The Constitutional reform in Venezuela that is scheduled to be ratified by popular referendum is having major repercussions in Venezuela now. President Hugo Chavez has been gradually reducing the power of civil society in Venezuela for the last several years. This present constitutional reform, which is another step in the same direction, has generated a stronger reaction. What we are facing now is probably the largest civil protests in Venezuela since February 2003 when groups in civil society were struggling to hold a re-call referendum on Chavez.
Indeed, in the last several years, Chavez has increased his political power and fully controls the legislature. In addition, he has manipulated the judiciary and the military by appointing officers and judges loyal to him. In the economic sphere, he has gone against the will of important groups in civil society by halting foreign exchange, and placing price controls on domestic and imported products. Venezuela is moving from a relatively diverse economy into an Arab-like oil petro-tyrannical welfare state. This situation has forced producers to stop producing, resulting in food shortages. By the same token, commerce and investment in the country has deteriorated tremendously.
In the area of human rights and freedom of expression, Chavez has encouraged violence against journalists and passed laws criminalizing opinions. He has denied jobs as well as identity cards and passports to people who signed in favor of the re-call referendum, a public referendum aimed at placing the continuation of the Chavez regime on the ballot.
It is interesting that the business association (Fedecameras) complains about the fact that petro-dollars circulating in the market are not a sign of economic strength, because there are shortages of food, medicines and materials. We are also beginning to hear again from press rights organizations that are denouncing deterioration of the freedom of the press in Venezuela and warning that further restrictions may come out of the constitutional reform. By the same token world intellectuals such as Mario Vargas Llosa and European philosophers such as Bernard Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann are denouncing Chavez’s abuses.
This new anti-Chavez movement has been brought about by one man. He is the former Chavez Defense Secretary; General Rafael Baduel. Baduel has publicly opposed the constitutional reforms in Venezuela calling them an attempt at a “coup d’etat. As a result he has become the new de-facto leader millions of Venezuelans were waiting for. Until recently, Baduel could be blamed for allowing Chavez to co-opt the military in Venezuela and use it to strengthen his regime and for loyalty to a man who spoke about installing a socialist, revolutionary regime backed by the military. Yet, it is the same Baduel that now begins to rebel.
Whatever Baduel’s reasons were, there is no doubt that the former Defense Secretary and Chief of staff has generated a new momentum and opportunity which will be foolish for those who oppose Hugo Chavez to miss.
In the last couple of weeks students have gone to the streets demanding a halt to the constitutional reforms and protests were organized across the country. Meanwhile the government became defensive; Chavez called Baduel a traitor while Hanz Dietrich, the master intellectual of the Chavez socialist revolution, recommended that Chavez withdraw the proposed constitutional reform and try to co-opt Baduel to avoid further deterioration of the regime. The governor of the State of Anzoategui, Tarek William Saab, taking a defensive position, stated that Baduel responded to the wishes of the (American) “Empire and international Zionism”. (By the way, in the past Saab allegedly undermined the indictment process of three Arabs arrested in Venezuela for having allegedly participated in the terrorist attack that destroyed the Jewish community center (AMIA) in Buenos Aires in 1994). .
In the pages of the America’s Report we have repeatedly warned that those fighting for freedom against the Chavez tyranny in Venezuela have been abandoned. The student movement in Venezuela is today the Latin version of the Prague spring of 1968. Whereas the political opposition has become flaccid, legalistic and virtually shut down by the intimidating nature of the Chavez regime, it is the non-political students who are fighting. They are not doing it in pursuit of any gains other than a way of life free of the dogmas and dictates imposed by the growing Chavista state.
Chavez’s image in the world is that of a highly distasteful leader. However, there is an unchallenged consensus that his regime is legitimate because it was democratically elected. Thus, Western common sense tells us that his removal must take place only through democratic means. The reality is that Chavez has designed a model of “totalitarian democracy” where he has used state resources to gain political power at the expense of civil society and where petro-dollars have allowed him to buy the hearts and votes of people who have chosen to ignore the fact that they have less representation, less dignity, and fewer rights. However, there is no doubt that Venezuelans are paying greatly now and will pay heavily in the future.
Democracy is not the mere act of conducting elections. Elections embody the last stage of a large system of liberties and rights that develop gradually over some period of time. Chavez is like Hamas in Gaza using elections to subjugate rights and impose his will. Chavez currently controls the electoral process. The Chavez regime is by far less respectful of the law than the Hungarian and Polish governments were during their last period of communist rule. Opponents could appeal to Hungarian or Polish law to achieve something. In Venezuela to wait for legal means to remove Chavez from power is an illusion because the successive “constitutional” reforms in Venezuela were aimed at reducing rights and the rule of law not increasing rights as a real constitution should.
This has been done in order to create a situation where Chavez will ultimately stand alone before the people with no law that restricts him and no rights that protect or empower them. This is why removing Chavez by non-electoral means is as much a legitimate act as acts of civil disobedience were forty years ago in the US South. Disobedience is an expression of rebellion against unjust laws and an unjust regime. As in the 1960’s Southern United States, this experience could have an effect of a political renaissance and open better opportunities after Chavez’s removal. Civil society must come out now to the streets and show that they are protesting not for salaries, not for or against some specific policy carried by the Chavez regime but for the sake of human dignity and a free way of life. These are basic natural human rights that Chavez seeks to p swallow as a boa does with a rat.
If the citizens come out to the streets the world will respond. Baduel, for his part generated something important. If he can convince the military to resist Chavez, this could have key consequences.
Dr. Luis Fleischman is an 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.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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