May 7, 2004

Accountability and silence

There's a funny dynamic at work in my comments forum - every few weeks some brave government supporter desides to chip in and post a comment, and then, well, all hell breaks loose. Though we've gotten better at treating chavista commenters with respect, we don't always manage to be entirely pleasant. Poco a poco...

The thing that strikes me is that the chavista posters are invariably, in no time at all, deluged with questions from the opposition posters. What happened to the more than $2 billion that disappeared from FIEM in 2001? Why did Chavez continue talking through the April 11th cadena instead of stopping to halt the violence? Who killed the protesters in the Autopista Regional del Centro in October 2002? In Charallave in Jan. 2003? Who killed Evangelina Carrizo and Juan Carlos Zambrano and Pedreañez? Where did García Carneiro get the money to buy a yatch? How can Chavez condemn what happened at Abu Ghraib Prison while ignoring the abuse at Fuerte Mara? How can a Supreme Tribunal decision be both final and not-final at the same time? Is article 31 of the Recall Referendum Regulations approved last August still in force? How can it be in force if the regulations published to operationalize it are in direct contradiction with what it says? If there was a megafraude with the planillas planas, how come there were more planillas planas in the government's recall request against the opposition assemblymembers than in the opposition's recall request against Chavez? If there was a megafraude, why would you go out of your way to violate article 31 and allow people who recognize that they did sign validly back in November to go back and take it back? The list, obviously could grow and grow and grow...

Now, some chavista posters make an attempt to answer, others - who can blame them - don't. But what I find significant about this little phenomenon is the nearly bottomless thirst antichavistas have for some kind of reasonable explanation from the government side. Any government supporter who pipes up gets the deluge of queries, for the simple reason that the government itself never answers any of these questions.

The mechanism that brought us to this point is itself a serious cause for concern. Government spokespeople long since stopped inviting non-chavista media outlets to their press conference, long since stopped going to opposition-controlled radio and tv shows, long since stopped answering questions from the opposition. Really the only time they face questions is when faced with a State Radio, State TV or State Press Agency type - and the questions they make are invariably pathetically easy. Chavista ministers and officials just don't put themselves in a position to hear tough questions, much less to have to answer them.

It's true that the opposition media bears some of the responsibility for this situation - its treatment of government spokespeople has often been disrespectful and at times openly slanderous. But the outcome is an incredibly destructive escalation of the two-entirely-separate-worlds dynamic between pro- and anti-Chavez sectors of society. The government simply does not feel obliged to answer questions from those who don't subscribe to the Chavez cult of personality. This liberates the government to behave in ways that are plainly indefensible since, after all, they know full well they'll never be called on to defend their behavior.

What's worrying about this dynamic is that it shows a government that thinks it can pick and choose between its citizens and decide who it will be accountable to and who it won't be accountable to. (Some citizens are obviously more equal than others.) Instead of establishing institutions that may force it to answer all questions from all comers (say, oh, a Freedom of Information Law, just to pick a policy idea at random) the government picks first and second class citizens - those who subscribe to the cult of personality and therefore obtain the privilege of asking questions, and those who don't and therefore lose that privilege.

Just to end this little riff, I'll mention one of those extravagant Chavista lies that show how destructive this whole answer-questions-only-from-sycophants policy can be. Sitting in for a sick Chavez in the next-to-last Alo, presidente, Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz proudly announced to the country that his ministry had created some 60,000 school libraries over the last few years. Had an critical mind been allowed anywhere near a microphone at that time, that voice might have pointed out that there are only 20,000 public schools in Venezuela, total. Either Isturiz expects us to believe he's built an average of three new libraries per school, or when he says "library" he means "bookshelf." I'd like to know which one it is - but guess what! I don't suck Chavez's member in print! So I don't get to ask!