Tag: Hugo Chavez

The Opposition in Venezuela Doesn’t Get It

Venezuela is in full campaign mode as six candidates vie for the nomination of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD is its Spanish acronym), the opposition movement that will nominate a single candidate to face Hugo Chávez in the October 2012 presidential election. The MUD primary will take place on February 12.

After 13 years of socialist rule that has crippled Venezuela’s economy, and even created shortages of fuel in the oil-rich South American nation, one would expect the opposition candidates to signal a bold U-turn from the failed big-government policies of Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Let’s look, for example, at Primero Justicia (Justice First), the party whose candidate, Henrique Capriles Rodonsky, is leading in the polls. Capriles doesn’t say much about the economic model he favors. His statements are limited to generalities such as “the only thing I’m obsessed about is that Venezuela has progress.” As governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles likes to compare his approach to that of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva: decent macroeconomic stewardship complemented by generous social programs.

However, Primero Justicia’s platform seems to be a little more specific in its views on the role of government in society. It claims to support a “social-humanist state” that stands between the “social bureaucratic state that provides inefficient social services in a monopolist way and the minimalist neo-liberal state that gives up on its social responsibilities.” As for the economic model that Primero Justicia favors, the platform says that it “stands against the socialist planned economy and … the [classical] liberal tendencies that turn the market into a dogma.” In simple terms, Primero Justicia sees itself as a Third Way alternative between Hugo Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” and what it claims to be the “neo-liberal dogma.”

I believe that Venezuela needs a decisive rupture from the failed big-government policies of the past, and not just a lighter version of socialism. Nonetheless, a modern social democratic party is certainly a far better alternative for the country than Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, on the campaign trail Primero Justicia’s officials seem eager to out-compete Chávez in promising more government handouts to Venezuelans. For example, the daily El Universal published a statement [in Spanish] yesterday from Primero Justicia’s chairman Julio Borges where he lambasted Chávez for not spending enough on social programs. He said that his party would use oil revenues to create a Social Security Fund that would give pensions “to all Venezuelans, regardless of whether they had formal employment or not, and even to housewives.”

Any observer of Venezuela’s modern history would say, “Here we go again.” For many decades, Venezuelan politicians, either in government or in the opposition, have seen the government (and particularly oil revenues) as an infinite source of wealth that simply needs to be distributed among all Venezuelans. As Borges previously stated, “every family would have 1.6 billion bolivares [approximately $375,000] if oil resources were distributed fairly.”

Henrique Capriles will formally launch his presidential candidacy tomorrow. Venezuelans have other pressing concerns besides the economy that will play a major role in next year’s election, such as the staggering rise in crime (Venezuela stands now as the most violent country in South America) and the steady erosion of civil and political freedoms. However, Capriles is ill-advised in thinking that he can beat Chávez by playing the populist card of offering yet more government handouts to Venezuelans.

Venezuelans deserve a real alternative to Chávez. They deserve not only a candidate that promises a return to democratic rule of law, but also someone who pledges to break their dependency on government. The election in October 2012 should be something more than choosing a distributor-in-chief at Miraflores Palace.

Après Chávez, le Déluge?

Rumors abounded this weekend about Hugo Chávez’s apparent critical health condition. The Nuevo Herald reported that the Venezuelan president could be suffering from prostate cancer. On June 9, while visiting Cuba, Chávez fell ill and was treated for a “pelvic abscess.” Since then, the loquacious caudillo, who for over a decade has flooded Venezuelan airwaves with endless TV addresses, has been conspicuously out of sight. All we have is a picture released to the media showing a frail Hugo Chávez holding onto Fidel Castro (aged 84) and his brother Raúl (aged 80).

Speculation increased on Saturday after Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Relations Minister, said that Chávez was waging a “great battle for his health” while admitting that he wasn’t doing well. But perhaps the most ominous statement came from Chávez’s older brother, Adán, governor of the state of Barinas, who warned yesterday that supporters of the president should be ready to take up arms to defend his revolution. “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” said the elder Chávez.

This is where things can get extremely ugly. Nobody knows what could happen to chavismo without Hugo Chávez. Many people expected Chávez to resort to violence next year in case he lost his reelection bid (a real possibility given popular discontent due to rising food prices, food and energy shortages, and increasing crime). This is why he created a socialist militia with tens of thousands armed civilians bent on “defending the revolution” no matter what. Also, Chávez promoted General Henry Rangel Silva as head of the Armed Forces after Rangel stated that the army would not allow the opposition to win the presidential election in 2012. However, in all these scenarios, Chávez was always the one calling the shots.

If Chávez passes away or is permanently incapacitated, the question becomes: Who will take over Venezuela and his political movement? The Constitution requires the Vice-president Elías Jaua to be sworn it as president. However, it is very likely that Chávez’s absence will open a fratricidal struggle within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government power. During his 12 years in office, Chávez has diligently made sure that no apparent successor takes the spotlight. Caudillos don’t have real VPs, a situation that could lead to chaos if the caudillo dies while in office.

