Skip to comments.Venezuela Strike Falters as Banks Lift Protest - Has Democracy Failed?
Posted on 01/30/2003 2:09:18 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan private banks decided Wednesday to restore normal working hours, opening another crack in a faltering eight-week-old opposition strike against President Hugo Chavez.
But striking oil workers were maintaining their shutdown, which has rattled global energy markets by slashing oil output in the world's No. 5 petroleum exporter.
Private banks, which make up nearly 90 percent of the Venezuelan financial sector, had been operating for limited daily hours since December in support of the strike launched on Dec. 2 to pressure leftist Chavez from office.
"The National Banking Council and the Venezuelan Banking Association decided at a meeting by a two-thirds vote to restart normal operating hours from Monday," association president Ignacio Salvatierra told reporters. The two associations represent most financial institutions.
As the strike nears the two month mark, backing for the protest in non-oil sectors has begun to fray as private businesses, restaurants and stores reopen to fend off bankruptcy.
Opposition leaders, who brand former paratrooper Chavez's rule as dictatorial and corrupt, offered on Tuesday to ease their strike by exempting food production and education.
But they say the protest will continue until Chavez accepts immediate elections. Chavez is due to step down at the start of 2007.
The shutdown has stoked tensions as it forced Venezuelans to line up for cash, dwindling supplies of gasoline and some basic foodstuffs. At least seven people have been killed in rival street protests and shootings since the strike began.
Bankers cited pressure from account holders for lifting the stoppage. "This is the result of demands from the public and deposit holders ... banks don't belong to their presidents but to their deposit holders," said Nelson Mezerhane, president of the Federal banking group.
The opposition strike has driven Venezuela's fragile economy deeper into recession and forced the government to suspend foreign currency trading while it prepares a fixed exchange rate to protect its reserves.
Battered by economic uncertainty, the local bolivar currency has plummeted more than 28 percent since the strike began. Venezuela's international reserves fell 7.3 percent to 11.05 billion as the Central Bank burned through as much as $60 million a day to shore up the currency.
Economists say exchange rate controls will help the government stem capital flight in the short-term. But restrictions could later squeeze the private sector and force the government to defend its fixed rate from black market exchange rates.
Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and survived a coup last year, has also dismissed opposition calls for him to resign. Though his popularity has fallen sharply this year, he maintains a solid base of support among poorer voters who believe his left-wing reforms are the key to a better life.
The Venezuelan leader, who led a botched coup himself six years before his ballot box victory, has fought back against the strikers by deploying troops and replacement crews to oil installations. But oil production still remains only at around a third of the usual 3.1 million barrels per day.
A fiery populist, whose rhetoric is filled with class warfare slogans, Chavez has also threatened to take over banks, schools and factories that joined the strike.
The international community will intensify its efforts to break Venezuela's political deadlock this week when representatives from six nations arrive in Caracas to lend their weight to peace talks. The negotiations chaired by the Organization of American States have so far failed to break their impasse.
Representatives from the six nations, led by the United States and Brazil, are scheduled to arrive on Thursday in Caracas. They will meet for talks Friday.
In his first year in office, Chávez has wrought a massive upheaval in Venezuela's political institutions and has come to completely dominate the political landscape-filling all political space, as one local commentator put it. The overwhelming approval of the new constitution on December 15 was a political triumph for the president and a crushing blow to the fragmented and leaderless opposition, which has been incapable of blunting Chávez' enormous popular appeal. Chávez has been omnipresent since the devastating floods and mudslides that began as voters were preparing to go to the polls on December 15. Dressed in his army fatigues and now famous red beret, he has personally taken charge of the relief effort thereby continuing to dominate the headlines. This has led some political commentators to call attention to a cult of personality beginning to develop around Chávez.
Leading opposition figures have accused President Chávez of running a sham democracy in which key public institutions are controlled by handpicked Chávez allies. "This isn't a democracy because that requires pluralism and the limitation of power," said former presidential candidate Claudio Fermin, constitutional law expert Allan Brewer Carias, and leading opposition figure Alberto Franceshi in a joint statement at the end of the year. Their message has not garnered much support. Criticism that the government ignored warnings that torrential rains could cause massive damage and so was ill prepared to cope with disaster when it struck have likewise not diminished his luster and popularity. Chávez is getting high marks for his handling of the crisis-at least so far. A poll in early January showed that 86 percent of the people in Caracas regarded his performance as "good" or "very good."
