Commentary

No Bail for Venezuela

Judicial terrorism is nothing new in Venezuela. Together with an urge to control the economy, Venezuelan political leaders of the last 30 years tried to establish tight political control of the judiciary.

That politicization of justice gave birth to a corrupt-to-the-core judicial apparatus. All sentences had a price. The absence of the concept of bail made penal courts great business. A simple accusation of fraud was enough to induce juicy bribes for judges and district attorneys in the Office of Public Prosecution.

The alternative was imprisonment for several months while waiting to go to trial. In the end, a verdict of innocence or a conviction did not make much of a difference because the accused spent months or years in a jail, in subhuman conditions.

In the mid 1990s, during a renovation process promoted by honest lawyers—with the firm support of the entrepreneurial community, civil society, and human rights organizations—Venezuela reformed its penal code to eliminate, as much as possible, such vices.

Parole was introduced for almost all crimes, except the most violent ones. Collegiate juries and magistrates were also created. At that time, it was thought that Venezuelans would never again see the sad spectacle of a compatriot yielding to blackmail or resigned to spending months and even years in jail, without being convicted of any crime.

How wrong we were. Hugo Chavez has figured out a way to use the events that led to his brief removal from power, in April 2002, to crush the opposition in Venezuela.

Chavez and his acolytes in the Republic’s General Office of the Public Prosecutor realized that the crime of “Civil Rebellion” has no parole under the Venezuelan penal code and, thus, is a useful bureaucratic weapon.

Using the services of the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the Venezuelan regime has issued hundreds of summonses to Venezuelans as plotters and accomplices of a supposed “Civil Rebellion,” among them business leaders, state governors, political and community leaders, journalists, and even priests.

The strategy is quite simple: All those who were invited by the sad and clumsy provisional government of Pedro Carmona to witness him assume office, and endorsed with their signature their attendance that day, are accused of rebellion.

But like all politicians who assume office, Carmona made sure to invite to the event not only the group that supported him but also those who had leadership positions in the country, with the sole exception of the ousted Chavistas.

Chavez, by accusing all those people of “rebellion,” is trying to permanently take them out of the political game. He knows, because there is no parole for that crime, that to face trial and prove one’s innocence means to suffer in prison for an indefinite time, and possibly to die there.

In this way, Chavez will force entrepreneurs—who could finance the opposition—into exile and cripple entrepreneurial organizations and various NGO’s. He will scare away politicians with honest careers, community leaders with great popularity, journalists who are critical of his government, and clerics with sour opinions of his regime.

While spokesmen from the State Department continue to proclaim their desire to reestablish good relations with Chavez’s government, hundreds of honest Venezuelans are having their most fundamental rights violated, forcing them to a terrible dilemma: jail or exile.

Carlos A. Ball is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the editor-in-chief of AIPE, a Spanish-language news organization based in Florida.