May 8, 2004

Just Imagine: Two dead after US troops set iraqi prisoners on fire

SUBHEADS: New reports from Abu Ghraib prison include reports of deaths, all-night beatings, rape, electric shocks, tear gas used in confined spaces, and prisoners forced to eat their own hair and feces.

President Bush calls officers responsible for Abu Ghraib prison "heros", plans to decorate them...

Imagine that? Unimaginable. Impossible. Far fetched. Yet this is precisely what happened in Venezuela, where the government first covered up allegations of serious abuse against opposition activists held in custody, and president Chavez then went out of his way to honor the "revolutionary courage" of those responsible, going as far as to give them medals for their role in the violence!

Que molleja, primo!

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!

May 6, 2004

La Alpargata Insolente del Extranjero

Expect to see Eva Golinger blow a gasket over this delicious bit of reporting by El Nuevo Herald, revealing that Citgo made campaign donations to both the Democratic and Republican parties in the 2002 election season. A $15,000 Citgo contribution apparently reached the GOP just two weeks before the April 2002 coup.

Citgo, just to refresh foreign readers' memories, is a 100% Venezuelan owned oil company based in Tulsa (though soon moving to Houston.) Citgo is a "US-based" company, so I guess it's not technically illegal for them to contribute to US political parties. It's just irresistably delicious to write about, though, after the oceans of ink and, erm, gillions of pixels mobilized to castigate US for funding political groups in Venezuela.

Can you say rabo'e'paja??

The Nadir of the Ni-Nis...

Datanalisis says...

...polarization is increasing in Venezuela, with the ni-ni (apolitical) camp dwindling to just 30% of registered voters, the lowest it's been in years.

Datanalisis now figures the breakdown is like this:

Opposition - 37%

Ni-Ni - 30%

Pro-government - 28%.

No answer - 5%

They also estimate that 77% of the electorate would turn out for a referendum, but they do so using the stupidest methodology in the book: by asking people directly whether they plan to vote. This, as everyone knows, is badly misleading, since people are often embarrassed to tell pollsters the truth if they don't really plan to vote. So, one big demerit point for Datanalisis on this score.

Still, if 37% of the electorate can be relied on to turn out to recall Chavez, that's 4.4 million votes. Plenty...more than enough...


Kerry! Amigo! El pueblo está contigo!

John Kerry ran his mouth on Spanish language gringo tv last night:

[...Univision interviewer Jorge] Ramos asked Kerry if he thought that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez was a dictator and Kerry responded, "Chavez is fast on the road of becoming exactly that. He is breaking the rules of democracy. I think it is very important for him to allow that referendum to take place and for this administration and others to put more visibility on what is happening so we can hold him accountable to international standards of behavior. Democracy is at risk." [...]


May 4, 2004

Democracy or Revolution?

For six years now, Hugo Chavez has been promising Venezuelans a Democratic Revolution. The crux of the political crisis in Venezuela lies in the fact that this is a contradiction in terms.

Revolution will not share power, it cannot share power. Reaching an accomodation with opponents is precisely the opposite of a revolution

Democracy, particularly in the way it's been understood in Venezuela for half a century, means powersharing.

Revolution assumes that there is a single acceptable understanding of political reality, only one approved understanding of the reasons for the problems in society, and therefore a single acceptable political stance.

Democracy assumes that reasonable people may disagree on matters of politics, and that it's healthy for a society to have a multiplicity of competing understandings vying for favor at any given time.

Revolution divides the world up between good guys and bad guys, between the people and the enemies of the people, between those who subscribe to the revolution's sanctioned understanding of political reality and the "unreliables" who don't.

Democracy accepts that political differences need not imply imply differences in honesty, virtue, or integrity. It sees those who disagree politically as opponents or adversaries rather than enemies.

Revolution demands total control over all branches of the state, at least, and of society as a whole in extreme cases.

Democracy accepts the variety of political views in society, and sees as normal and healthy that different branches of the state should be under the control of various groups in society.

Revolution sees consultation and negotiation with the enemy as treason.

Democracy sees consultation and negotiation with adversaries as the bread-and-butter of political life.

Revolution demands unquestioning loyalty.

Democracy demands citizen participation.

The phrase revolución democrática is, strictly speaking, meaningless. The government has to choose one or the other. For years the question of which way the Chavez adventure would go seemed up for grabs. Today, after the Referendum shenanigans and the approval of the TSJ law, Chavez's choice has become crystal clear: he's devoted to his revolution, and to get it, he's willing to destroy our democracy.

May 3, 2004

Guest Post: Packing the TSJ...again!

by Jimmy Humboldt

Let's be honest here, people love to hate Chavez. Venezuelans are great at pretending that they never voted for the guy, and the country does seem to have forgotten the nasty stuff that went down for years before he came to power. Personally, I'm more than a little skeptical of the opposition's screeching about the "end of democracy" and "takeover of state institutions" on the part of the ineffable Hugo Chavez. After all, he is the president - they're just the guys that tried to overthrow him a bunch of times.