More and more criticism of the president is beginning to emerge, however. Under pressure from human rights activists the government has finally admitted that human rights violations, including the summary executions of looters by troops, may have occurred in the aftermath of the devastating floods and mud slides.
A Powerful President
Under terms of the new constitution, which has already gone into effect, Chávez will be the most powerful president in the democratic era of the country. He could surely be reelected for a six-year term this year under the new constitution, which means that he would remain in power for 13 years since this constitution permits the immediate reelection of a president.
With the attention of the nation focused on the mudslides that killed 10-30,000 Venezuelans on the north coast (some estimates are as high as 50,000) and left as many as 150,000 homeless, President Chávez and his allies in the Constituent Assembly have moved ahead to implement changes they say are authorized by the new constitution-eliminating congress, replacing the supreme court and hand-picking top judicial and other officials.
The army has been mobilised to help the rescue operation - President Hugo Chavez briefs paratroopers before they go into action.
The assembly dissolved congress and appointed a 21-member "mini-congress" of Chávez backers (including his brother Adan) which will legislate until elections are held for the new National Assembly. New elections for president, mayors, governors, and the legislature, originally scheduled for March, have been postponed until May 28 because of the disaster. President Chávez probably would have preferred an earlier date, but given the massive cleanup and reconstruction effort underway which requires the undivided attention of the government, it is doubtful that electoral officials could have been prepared much sooner. Chávez is well aware that he could suffer if the elections are delayed late into the year as continued high unemployment (now about 18 percent) and economic stagnation could damage his popularity, still running at over 70 percent.
The assembly also named a new Supreme Tribunal of Justice (replacing the Supreme Court), comptroller, public prosecutor, national electoral council, and other officials. Critics have called the appointments backroom politics at their worst. But Chávez supporters stress that the appointments are temporary and say the assembly acted quickly to help the government cope with the national crisis. The former comptroller, Eduardo Roche Lander, has issued a scathing report criticizing the president, saying he has worsened a recession, trampled the rule of law and done little to achieve his stated goal of eliminating corruption. According to Roche, there is rampant corruption in the Bolivar 2000 program, the government's centerpiece public works program. "Lamentably, the president of the republic used all of his time and power to obtain his political objectives, ignoring his basic obligations to a country that had elected him, fundamentally to lead a process of social and economic recovery," he said. Chávez' supporters said Venezuelans recent approval of the new constitution required Roche's removal, but the former comptroller called the move "arbitrary and of very doubtful legality."
The New Constitution
The new constitution calls for the vast overhaul of Venezuela's political institutions. Among the most important changes: · The president's term is extended from five to six years, and the ban on immediate reelection for a second and final term is lifted;
The Senate is eliminated, leaving a single chamber National Assembly which will have 166 members; The president can dissolve the National Assembly if it rejects his appointment of a vice president (a new position) three times; The country's name is changed from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in honor of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, a change originally opposed by the Constitutional Assembly but reinserted at Chávez' insistence; Civilian oversight of the military is reduced by eliminating the right of congress to vote on military promotions (giving such power to the president), and soldiers gain the right to vote; News organizations are required to publish "truthful, opportune and impartial" reports-a clause critics say could lead to press censorship; Social security benefits and free health care and education (including university) are guaranteed to all Venezuelans; Housewives win the status of workers and qualify for social security benefits, including a $169 monthly check when they reach retirement age (article 88 of the new constitution calls them "creators of added-value riches and social well-being"); The government's ownership of shares in PDVSA is given constitutional status, but some private investment in the oil industry is permitted.
In January the Assembly ratified Chávez' choice of Diego Castellanos, a former economics professor and head of the Foreign Trade Bank, as the new president of the Central Bank. Little is known about his policy inclinations and he is expected to broadly follow Chávez' directions. The appointment only served to emphasize critics' concerns that the new constitution seriously undermines Central Bank autonomy.
72 Percent Vote Yes
Although celebrations were curtailed as the news of the massive flooding spread, Chávez was elated at the 72 percent approval for the new constitution, which he called "a birth certificate for the new Venezuela." He added that it would allow the construction of "an economy for everyone; a model which is not like this savagery that we have now where only a small number of Venezuelans benefit." He has also tried to explain away at least some of the 54 percent abstention rate as being due to the heavy rains.
