Saturday, December 19, 2015

Virgilio Mendoza on "Will Chavismo finally kill off democracy in Venezuela? And will the international community just stand by and watch?"

Those who tend to manage public perception in the United States tend to view Latin America, and determine the scope of coverage, through a quite peculiar lens.  Americas enjoyed a few "media  cycles"of coverage of the normalization of relations with Cuba--but that was a drama more than half a century in the making (here). Mexico is valuable to mine for stories of drugs and migration (e.g., here).  Most of Central America becomes interesting to our press either when its children stage a mass migration or there is a need to deal with  political instability, narcotics and crime. Latin America is more remote.  We move from  new model democracies, Chile and Columbia, to our pariah states, Venezuela and Ecuador.  One rarely hears about Brazil except when they thwart regional trade deals (the Free Trade Area of the Americas) or when political scandal reaches higher office holders (here), or when industrial accidents occur (here).   Argentina becomes interesting usually only in the sectoral press-- especially when it engages in sovereign borrowing it will not repay (here). 

But from a political, societal and economic perspective, and since the beginning of this century, Venezuela has merited a substantial amount of attention.  It's efforts to develop something like a nationalist and socialist polity, and to enlarge that nationalist socialism in concert with neighboring states, has proven to be a decisive factor in the shape, scope and direction of development for the North of South America and much of Central America (see, e.g., here).  Under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, this move toward Cuban style European Marxist Leninist  political and economic organization appeared unstoppable.  

But Hugo Chavez died young in 2013 (here), and with him, that effort to advance European style Marxist Leninist nationalist socialism might be dying with it. With his death, Chavismo itself became an object of political contestation.  This possibility was enhanced as Venezuela's partnership with Cuba and other regional states, once significant, has deteriorated along with the value of petroleum.  The Venezuelan economic sector remains a battlefield as market based private sectors battle the encroachment of centrally planned state sectors. 

It in this context that Venezuela's recent parliamentary elections proved so important for the future of the character of the politics of that Republic as democratic in its Western sense or continue its evolution into a Latin American style Marxist Leninist  state with European characteristics.  It is in that context that my friend Virgilio Mendoza offers his very thoughtful and provocative essay, Will Chavismo finally kill off democracy in Venezuela? And will the international community just stand by and watch? .  It follows below.

Will Chavismo finally kill off democracy in Venezuela? And will the international community just stand by and watch? 
Virgilio Mendoza

Dēmokratía is once again assaulted in Venezuela. The story of how she has been frequently battered by the bullying Chavismo does not need retelling here; but what does need to be said, is what has been happening in Caracas during the last couple of weeks, as it seems to signal a sinister turn of events. The international community better wakeup to it, before the moribund democracy is well and truly dead.

At the recent parliamentary election (December 6th) the united opposition accomplished what can only be described as an astonishing result. Their number within the National Assembly swung from 2/3rds of the government’s number, in the previous parliament, to more than double the number of Chavistas in the next one; a turnaround of truly colossal proportions. In fact, their victory was so comprehensive, that they achieved what is called a «supermajority» in parliament. Consequently, from January 5th, and for the first time since Hugo Chavez burst onto the political scene, the opposition will yield significant legislative (and political) power in Venezuela. It is also worth noting that this was achieved in an election for which there was the highest voter turnout of any parliamentary election in Venezuela’s history (i.e. 73% of the electorate took part versus 62% in 2010, 25% in 2005 and 56% in 2000). Moreover, the international observers were able to report that the election had been conducted in an uncharacteristically peaceful, fraud-free and transparent way. Even the opposition seemed surprised by the sheer scale of the government’s defeat.

At first there was confusion and some anxiety, fuelled principally by the fact that the electoral council was taking far too long to confirm the results, while the opposition was informally reporting substantial gains. Rumours begun to circulate that the delay was due to behind-the-scenes efforts by the government to reject the outcome. As tension and alarm reached fever pitch, the Minister of Defence appeared in national television and delivered an atypical address to the nation, which at the time was understood to mean that the outcome of the election would be respected. Soon after, the President appeared in national television, visibly tired and dejected, and acknowledged the government’s loss... Dēmokratía breathed a sigh of relief.