Now, I've given Chavez as much of the benefit of the doubt as anyone. But this week I just about ran out of steam. I ran out of ways to describe this government as democratic or legitimate. In fact I got so pissed I could hardly even see straight, much less have a civil discussion about Venezuelan politics.

Early Friday morning the Venezuelan National Assembly approved the Supreme Justice Tribunal Law, opening the way for the chavistas to pack up the high court with revolution-sympathetic justices.

I'm so bored of the "authoritarian Castro-crony" cliches to describe Chavez that I don't know how to express how much this law flies in the face of democracy. The opposition has churned through the same old stale accusations so many times that the world is desensitized to how serious they are. We've been hearing that Chavez is a totalitarian dictator worse than Hitler for so long that it's hard to make the case competently without sounding like another bleating sheep in the pack.

But here's my honest opinion - the TSJ Law is an obvious threat to democracy. The law expands the high court from 20 to 32 justices, adding 12 news faces that will be designated by a simple 50% + 1 legislative majority, and gives the National Assembly power to fire justices with the same voting scheme.

There are any number of reasons to describe this as unconstitutional - which I'll get to in a minute - but the real reason it pisses me off is not just that Chavez is packing the courts, it's that he's packing the courts for the second time!

Everyone, even the chavistas, agree that when the court was first created in 2000, Chavez's top political advisors packed it full of magistrates they expected to control. Through the standard intellectual gymnastics, this was defended on the grounds that anyone who supported Chavez supported the Revolution, and was therefore patriotic and ergo good for the country.

This analysis sidesteps a fundamental element - the Revolution is a political movement run by a political party, and - according to the little blue book - TSJ magistrates cannot be chosen on the basis of political affiliation. The chavistas assured us for years that of course, the magistrates were completely impartial and only concerned about ensuring the legality of the Chavez reforms.

But unfortunately Chavez let the underhanded, backstabbing Luis Miquilena, the political brains behind his rise, hand-pick "his" magistrates for him. When Miquilena parted ways with Chavez, he took his Supreme Cronies with him. In August of 2003, the TSJ refused to hold a trial for military officers implicated in the 2002 coup - a decision reached as a result of heavy pressure by Miquilena.

Now, here was a moment for the chavistas to step up to the plate and accept defeat. The poetic justice was so evident; the revolutionaries had used the same slash-and-burn tactics that came before them, the same institutional degradation that their movement was built on criticizing. A quick mea culpa could have salvaged the Bolivarian Revolution in the eyes of those with some semblance of critical thought.

Instead Venezuela was treated to a sermon preached from Mount Miraflores about how "powerful economic interests" had bought out the court to ensure that no justice was carried out against the coupsters.

It's like the chavistas forgot they had schemed to bring those justices onto the bench, and had defended them for years against attacks that they had been designated through cronyism. Suddenly, these 11 magistrates became Martians that had somehow, magically, inexplicably, appeared on the bench of the country's top judicial authority.

Instead of an apology for their retrograde politics, the National Assembly launched a witch hunt to fire the magistrates that had voted against trying the officers. That witch hunt failed - the constitution explicitly states that only the attorney general backed by 2/3rds of the Assembly can remove magistrates from the bench, and only after an investigation proving misconduct.

On Friday, the Bolivarian Revolution was officially given permission to re-launch that witch hunt - with the new law, chavistas can fire magistrates at their discretion. Of course, to their credit, they most likely won't need to resort to that - they just have to squeeze 12 more magistrates on to the bench and magically the balance of power shifts back to the Chavez camp - just like in the good old Miquilena days when the court knew how to take orders from the executive without talking back or asking questions.

The 1999 Constitution - you know, the one Chavez keeps in his breast pocket - expressly forbids much of what's in the TSJ law. No sane interpretation of the constitution could allow what they're doing. The legislature is supposed to have a 2/3 majority to ensure there is enough political consensus to change a major (organic) law. Furthermore, the constitution stresses the independence of the branches of government - the assembly can't fire magistrates or hire new ones any more than the TSJ can decree that the assembly should have 200 deputies instead of 165 - and then proceed to appoint 35 new ones.

So this is where I appeal to the best minds of chavismo to explain why I'm wrong? I'm more than willing to listen. The only possible explanation I can see is that the chavistas want control of the high court again, particularly now that Chavez may be facing a referendum, and are not shy about using old-style Venezuelan politics to get it.

I've heard some deputies say the poor TSJ magistrates are so overworked that they need more bodies on each bench to get their work done. But if there really is a need for this, why are some magistrates so violently opposed to it? And if it really is so important, why not develop the 2/3 majority established in the constitution?

Now I have to ask my audience of chavistas brave enough to suffer through pages of ranting on CaracasChronicles - if you were not in government, would it be acceptable for the majority to pack the courts with its friends? Would you consider this democratic behavior if it did not work in your favor? What would be your reaction if Henrique Salas Römer filled the high court with familiar faces from the April 11 coup through evidently extra-legal maneuvers? Would you want a hyper-powerful executive if the executive currently in office were not a friend of yours?