His opponents remain unconvinced, however, and maintain that the new constitution greatly increases the state's role in the economy and contains unrealistic promises of social security, free health care and state education that would bankrupt the state if fulfilled. Paternalistic governance, they say, is what helped plunge the country into poverty in the first place. Even one of the principle intellectual authors of the new constitution, Hermann Escarra, a prominent professor of constitutional law and chairman of the drafting committee of the new charter, who voted yes, described the final draft as "a populist model under military tutelage."
Now that the new constitution is in place, Chávez faces increasing pressure to deliver a quick improvement in living standards and economic opportunities. His supporters have been patient, willing to accept his promises that once the new constitutional system is in place, things would improve.
Long Road to Recovery
How long they will remain patient is uncertain. Venezuela can expect a long and arduous road to recovery, especially as the economy remains mired in a deep recession. The bill for cleanup and reconstruction, which by some estimates could reach a staggering $15-$20 billion, will be painful for a government already saddled with a $3 billion fiscal deficit, and an economy that shrank by as much as 7.5 percent last year. Before the floods generated the need for additional government spending, the 2000 budget already called for a strong fiscal expansion, increasing spending by some 30 percent.
Citing concerns over the new constitution, Standard and Poor's in December downgraded the country's foreign currency sovereign debt rating. "The new constitution presents a setback to structural reform," Boris Segura, assistant director of Latin American sovereign debt ratings, said. "It promotes an increased role for the state in economic affairs and the new constitution does not address key constraints on Venezuela's creditworthiness," he added. Others have raised concerns over capital flight which has been estimated at about $4 billion since Chávez took over last February, a statistic which has been disputed by Finance Minister José Rojas. U.S. investment, which is about 40 percent of all foreign investment in the country, fell 73 percent in 1999 to $32.3 million down from $122.2 million in 1998 (these statistics do not include energy).
Venezuela needs about $4 billion to service its external debt this year, and the government has been talking for months about easing the burden of debt payments over the next few years. Last month, however, Chávez said that Venezuela would continue its debt service payments despite the disaster of the floods. The World Bank said in December that the bolivar remained overvalued by about 50 percent compared to the 1990-1996 average. Earlier in January the Central bank announced that Venezuela would stick with its currency band system that allows the bolivar to float within upper and lower limits 7.5 percent either side of the central rate. The bolivar ended 1999 at about 673 to the dollar.
The only good economic news at year's end was that inflation for 1999 totaled 20 percent, down from 30 percent last year and the lowest 12-month increase in 13 years. Obviously benefiting from the recovery in oil prices, Venezuela has a nice cushion of international reserves, about $16 billion at the end of the year.
Petroleum Still King
Three of the 350 articles in the new constitution refer directly to the oil industry. The most controversial, article 303, keeps all of the shares of PDVSA in the hands of the state. Article 12 establishes that all mines and hydrocarbon deposits belong to the state, a basic principle of Venezuelan law unchanged since independence. Article 302 effectively gives constitutional status to the 1975 oil nationalization law which reserves the oil industry to the state.
Article 350 does contain a loophole to permit PDVSA to sell shares in subsidiaries, for example its stake in CITGO in the United States, without lengthy constitutional reforms. The Chávez administration has vowed to respect the contracts signed by previous administrations. However, it has drastically reduced the investment available to PDVSA and has no plans to extend the reach of the private sector in the oil industry.
Chávez is Hard to Read
The blend of socialism, militarism, and romantic idealism, as well as his fascination (some would say obsession) with Bolivar, which seems to make up his ideology, was on display recently when he spoke to a group of Argentine relief workers. He called for a single Latin American currency and a regional military union similar to NATO. "I think we have to fight to establish a confederation of republics. This is possible. Over there are the Europeans with only one currency. Why not a currency of our own? That mustn't be the dollar, of course. We need another currency, ours. Why not a common military organization? If NATO exists, why not consider it. Why can't we think about a Latin American military union to face situations like this and many others: our sovereignty, the scientific and technological development of our people. I think this is the only way: the union of our people, of our armed forces, of our economic organization, of our economic models."
In the past he has spoken often of his friendship with the United States, but he used those same remarks to rail against capitalism. "Neoliberalism is savage. We don't defend neoliberalism any more. No, what we have to do is attack it. This is the road to hell. We have to search for other models. We have to build other models. We can't allow them to continue selling us models that we then copy exactly. No, we have challenges ahead. It is necessary to build distinct economic, political and social models."
