September 28, 2008

Residual memories

Quico says: I'm a bit late to this story, but didn't want to let it pass without a comment. About a week ago, Luisa Ortega Díaz, Chávez's prosecutor general, told reporters that no laws were broken in the summary expulsion of Human Rights Watch's team from Venezuela.

As they say in England, "well, she would say that, wouldn't she?"

These kinds of ritual declarations of lawfulness hold a weird sort of fascination for me. Of course, like most of them, this one was entirely bogus: articles 39 through 46 of Venezuela's Aliens and Migration Law set out in intricate detail the procedure the authorities must follow to expel a foreigner from the country. According to the law (which, incidentally, was drafted by chavistas less than five years ago), aliens slated for expulsion are entitled to be notified of the government's intentions ahead of time, to retain counsel, to prepare a defense, to present their arguments orally at an administrative hearing, and to appeal any decision to the courts.

On the day he was seized by fifteen or twenty heavily armed members of the security forces, Vivanco wasn't even allowed to make a phone call, let alone an appeal.

All of which adds yet another layer of irony to the episode. Because, bear in mind, Vivanco was expelled for presenting a report that praised the extensive human rights guarantees enshrined in Venezuelan law but also criticized the government for failing to honor those guarantees in practice.

By now, the impudent relish with which chavismo breaks its own laws can no longer shock or surprise: the novelty wore off a long time ago. What gets me is that Ortega Díaz still felt the need to come out and argue that the government's actions were legal.

Maybe "argue" is the wrong word here: no one who has even glanced at the Immigration Law's Article 43 could really argue that Vivanco's expulsion was lawful without her brain turning into mush and oozing out of her left ear. Still, the Prosecutor General felt the need to at least assert the legality of Vivanco's expulsion. This far into the game, she still didn't feel like she could just say, "suck it up: it's, raison d'é we expelled him ¿y qué?"

To me, that's a thing of wonder.

It's as though somewhere hidden deep inside her reptilian brain, a couple of neurons are still firing away, irrepressibly saying "laws have to be followed!"; as though somehow this sense that "written rules ought not to be ignored" can't be completely extricated from our political psyche. Trampled, debased, battered, humiliated and serially ignored? Yes...but not completely extricated, not even from the most abject apparatchik's mind.

There's a tiny smidgen of hope locked in there somewhere. A realization that the residual memory of the value of the rule of law is incredibly resilient in Venezuela, that the sense for the legal is as much a part of our national identity as is our outsized capacity to ignore it. That, despite how it may feel sometimes, we are not Mbutu's Zaire or Gomez's Venezuela, places where the category of the "legal" had not even established a conceptual foothold into the vocabulary of power. Ramshackle and partial as it was, some aspects of our long, 20th century flirtation with the democratic rule of law left lasting imprints on our collective psyche.

Think of it this way: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, even countries that had been incredibly brutalized by communist tyranny were able to regain the path of democracy in less than two long as they had a history of real democracy before becoming Soviet satellites to refer to. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic...their democratic DNA had laid dormant for 45 years, but it had not been extirpated. It was the countries with no real history of democracy to fall back on - Russia foremost among them - that just couldn't manage the transition to democracy.

All I'm saying is that when this whole long nightmare is over, Venezuela will look a lot more like the Czech Republic than like Russia.