A historical parallel can be drawn with the passing of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina in 1974. His wife, Isabel, was his Vice-President and she took over the presidency after Perón’s death, as required by the Constitution. However, her tenure was marked by the increasing violence of the “Montoneros,” a radical left-wing terrorist group that claimed to uphold the leftist legacy of Juan Domingo Perón. The situation reached a critical point when the Armed Forces deposed Isabel Perón with a military coup in 1976 and led a “Dirty War” against left-wing elements of society that resulted in the killing and disappearance of approximately 30,000 people in 7 years. Perón’s death and lack of a viable successor led to chaos and slaughter.

The driving force behind the different forces within chavismo is graft, not ideology. As Gustavo Coronel documented in a paper published by Cato in 2006, corruption is rampant in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and it permeates all levels of government, including powerful elements of the military. It is unlikely that those who have been enriching themselves in the last 12 years would call it quits if their leader passes away. A violent struggle could therefore ensue within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government.

Venezuela’s democratic opposition movement should play its cards carefully. If Hugo Chávez dies or is incapacitated, the opposition should demand that the Constitution be respected and Vice-President Jaua take over until next year’s presidential election. The international community, and in particular the Organization of American States, should also be assertive in stating that Venezuela would face international diplomatic ostracism (e.g., expulsion from the OAS, travel ban for regime leaders, freezing of their bank accounts, etc.) if elements within the government stage a coup or try to stay in power through armed struggle.

We will know the gravity of Hugo Chávez’s health condition by July 5th. He had called for a big international summit that day to celebrate Venezuela’s bicentennial anniversary. If he calls off the jamboree, or if he is absent, it will signal that his health has very likely gravely deteriorated, and speculation about his succession will be overwhelming.

Venezuelans Vote on Sunday to Defend Their Moribund Democracy

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that will test the extent to which democracy still exists in their country. It’ll be the 13th election since Hugo Chávez became president in 1998 (these include constitutional referenda, gubernatorial, legislative and presidential elections, as well as a recall vote).

Some would say that all these elections prove that Venezuela is a true democracy. I would argue that democracy means more than simply voting. It involves separation of powers, constitutional checks and balances, and freedom of the press. None of these exists in Venezuela anymore.

Even the electoral process is deeply flawed. Just as in previous elections, nobody expects the vote on Sunday to be fair: Independent international observers have again been barred from entering Venezuela. Most of the media are owned by the government, and the remaining private outlets must submit to the constant cadenas (presidential addresses) that the government requires private TV and radio stations to air. From 1998 to September 19th, broadcasters aired 2,072 cadenas for a total of 1,430 hours of transmission (almost two months of 24-hour broadcast).

Moreover, prominent opposition figures have been disqualified from running due to technicalities and dirty tricks. Others have been imprisoned or have fled the country. The electoral body is controlled by the Executive and the voters’ registry has not been independently audited in the recent past. It contains such anomalies as 32,000 people older than 100 years, persons registered multiple times, and 2,000 voters that share the same address.

Despite this daunting scenario, the opposition stands a good chance of making significant gains in the National Assembly. However, it remains to be seen if Chávez will allow even a modest voice of dissent in a country where he has long exerted total control over all government institutions. There will be a three-month period between the legislative election and the installment of the new National Assembly. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, after Sunday’s vote, Chávez moves to curtail the powers of Congress, just as he did with the powers of governors and the mayor of Caracas after the gubernatorial elections of 2008.

Colombia vs Venezuela on Crime

The New York Times highlights today the increasing plight of violence that besets Venezuela. The headline couldn’t be blunter: “More Killings in Venezuela than Iraq.” It’s a gruesome reminder of what Hugo Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” has delivered to the Venezuelan people.

Some Venezuelan officials deny that there is a rise in crime altogether claiming it is part of a media campaign to discredit the government (they have coined the expression “media pornography” to refer to crime coverage, thus setting the semantic stage for censoring it). However, among the most plausible causes behind the national spike in crime, some government advisers point to an overall increase in violence in the region. According to this theory, not only Venezuela is suffering from a wave of bloodshed, but also other Latin American nations like Mexico and the Central American countries.

Still, when Venezuela is compared to neighboring Colombia, it becomes clear that there’s no such regional increase in crime. Just the opposite. Colombia, until recently one of the most violent countries in the world, more than halved its rate of murders in the last 8 years. Former president Álvaro Uribe and his policy of “democratic security” deserve due credit for such an accomplishment. On the other hand, Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution has delivered Venezuelans a jump of almost 50% in the murder rate in the last 10 years:

Sources: Sistema de Gestión y Segumiento a las Metas del Gobierno de Colombia (www.sigob.gov.co) and Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas de Venezuela (www.cicpc.gov.ve).

It seems that after Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans will need a president like Álvaro Uribe to clean the house.