He also cannot seem to pass up an opportunity to tweak his nose at the United States. The most recent example was a tense standoff between Chávez and the United States over the issue of U.S. troops operating heavy equipment to clear a coastal road heavily damaged during December's torrential rains. Responding to a Venezuelan request for aid, the Pentagon announced it was sending two shiploads of equipment and 450 personnel. Abruptly, after one ship had already sailed, Chávez said it wanted only the equipment and not the U.S. soldiers. Despite Ambassador John Maisto's comments that the disagreement was not seen as a diplomatic incident by the U.S. government, the aborted mission left U.S. officials feeling puzzled and miffed. Last year Chávez denied a U.S. request to use Venezuelan airspace for anti-drug reconnaissance flights.
Up to now, U.S. policy toward Chávez has been appropriately low key, stressing the importance of democracy and the rule of law. A democratic Venezuela is important for the United States because of the danger of contagion elsewhere in Latin America if democracy were to falter. A stable Venezuela is important because the United States needs the country's petroleum and its cooperation in fighting narcotraffickers. Venezuelan officials regularly stress that President Chávez should be judged not on his often-inflammatory words but on his deeds. Whatever his reasoning (so far, not very well explained), the United States should quietly accept his decision not to welcome an additional 450 U.S. soldiers (120 who arrived with water purification equipment remain). His personal friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro likewise should not determine U.S. policy. The United States must be prepared, however, to speak out forcefully and to take any necessary action if Venezuela begins to take actions inimical to vital U.S. interests.
Despite his often-inflammatory rhetoric and an undercurrent of xenophobia and despite legitimate concerns that the new constitution represents a setback for private initiative, Chávez has displayed a surprising degree of pragmatism since taking office. He realizes that Venezuela must have access to the global capital markets in order to maintain development and that he cannot deliver on his promises to his followers if those markets dry up for him. He is in a trap. If he implements all of his policies, his access to those markets will close. If he continues to exhibit this pragmatism, some of the more onerous provisions of the constitution could be mitigated, but might also make the constitution meaningless. Many of the articles are subject to interpretation and many require legislative action. Many could also end up in the courts. This could be a constitution that stresses objectives (as the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States Alfredo Toro Hardy puts it), rather than a guide to near-term actions. [End]
Introduced in December 1999, the constitution included forty-two articles protecting human rights, including some of the most advanced in the hemisphere. However, it also greatly expanded the power of the presidency and enhances the political role of the armed forces. The wholesale dismissal of judges, Chávez's revolutionary rhetoric and his verbal jousts with press critics raised questions about his government's respect for the rule of law and tolerance of criticism. For the first time in many years, freedom of expression emerged as a human rights issue in Venezuela.
Human rights groups and trade unions also came under pressure during the year. In separate decisions in June and August, the Supreme Court determined that nongovernmental organizations that received funding from abroad were not members of "civil society," thereby depriving them of the right to participate in the nomination of candidates for the Supreme Court, to be ombudsman, and for other important government posts. Trade union independence was called into question in early September, when President Chávez harshly criticized the leadership of the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (Central de Trabajadores Venezolanos, CTV) and announced plans to create a parallel workers' movement dominated by the ruling party.
In the aftermath of disastrous flooding and mud slides on the Caribbean coast in December 1999, in which at least 20,000 people died, the armed forces went on a murderous rampage against suspected looters in the state of Vargas. The respected nongovernmental human rights group, Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA), reported that army paratroopers, the political police known as the Directorate of Police Intelligence Services (Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia Policial, DISIP), and members of the National Guard were responsible for execution-style killings.
The story became the first major human rights test of the Chávez government. At first, Chávez dismissed the reports as "suspicious" and "superficial," but the evidence soon obliged the president and other top government officials to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. In January, the ombudsman of Vargas state announced that more than sixty people had been executed. Their bodies were apparently buried along with those of flood victims.
