April 15, 2009

Our Constitution up in flames

Juan Cristobal says: Freedom of expression. The right to elect officials. The right to a fair trial. Freedom of religion.

Those all sound swell, don't they? They are but a few of the rights constitutionally guaranteed to the lucky citizens of...North Korea.

One characteristic of dictatorships is that the rights enshrined in their Constitutions are not worth the paper they're printed on. If you take these documents at word value, the citizens of Cuba are guaranteed "freedom of speech" (article 53) and "the right to assembly" (article 54), just like their comrades from the extinct USSR.

It's all a sham, of course, a game of sophisticated political wordsmithing, like some perverse version of diplo-Scrabble. When the law has no meaning, it costs you nothing to put all kinds of pretty things in it. If anything, having a ton of Bambi-sounding rights in your Constitution gives you a pretty inexpensive propaganda tool for your shameless foreign cheerleaders to use: the constitution as cheap talk.

Which brings me to Venezuela. I guess it should be no surprise at this point, but the latest hackery coming out of the CNE just baffles the mind.

The story begins in my home town of Maracaibo, where the Zulia State legislature, for the first time in its existence, actually did something useful.

It turns out that the government passed a new law stripping state and local governments of many of their resources and faculties. Of course, after the opposition won key governorships and city halls, the government was keen on curbing their power or even stripping it altogether, with no one able to put up a fight. So far, no surprises.

The surprise came when the Zulia State legislature decided to exercise their rights under article 71 and call for a "Referendo Consultivo", a non-binding referendum on the Reform.

Article 71 states:
"Parish-level, municipal or State-wide matters of special importance can be subject to a non-binding Consulting Referendum. The initiative must come from the Parish Board, the Municipal Council or the state's Legislative Council and must be approved by two-thirds of its members; by the Mayor or the Governor; or by at least 10 percent of the voters in the corresponding electoral precinct."
Zulia's legislature passed the measure and sent the request to the Chavez-controlled electoral body, the CNE. The CNE's only possible position in this situation was to approve the request and set a timetable for the Referendum.

Today, they said no.

Their reason? The recent law is national in scope, and therefore cannot be subjected to Article 71. In other words, the government takes away the resources of the zulianos, but since they're also taking the money from tachirenses, carabobeños, mirandinos and neoespartanos ... well, no procede, ciudadano. Never mind that there are fewer things that have more "special importance" for the state of Zulia than having its budget and the faculties of its Governor taken away.

We've long been critical of Tibisay Lucena and the CNE on this blog, but we have stopped short of accusing her of the über-obstructionist horseshit that her predecessors, Jorge Rodríguez and Francisco Carrasquero, took such glee in meting out. After all, under her supervision, we managed to win a national referendum and a few key state elections.

But things have changed. As Chavismo continues its unstoppable march toward out-and-out dictatorship, the CNE is signalling its willingness to play along. Maybe Lucena is just keen to preserve her own viability for the kinds of high-visibility, high-salary, high-graft-potential government jobs her two predecessors have gone on to enjoy after their absolutely subservient stints at CNE. We can't be sure. One thing we can be sure of is that there are tough times are ahead.

As yet another article of our Constitution goes up in smoke, we are left wondering: are we already governed by a work of fiction? Have our fundamental rights been so diluted that, already, our Constitution reads funnier than the Sunday Comics?

After all, Cuban dissidents don't go to the Supreme Court to demand the rights enshrined in their Constitution be upheld. It's simply not worth it.