Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo

Phil Gunson
12 April 2007

If the frequency of elections in Venezuela were the sole criterion of judgment, the country might be said to be suffering from an "overdose of democracy" - as Paraguay's president, Nicanor Duarte, put it in mid-March 2007 (in what was intended as a compliment). But if the definition of democratic rule includes the checks and balances provided by the separation of powers, Hugo Chávez's government fails to qualify.

First elected in 1998, and re-elected for a second time in December 2006 for a fresh, six-year term, the former army officer used to boast that his 1999 constitution increased from three to five the independent branches of government.

But since coming out of the closet as a "21st-century socialist" inspired by Marx and Lenin, he has accumulated powers more usually associated with a dictatorship. The five branches of government are now effectively extensions of the executive, required to display total loyalty.

Also on Hugo Chávez, Venezuela, and the "Bolivarian revolution" in openDemocracy:

Ivan Briscoe, "The invisible majority: Venezuela after the revolution"
(25 August 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "All change in Venezuela's revolution? "
(25 January 2005)

Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson, "The United States, Venezuela, and "democracy promotion"
(4 August 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(10 February 2006)

Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela"
(2 March 2006)

George Philip, "The politics of oil in Venezuela"
(24 May 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez"
(13 March 2007)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak"
(28 March 2007 )

Chávez, already head both of state and of government, will shortly become the leader of a single ruling party, created - like Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 1920s - not by politicians seeking to form a government but by a government seeking to hold on to power.

He has unchallenged personal authority over the armed forces, which now bear the name of his own movement ("Bolivarian", after independence hero Simón Bolívar) and whose generals now routinely proclaim "motherland, socialism or death!" (in violation of a constitutional ban on their involvement in politics).

Under a new armed-forces law, his role as commander-in-chief now gives him direct operational control not only over regular troops but also of a political militia (‘reserves' and ‘territorial guard'), intended eventually to number some 2 million.

The law specifically assigns the military a role not only in the external defence of the nation but in the maintenance of internal order, which in practice means defending the "revolution".

Every member of the 167-seat, single-chamber parliament professes allegiance to Chávez, following an opposition electoral boycott in 2005. Not content with that, he sought (and obtained) powers to rule by decree in eleven key social, political and economic areas for eighteen months.

A committee of loyalists, answerable only to him and meeting behind closed doors, is currently working on a reform of the 1999 constitution (itself framed under his supervision) to bring it into line with his new, "socialist" vision for the country.

Almost half of the 350 articles in the current constitution are likely to be amended, and although the changes must be put to a referendum, the likelihood is that voters will be asked for a "yes" or "no" to the whole package. ("More democratic? Impossible!" proclaimed Chávez, a supposed champion of "participatory democracy".) Moreover, the political loyalty of Venezuela's electoral authority, the Consejo Nacional Electoral / CNE, substantially reduces the possibility of defeat.

Among the proposed changes: indefinite re-election for the president and an end to the autonomy of the central bank. This last is, in any case, largely fictitious: a large chunk of the country's foreign reserves has already been converted into funds directly controlled by Chávez that are effectively beyond parliamentary control.

The state oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), which is the major source of government revenue, also hands over cash for clientilistic social programmes and foreign aid under Chávez's supervision. In practice, the president thus controls a slush fund amounting to tens of billions of dollars.

Phil Gunson is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela

Also by Phil Gunson on openDemocracy:

"Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity"
(14 June 2006)

"Venezuela's media in a Bolivarian storm"
(7 August 2006)

"Venezuela: a seat at the top table"
(16 October 2006)

"Bolivarian myths and legends"
(1 December 2006)

Is he one of us?

In addition to parliament, the other three supposedly independent branches of government - the supreme court, the CNE and the "moral republican council" (state prosecutor, comptroller-general and ombudsman) - are all staffed by chavista militants.

The state prosecutor Isaías Rodríguez was formerly Chávez's vice-president. The current vice-president, Jorge Rodríguez, used to chair the CNE. He oversaw the president's successful defeat of a mid-term recall referendum in 2004, and is now reaping the benefits.

The president of the supreme court (TSJ) since February 2007, Luisa Estela Morales, is a prominent member of the constitutional-reform committee, despite the fact that the court is the ultimate arbiter of the reform's legality. A parliamentary investigation of seven supreme-court justices with a view to their possible dismissal, announced on 22 March 2007, may also help dissuade any backsliders from trying to water down the reform. Any use of the courts "behind the back of the leader" to frustrate the will of the government is (said Chávez recently) "a betrayal of the people".

To minimise the possibility that dissidents might infiltrate government institutions, the state sector applies a policy of denying jobs to those identified with the opposition. A computer programme known as the Maisanta List classifies over 12 million Venezuelans by their political preferences, and even private-sector firms with government contracts are often banned from employing those with the wrong political credentials.

Dissent is also anathema within the chavista movement itself. The plan to form a new Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that incorporates parties loyal to the Bolivarian revolution has provoked anguish and division, especially among Chávez's three largest coalition partners: the social-democratic Podemos, Patria Para Todos (Motherland for All / PPT) and the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV).

"Communal councils", reminiscent of Muammar Gaddafi's "popular conferences" in Libya, are to take over many of the functions of local government. The diversion of resources away from town councils and state governors will make it much harder to form an independent political power base. The councils are registered with the presidency, which is their sole source of funding.

Hugo Chávez retains considerable support, even though he is reviled by many Venezuelans. Behind the cacophony of argument, both groups might care to recall what Simón Bolívar once wrote: "Flee from the country where one man exercises all powers - it is a country of slaves."

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