In January, PROVEA lodged habeas corpus writs on behalf of four victims who had "disappeared" after being detained in Vargas state: Roberto Javier Hernández Paz, Marco Antonio Monasterio Pérez, José Francisco Rivas, and Oscar José Blanco Romero. Roberto Hernández "disappeared" on December 23, after being arrested in his home by DISIP agents, who showed no warrant. According to testimonies collected by PROVEA and other human rights groups, his uncle heard a shot and Hernández's shouts begging the agents not to kill him. He was taken away wounded in a truck. A local judge ruled that since DISIP's director had denied his arrest, the court had no evidence on which to proceed. The courts did, however, confirm the arrests of Monasterio and Blanco, who were detained on December 21 by a paratroop battalion and handed over the same day to the DISIP. The DISIP, however, said it had no record of having received them. The body of another victim, Luis Rafael Bastardo, was exhumed in March from a cemetery. He had been shot several times.
Extrajudicial executions of criminal suspects by police and military forces continued to be a major problem in other parts of Venezuela. The Ministry of the Interior stated in July that more than 500 suspected criminals had died in armed clashes with the police during the first six months of the year. However, according to human rights groups, police frequently staged violent crime scenes to conceal the execution of a suspect who was unarmed or in police custody. Based in part on press sources, PROVEA said it knew of seventy-six reports of violations of the right to life during the same period. The number represented an increase of nearly 50 percent over 1999.
Pressure from the ombudsman and human rights defenders averted proposals by politicians to introduce "fast track" justice for criminal offenders. In February, the then-governor of the Federal District, Hernán Grüber Odreman, proposed to reactivate the infamous "loitering statute," known as the Law on Vagrants and Delinquents, which had been declared unconstitutional in 1997. That law gave the police the power to detain people in the street caught committing crimes or merely suspected of vagrancy, and send them to prison without trial for up to five years. In early March, Dávila said he planned to set up control points in four sectors of Caracas where a team of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and representatives of the ombudsman would be on duty around the clock to dispatch justice to offenders in ten minute trials. Chief Court Inspector René Molina warned that judges who followed the procedure would be in breach of the law.
In July, the temporary legislature approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure that would restore the police's powers to make arrests on their own authority if they had reasonable grounds to suspect a person's involvement in a crime. Under the code's existing provisions, police were authorized to make arrests only on the orders of a judge or if the suspect was caught in the act. The amendments gave judges the power to hold suspects detained on suspicion for six days before deciding whether to charge or release them. In the past, such provisions allowed police ample opportunity to force suspects to confess.
Prison conditions remained inhumane, and prisons continued to be extremely violent. Between October 1999 and March 2000, for instance, the press reported 169 deaths in prison. Earlier prison violence had prompted the creation of an inter-institutional commission that included nongovernmental, congressional, and ministerial representatives. The commission found El Rodeo and Yare prisons to be completely under the control of the inmates, who even had the keys to their own cells. In El Rodeo, in which forty-one prisoners were killed between October 1999 and March 2000, only four officials were guarding 1,800 prisoners.
The work of the commission and the new Code of Criminal Procedure led to the release of thousands of prisoners. In October 1999, a Ministry of Justice official said that 2,526 prisoners had benefited. According to figures compiled by PROVEA, by the end of 1999 the total prison population had fallen to 15,227, compared to 24,833 in September 1998, while the percentage of prisoners awaiting trial fell from sixty-four to fifty-two. However, according to PROVEA, the measures lacked clear selection criteria and institutional coordination. Justice officialsadmitted that many errors had been made in granting releases. As a result, politicians blamed the rising violent crime rate on the country's progressive new code of criminal procedure. Leading criminologists, however, asserted that the fault lay not in the code itself, but in its implementation.
In March, President Chávez announced a national public security plan that earmarked the equivalent approximately U.S. $9 million for prison reconstruction and re-equipment. The European Union signed a cooperation agreement for prison improvements with the Ministry of Justice.
Freedom of expression became a precarious right during the year. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) complained in March to President Chávez about a "climate of hostility toward the press," after the president persistently engaged in belligerent attacks on his press critics. "If they attack me, let them watch out, they'll get as good as they give" and "what there is behind the supposed freedom of expression is a freedom of manipulation," were typical remarks made by the president. The IAPA expressed concern about article 58 of the 1999 constitution, which establishes the right to "timely, truthful, and impartial information." It could allow the courts or the government to judge what information should be disseminated and serve as the basis for prior censorship, according to the group.
