March 5, 2004

The Mugabization of the Chavista State

One day, when the time comes to write the history of this last week, hard questions are going to be asked.

People who have spent a lifetime criticizing puntofijismo, attacking the old regime for its human rights abuses, will have a hell of a time explaining why those human rights abuses were an outrage when they were in opposition but have become "gallant" now that they are in power. Vicepresident Jose Vicente Rangel continues to deny that there are ANY cases of torture and blames absolutely anyone at all - from the protesters themselves to their mayors - except the people commiting the actual abuses.

Tarek William Saab, clearly having forgotten his brief experience as a political prisoner in 2002, sees no problem with the National Guard abuses, and says it's the guards whose rights are being abused. (Poshitos)

Over the last week, Venezuela has seen multiple, consistent reports of torture (including beatings, electric shocks, the use of harsh skin irritants during interrogations, the use of tear-gas canisters in enclosed spaces) as well as random shootings by state security forces into residential buildings and, at the last count, nine extra-judicial killings in a week.

When brought to task, government spokesmen brazenly blame the victims, explaining they have a plan to destabilize the country and praising the "gallantry" of the armed forces in suppressing them. The victims, needless to say, can rest absolutely assured that their attackers will not be punished for what they've done. That's the chavista way...

I have been sporadically criticized for comparing Chavez with Robert Mugabe. People tell me I'm exagerating. I wish they were right. But for a week now, directly after Mugabe's G15 visit - when Chavez went out of his way to praise him personally - we've seen Chavez borrow heavily from Zimbabwe's repertoire of repression tactics. The government's new M.O. - arrest, torture, release - has been a staple of political life in Harare for years. The single-minded, single-track attack on the opposition as "foreign puppets" is also lifted straight from the Mugabe (and Castro) playbook.

It's true that Mugabe's Zanu-PF supporters have been less shy about mass-scale murder than Chavistas in Venezuela. However, it's worth pointing out that 4 or 5 years ago, when the political crisis started in earnest in Zimbabwe, their level of violence was not so different from what we see now in Venezuela. They're just further along down the same road.

Certainly, once the country's legal and investigative institutions, from CICPC (judicial police) to the prosecutors to the courts, have all been hollowed out and packed with revolutionaries, there are no procedural guarantees worth a damn to opposition supporters anymore.

Even today this process of purging and packing continues, like it did in Zimbabwe in the late 90s, with independent-minded judges being unceremoniously fired to be replaced with advocates of revolutionary justice. A total breakdown in the rule of law, from the ground up. Rather than protecting citizens, we can look forward to courts being turned into yet another instrument of repression. In due time, Mugabe picked out the opposition's leader, Morgan Tsvangarai, and had him tried for treason. Their past, our future?

Meanwhile, many who should know better continue to provide propaganda cover for a regime that's plainly past deserving it. With every passing day they undermine their own credibility. In the fullness of time, people like Larry Birns, Greg Palast, and many others will be called to account. Questions will be asked of them. They will have to answer, they'll have to explain what, personally, they did to stop the human rights abuses they knew were taking place all around them. And they'll have to accept that they a-sided with the abusers and b-did nothing to stop the violence.

Things to keep in mind, down the road, when you hear them report in anguished tones of high moral righteousness about the terrible excess of the Carmona dictatorship, say, or what happens at Guantanamo Bay.