More Censorship in Venezuela

More than 16,000 murders occurred in Venezuela in 2009. That compares with 4,550 homicides reported in 1998, the year Hugo Chavez was elected president. The fact that Venezuela now has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates underscores the Chavez revolution’s utter neglect of the basic and proper functions of government.

Yet the problem is downplayed by the government, which inexplicably blames capitalism and poverty even though official figures show a fall in poverty rates. As if to highlight the government’s insensitivity, the president of state-run TeleSUR TV station recently laughed off the problem in a widely-seen CNN interview.

Last week, El Nacional newspaper published this graphic front-page photo of crime victims in a morgue. The official response from a government-controlled court has been to ban media from publishing violent images for one month. Thus, today El Nacional ran the front-page photo below, which reads “Censored” in the space where photos should be. The way the Bolivarian Revolution is going, Venezuelans can expect the government to continue resolving social problems in the same way.

Chávez Signals Takeover of Globovisión

Since Hugo Chávez promised last year to shut down Globovisión—Venezuela’s last independent TV station—it’s only been a question of when and how he will try to fulfill his pledge. A dictator can’t tolerate a free press, and Globovisión’s critical and independent coverage has long been a thorn in Chávez’s side.

However, shutting down Globovisión would’ve been an abrupt move that would have drawn international condemnation around the world, and it would’ve made life harder for those international leaders who still claim that Venezuela is a democracy, such as Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. Yet Chávez could ill afford having an independent TV station in light of collapsing poll numbers, rising social discontent, and a critical election in September for a new National Assembly that might lead to his party losing control of that body.

This is why Chávez has launched a takeover strategy of Globovisión, which became clear yesterday with his announcement that the Venezuelan government will take almost half of Globovisión’s shares, and name a representative in the network’s Board of Directors. His shady plan consists of seizing the shares of a bank whose owner is also a partial owner of Globovisión, and also seizing the stake of a Globovisión shareholder who recently died. This would give the government 45.8 percent of the network’s ownership. (The story is explained in full detail here). This move has been called “legally absurd” by Guillermo Zuloaga, president of Globovisión, who escaped Venezuela last month after a government-controlled court issued an arrest warrant against him and his son for “hoarding cars.”

Chávez also announced that he may appoint, Mario Silva, the Goebbels of Venezuela, to the Board of Directors of Globovisión. That would also be patently illegal.

If Chávez goes ahead with his plan to take a minority ownership share of Globovisión, despite the blatant illegal nature of his move, the case will probably end up in the courts, which are controlled by the regime. It is also easy to foresee that sooner or later Chávez will try to seize Zuloaga’s stake in Globovisión, claiming that he’s a “fugitive of justice.” Then Globovisión will be completely in the government’s hands, and Venezuela’s last independent TV station will cease to exist.

Venezuela’s Intensifying Assault on Press Freedom

Jackson Diehl and Mary O’Grady write today in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, respectively, about Guillermo Zuloaga, critic of Hugo Chavez and owner of Globovision TV, the only remaining independent TV station in Venezuela.

Zuloaga has become an international symbol of press freedom as he and his station have come under increasing government harassment, especially in the past year. Last month, a Chavez controlled court issued an arrest warrant for Zuloaga and his son, and they went into hiding. In March, Zuloaga was arrested briefly for having spoken critically of the Venezuelan regime at an international conference. The government accused the Globovision head of criticizing the president and poisoning the minds of Venezuelans. Chavez has promised to shut down Globovision, as he did with Venezuela’s largest station in 2007 (RCTV), and he regularly vilifies the free press. The TV station and its reporters have come under countless physical attacks by government backed thugs. Last July, days after we announced that Zuloaga would speak at a Cato forum here in Washington, a court prevented him from leaving the country. Instead, he taped a video message for Cato and sent his son Carlos, the VP, to speak. (See the forum here. See Guillermo Zulloaga’s message to Cato by clicking on the second video link.)

Zuloaga and his son have now come out of hiding. A few of us met with him at Cato last week. He told us of numerous ways in which Chavez has violated Venezuelan laws and the constitution in his effort to harass Globovision, confirming a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that documented the regime’s systemic violation of basic freedoms and its arbitrary use of criminal and administrative law against opponents.

Globovision is one of the last bastions of freedom in Venezuela. It is where Venezuelans go to hear news that will not be reported on one of the countless state-run TV stations. It is the media outlet to which Venezuelan civil society reports abuses by government when they happen, so as to most effectively defend itself. I can attest to that critical role that Globovision plays in Venezuela. As I reported from Caracas here in May of last year, the national guard tried to shut down a Cato seminar for Venezuelan students, an abuse that we immediately reported to Globovision, which in turn began reporting the harassment and thus pressuring the regime to back off.

As the economic, security and social conditions of Venezuela continue to spiral downward, Chavez will intensify his socialist revolution. If he finally does close Globovision, it should erase any lingering doubt about the authoritarian nature of the Bolivarian regime.