Under current laws, journalists convicted of defamation could be sent to prison and prevented from exercising their profession forever. Tobías Carrero, a prominent businessman with close ties to the Chávez government, used criminal defamation suits in an effort to silence press criticism. In August, a judge ordered Pablo López Ulacio placed under house arrest for refusing to attend a court hearing in a defamation suit filed in October 1999 by Carrero, owner of the Multinacional de Seguros insurance company. Articles published in September 1999 in La Razón, of which López is editor-in-chief, accused Carrero of benefiting from favoritism in the award of government contracts and the auctioning of state-owned ratio stations. In June 2000, the judge prohibited López from publishing any further information on
Multinacional de Seguros, and placed him under house arrest. Another judge lifted the order then reimposed it when López failed to appear in court in August. The publishing ban remained in force at this writing.
In April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures in favor of Ben Amí Fihman and Faitha Marina Nahmens, director and reporter, respectively, of the magazine Exceso. A defamation suit against them for the publication of an article about the murder of a businessman had been in the courts since 1997. In February, a judge ordered their arrest to make them appear in court despite the expiry of the statute of limitations under the new Code of Criminal Procedure. [End]
1999 Jul 30, A Venezuelan airliner with 16 people went missing. Rebels on Aug 8 promised to free 14 passengers and crewmen and they had not hijacked it. Colombian rebels freed 8 passengers Aug 9 and allowed the pilot and co-pilot to fly the plane back to Venezuela. (WSJ, 8/2/99, p.A1)(WSJ, 8/9/99, p.A1)(WSJ, 8/10/99, p.A1)
1999 Jul, A new penal code was implemented and led to the release of over 7,000 inmates from overcrowded jails. (SFC, 3/3/00, p.D4)
1999 Aug 12, The Constitutional Assembly assumed sweeping powers and declared a state of emergency for the courts. (SFC, 8/13/99, p.D3)
1999 Aug 19, The Constitutional Assembly declared a judicial emergency and gave itself new powers to overhaul the court system. (SFC, 8/20/99, p.D3)
1999 Aug 25, In Venezuela the constitutional assembly declared a legislative emergency and usurped most of the functions of Congress. (SFC, 8/26/99, p.A12)
1999 Aug 27, In Venezuela members of Congress clashed with police as they attempted to defy a government ban on conducting a legislative session. (SFC, 8/28/99, p.A1)
1999 Aug 28, Congress members announced that they would refuse to authorize funds for the constitutional panel and would withhold legal permission for Pres. Chavez to leave the country. (SFEC, 8/29/99, p.A22)
1999 Aug 30, The constitutional assembly stripped the opposition-controlled Congress of its last remaining powers. (SFC, 8/31/99, p.A13)
1999 Sep 9, In Venezuela the Constitutional Assembly agreed to reverse its order for Congress to shut down and allowed Congress to resume normal activities in an accord mediated by the Catholic Church. (SFC, 9/10/99, p.A16)
1999 Sep 16, In Venezuela a Colombian delegation met with the largest guerrilla group to revive peace talks. (WSJ, 9/17/99, p.A1)
1999 Oct 4, It was reported that Venezuela had begun domestic sales of unleaded gasoline. (WSJ, 10/4/99, p.B13E)
1999 Oct 8, In Venezuela authorities suspended 122 judges for corruption and incompetence. (SFC, 10/9/99, p.A11)
1999 Oct 21, In Venezuela corruption cases against 2 former presidents, Carlos Andres Perez and Jaime Lusinchi, were reopened. (SFC, 10/22/99, p.B4)
1999 Nov 4, The Constitutional Assembly approved a 6 year presidential term and allowed reelection. (SFC, 11/5/99, p.A17)
1999 Dec 15, A vote for the approval of the new constitution was scheduled. The new document contained 368 articles. Voters approved the new constitution which included changing the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. (WSJ, 11/26/99, p.A11)(SFC, 12/16/99, p.A16)
1999 Dec 16, In Venezuela torrential rains flooded 9 northern states and Caracas and forced some 120,000 people to flee their homes. Over 1000 people were killed in Vargas state and 25,000 were described missing. (SFC, 12/17/99, p.D6)(SFC, 12/18/99, p.A14)(SFC, 12/20/99, p.A1)(WSJ, 12/20/99, p.A1) - Source: Timeline - Venezuela
July 26, 1999 Venezuelan president gets big win in assembly vote - From staff and wire reports. [Full Text] CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Patriotic Pole coalition was preparing Monday to reap the benefits of an overwhelming victory in a vote to name members of a constitutional assembly.
