December 31, 2003

Today, I will break a personal rule...

...and blog about a subject other than Venezuela. Kind of.

The BBC (and everyone else) reports today that US authorities have named a special counsel to lead an investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA agent whose husband opposed the Iraq war. Demonstrating that, battered though it clearly is, US democracy keeps on ticking, more or less, the investigation into this highly politically charged case will pass from a political appointee to the hands of a prosecutor with real independence.

Those of you who read the blog know where I'm going with this: there is no comparable legal mechanism in Venezuela. At all. No special counsel statute. No state or local criminal jurisdiction. Nothing. There is only the Fiscal General, a position that, on paper, is fully independent of the government, but in reality is held by perhaps the single most obsequious member of the chavista inner circle: former Vicepresident Isaias Rodriguez, the ultimate pushover, the regime's perennial number two man, an inveterate presidential yes man who has shown again and again that he will never, ever act against the president's interests.

For evident reasons, the personality and character of those called to investigate the most powerful men in a country are of key interest. The newly appointed special counsel in the US, Patrick Fitzgerald, is described by colleagues interviewed by the New York Times as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor," and a man with "a brain like a mainframe computer."

Former opponents agree. A lawyer who once had to face Fitzpatrick tells the Times: "Let me put it to you this way: If John Ashcroft wanted any favors on this one, he went to the wrong guy. This guy is tough."

This, of course, it what it takes to investigate the most politically sensitive cases. This is the standard that the citizens of a free republic are entitled to. If Fitzgerald decides not to charge anyone in the white house, it will be difficult for political opponents to cry foul. If he does move forward, his reputation will infuse those indictments with credibility that a politically motivated prosecutor would never enjoy. This is what it takes for institutions to have any sort of credibility, and for the law to apply equally to all.

Can you imagine a corresponding profile of Isaias Rodriguez? Could anyone argue that he meets this standard without provoking guffaws?

It's not a minor matter...this problem is at the center of the betrayal of democratic values at the center of the Chavez government.

You wouldn't necessarily know it, because he has a very low public profile, but Isaias Rodriguez is the lynchpin of the Chavista system. He shies away from microphones, works to make himself invisible, to not draw attention to himself, and he's successful. People don't notice him much. But his monopoly on the power to order criminal investigations, authorize indictments, and proceed on all criminal matters has produced a situation of utter lawlessness in the country.

I can, just off the top of my head, think of at least half a dozen cases in Venezuela where there is prima-facie evidence of criminal activity by Chavez personally that is far, far more direct and straightforward than the evidence linking the White House to the Valerie Plame fracas. Think of the FIEM, where Chavez admitted publicly to having ordered the Finance Minister to violate the Salvaguarda Law by failing to make the required deposits in 2001 - a criminal offense in Venezuela. Think of April 11th, when Chavez continued to give a speech for over two hours while a massacre unfolded just meters from where he was sitting, taking absolutely no action to stop it and later congratulating some of the gunmen. Think of the blatant disregard for the constitutional guarantee of privacy in personal communication, for its ban on the use of public property for party political purposes. Think of the continued and exceedingly public flouting of the regulations on the use of military uniforms for non-active military personnel. Think of the National Guard's action to tear-gas children while they slept, before dawn, to evict them from PDVSA housing in Paraguana. Think of the hundreds, probably thousands of instances of incitement to violence against journalists, priests, opposition organizers, anti-Chavez NGOs, etc. in any number of presidential speeches since 1999.

The newly appointed Special Counsel in the US says "the attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate." In Venezuela, Isaias Rodriguez has continually and consistently refused to take himself off of cases involving Chavez and the government, despite the blindingly evident, indeed obscene, conflict of interest involved.

Attempts to force him to recuse himself through the courts have died at the Supreme Court level. With no legal lever to force the crony off of any of these cases, the government and its supporters can act under a kind of pre-announced blanket amnesty for any crimes they may choose to commit.

Had any one of the cases outlined above been impartially investigated by a truly independent prosecutor, it would have been an open-and-shut case. Because the lawbreaking in the Chavez government is not subtle, not a matter of careful legal interpretations that could go either way. It's open, brazen, proud, public.

Any of these cases would have provoked a serious constitutional crisis in a country with properly functioning legal institutions. In Venezuela, they get as far as the Fiscal's desk, and then die. It's the perfect scam: the government maintains the appearance of a properly functioning institutional system, all the while enjoying total impunity, absolute carte blanche to break any law it wants. This, in effect, is an outlaw government.

I do wish that those on the left who were so passionately angered by the wholesale violation of the constitution during the April 2002 coup would show at least a shard of that same indignation when faced with this less visible but equally thorough betrayal of constitutional principles at the hands of those who, ironically, wrote the current constitution!