in the region.

Yet, as the US is distracted by a major economic crisis at home, Congress extended the Andean Trade Preference Act that would give a number of countries including Ecuador an exemption on tariffs on their products imported into the US. This preference has been given in exchange for cooperation to combat drug-trafficking. Granting this privilege was strange given the fact that Correa announced that the US military base in Manta whose function is to control drug-trafficking will be dismantled in 2009. This exemplifies a self defeating and naive foreign policy on the part of the United States as Correa refuses to renew our base at Manta, we are giving him trade preferences. Does Congress seriously expect Mr. Correa to change his mind?

Contrary to the past, the US and members of the OAS have lost their ability not only to make a firm commitment to democracy but also to protect their own interests. Correa, like Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales have declared a long time ago their will to see the US leverage declining in Latin America. Our and our regional allies’ silence confirms what it looks to them as our natural decline.

 

Dr. Luis Fleischman is senior advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology at Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University.

 

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