Chavez proposed the assembly to rewrite Venezuela's 1961 constitution, taking a risk that it could cast him out of office.
"My reply last night at 9 o'clock was that I would put my office at the assembly's disposal so that today, or tomorrow, when the new assembly in place, it can consider whether it is right that Hugo Chavez should continue as president or not," the president said.
But Chavez had nothing to worry about -- his coalition took all but eight of the assembly's 131 seats.
Chavez's critics, however, warned that a new constitution could give the former coup leader sweeping powers, creating essentially a dictatorship in what is South America's oldest democracy. And they called on Chavez to take note that more than half of Venezuela's eligible voters came out to the polls on Sunday.
"We call on the pro-Chavez sector not to misinterpret the signal that one-third of voters supported them today," said Alberto Franceschi, a former center-right congressman and one of the eight anti-Chavez candidates to win an assembly seat.
Chavez, who led a failed coup in 1992, has made no secret that he wants the new assembly to dissolve both Congress and Venezuela's Supreme Court. But he said Sunday that he would not object if the assembly decided to retain the legislative body.
"We're building a true democracy here, and a true democracy is built through consensus and respect for others," said Chavez, who was elected by a landslide last December on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform after spending two years in jail for the coup attempt.
Chavez' wife, Marisabel, and former Chief of Staff Alfredo Pena were the top vote-getters in Sunday's election, along with his brother, 20 former military officers, a horse-racing announcer, a folk musician and five former government ministers.
Despite concerns from the opposition and the loss of 600,000 jobs since he took office, Chavez maintains popularity ratings of about 75 percent. It's the rest of the government Venezuelans want changed "so that all this political corruption that we have had up until now ends," said voter Gloria Zambrano.
"I think that they have finished this country off," she said. "We want a change and I think that this president will usher in many changes."
"The guy is nuts," said electrical engineer Daniel Sternbach, "but people here like him." [End]
November 25, 1999 - Venezuelans march against new charter - By the BBC's Stephen Cviic -
[Full Text] Thousands of people have marched through the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to protest against a new constitution drawn up by supporters of President Hugo Chavez.
The demonstrators say the proposed changes will centralise power in the president's hands and reduce the power of local government.
The new constitution is to be voted on in a referendum next month.
Since he was elected president last December, Hugo Chavez has basically got his own way.
The strong support he enjoys from poor Venezuelans, tired of the corruption of the old political elite, means that the former paratrooper is still riding high in the opinion polls. But now, his opponents think it's time their voices were heard.
According to police, Wednesday's protest attracted about 7,000 people and passed off peacefully, with demonstrators carrying banners bearing patriotic slogans and messages urging people to vote "no" in next month's referendum.
The process was led by some state governors and mayors who say the new constitution will deprive them of their autonomy and set a dangerously authoritarian trend.
The governor of Merida state, William Davila, described the document as militarist and stateist.
But President Chavez's supporters say the protesters are merely old-style politicians, afraid of losing power when new elections are held.
Like everything else surrounding Hugo Chavez, the proposed new constitution is intensely controversial, both at home and abroad. It will allow the president to stay in office for an extra year and then to seek re-election.
It would also abolish the senate and set up a new single chamber congress.
Local and international opinion is divided about whether it really is authoritarian, but many senior businessmen are unhappy with its economic clauses, fearing that Venezuela could be about to repeat the Brazilian mistake of entrenching expensive social entitlement.
However, there seems to be little doubt that President Chavez will win the "yes" vote he is seeking next month, driving another nail of the coffin of Venezuela's old political establishment. [End]
January 23, 2003 Horror in Venezuela Jesus Soriano and the price of dissent in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela by Thor L. Halvorssen - [Full Text] VENEZUELA IS NOW an abyss where there is no rule of law. A rogue government tortures innocent civilians with impunity while paying lip service to democracy and buying time at the "negotiation" table set up by the Organization of American States. Venezuela's foreign minister, Roy Chaderton, has funded an effective multi-million dollar public relations campaign to smear the opposition as coup-plotters and fascists intent on bringing about violence.
Jesus Soriano has never met Roy Chaderton or Hugo Chavez. Soriano supported President Hugo Chavez's meteoric rise, volunteered during the election campaign, and is now a second-year law student in Caracas. His law-school peers describe the 24-year-old as a cheerful and happy young man.