That a South American country should seek to bring about this historic political U-turn in such a peaceful, democratic and gallant manner, was extraordinary. The people of Simon Bolivar’s land had banged the democracy drum so loudly, that one felt proud to be Venezuelan; and the national anthem, the «Glory to the Brave People» took on a special significance that day, particularly its chorus and the last four lines of its last verse:

Glory to the brave people who threw away the yoke respecting The Law
virtue and honour

and if tyranny
should ever raise its voice, follow the example
that Caracas once gave

The trouble is that, after first acknowledging the result of the election, President Maduro and the rest of his government embarked on an aggressive campaign to whip up a storm, with a rhetoric that has been more combative and «revolutionary» than usual. Questions have been raised about the validity of the election, with laughable accusations that the opposition might have committed electoral fraud. There has been a government crackdown to identify turncoats. There has been a «musical chairs» type of government reshuffle, which appears to be an effort to protect those senior officials most likely to be wounded by the electoral bloodbath. The plethora of confrontational speeches and chessboard moves across many fronts makes it almost impossible to know what is going or where we are heading... the situation is complex, opaque and changes by the day. But among the cacophony of noise, a handful of developments might give a glimpse into what the government may be trying to do.

After days of mischief... in which the government vilified the opposition and their «seizure» of parliament by foul means; in which they tried to instil fear amount the people regarding the future legislative plans of the opposition; and in which they talked-up the role which the communes should play in the saving of the revolution... the departing National Assembly President took the last ordinary session of parliament (barely a week after the election) as an opportunity to «create» a new «National Communal Parliament». In his speech, the President of the Assembly explained that the «Communal Parliament» was an instrument that would provide «the people» with the power to «dispose of resources, responsibilities, decision making and laws etc. ». A few minutes later, President Maduro applauded the creation of the «Communal Parliament» and said that he would give it «every power» and that «it would become an example of law-making by the people». It is still unclear whether any of this is constitutionally legal; and whether the opposition-led parliament (with its supermajority) will be able to do anything about it.

What is the government trying to do? An uncomfortable intuition... memories of Fujimori’s presidential coup come to mind, and a sense of foreboding hangs in the air... surely not in this day and age; but we would do well to remember that for the Venezuelan government, this may be a question of survival. It would not be the first time that «the revolution» creates mechanisms and institutions to protect itself from democracy. The creation of the Capital District by Act of Parliament back in 2000, to nullify the election of an opposition leader (Antonio Ledezma) to the governorship of Caracas, is an emblematic example (one of many) of the lengths to which Chavismo will go to shield itself from the effects of unfavourable democratic election results. To explore this affair is beyond the scope of this note, but it would be informative to revisit the way in which an elected governor was cynically stripped of his powers, in blatant disregard of the wishes of the electorate, and against all democratic principles.

If the Venezuelan Executive tries to clip the power and authority of parliament (or worse)... this would be a scandalous and shameful disregard for the will of the people. So far the international community has been silent, which is understandable. But the advocates of democracy across the world, whether on the left or on the right, need to be vigilant, and need to be ready to step up to the plate... in case Maduro attempts to force a Chavista-styled «Fujishock» (At least in Peru, Fujimori had «won» the referendum). Even the traditional supporters of the regime (be they allied or client states and organisations) will surely find it difficult to defend such actions, when they consider the sheer scale of the popular vote for change.

The opposition obtained over 67% of the seats in parliament, on the back of almost 40% of all eligible adults in Venezuela (over 25% of the total population) voting for a change in direction. This was considerably higher than anything which the Chavista government has been able to achieve at any previous parliamentary election (with the exception of 2005, when the opposition did not participate). For example, at the 2010 parliamentary election, 30% of all eligible adults (under 19% of the population) voted for the government; and in the year 2000 the respective figures were c. 17% and c. 8%. In fact, the level of support for change was as high, as anything which Chavez was able to muster at Presidential elections during his heydays; and significantly higher than the level of support which brought him to power back in 1998 (i.e. 33% of eligible adults and 16% of the population). Incidentally and by way of comparison, the corresponding figures at this year’s UK general election (i.e. those who voted Conservative) were 24.5% of eligible adults and 17.6% of the population.

The level of clamour for change in Venezuela cannot be ignored and one hopes that the international community will not just stand by and watch democracy perish in this peaceful country.

Virgilio Mendoza

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