Soriano, a member of the Chavez party, is part of a national student group called "Ousia," a group that brings together moderates who support the government and opposition members seeking a peaceful resolution to the current crisis.
On December 6, Soriano witnessed the massacre that occurred during a peaceful protest in Altamira, a neighborhood in Caracas where the opposition has a strong presence. The killer was Joao De Gouveia, an outspoken supporter of Chavez who has an unusually close relationship with mayor Freddy Bernal, a Chavez crony. Gouveia randomly began shooting at the crowd. He killed three--including a teenage girl he shot in the head--and injured 28 people. As Gouveia kept shooting, several men raced toward him to stop the killing. Soriano was one of the men who wrestled Gouveia to the ground and prevented further killing. Soriano also protected Gouveia from a potential lynch mob that swarmed around the killer.
Soriano's heroic accomplishments did not cease that day. He became a national figure in Venezuela when he brought a small soccer ball (known in Venezuela as a "futbolito") to a sizable protest march organized against the rule of Lt. Col. Chavez. Soriano and other pro-Chavez partisans made their way towards the march intending to engage the opposition members in dialogue.
That hot afternoon, Soriano kicked the futbolito across the divide at the members of the opposition. They kicked it back. The magical realism of the event is evident in the extraordinary television footage of what occurred next. By the end of the match the anti-Chavez protestors and pro-Chavez partisans were hugging and chanting "Peace! Unity! We are Venezuela! Politicians go away! We are the real Venezuela!" In one particularly moving part of the footage, Soriano and a member of the opposing team trade a baseball hat for a Chavez-party red beret.
In one hour this sharply divided group of strangers accomplished more than the high-level negotiation team that seeks to defuse a potential civil war. Chavez was reportedly furious with the televised soccer match and even angrier that the reconciliation was a product of the efforts of one of his supporters. Soriano was declared an enemy of the revolution.
Last week Soriano organized another soccer match. On Wednesday he visited the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the main university in the capital, to attend a meeting of the student government. Violent clashes erupted as members of the Circulos Bolivarianos, an armed militia sworn to protect the revolution, began throwing rocks and tear gas grenades at the students. The militia identified Soriano and captured him. They then tied his hands and feet, lifted him up, and paraded him through the street like a sacrificial lamb chanting "Judas! Judas!" The entire spectacle was recorded by a cameraman who works for the official government television entity. Soriano was beaten so severely that he was left at the hospital emergency room. At the hospital he was detained by the DISIP, Chavez's secret police, and taken to their headquarters for questioning.
During his interrogation, fingernails in his left hand were torn out. After being further tortured and injected with drugs, the secret police took him into the bowels of the building and placed him in a cell. His cellmate: Joao de Gouveia.
Gouveia has the keys to the cell and comes in and out of the secret police headquarters at will. His only restriction is that he must sleep in the precinct, lest Chavez's police are revealed as allowing a confessed killer to roam free. Soriano's mother (who is also a Chavez supporter) tearfully claimed that Gouveia sodomized Soriano and beat him with such force that Soriano cannot open his eyes.
Soriano was released last Friday afternoon after Roy Chaderton advised Chavez that the case could filter out of Venezuela and could become a "human-interest story" with the potential to derail their PR campaign.
The government denied that Soriano had been mistreated. A thorough medical examination by a civil surgeon reveals that, beyond lacerations, severe bruising, and cracked ribs, Soriano had been repeatedly raped while in custody. His right arm shows that he has been injected. Nails are missing from his left hand. Soriano's internal organs have been crushed to the point that he urinates blood, and he cannot walk without assistance.
Once the medical report was made public, the secret police immediately began saying that Soriano was a member of a "right-wing paramilitary organization." This tactic, engineered by Chaderton, is used frequently to disqualify and discount opponents of the regime. All enemies of the "revolution" are coup plotters and fascists. The government now circulates a photo of Soriano in military fatigues. Carlos Roa, Soriano's attorney, showed me that the picture is a yearbook photo from when he was a schoolboy in military academy.
Although it was obvious that Soriano had been tortured, Iris Varela, a Chavez congressional representative, offered no apologies: "I am glad they did this to him. He deserved it." That such savage treatment is what greets government supporters who seek a peaceful resolution to the current crisis speaks volumes about Chavez's ultimate intentions. Soriano, now recuperating at home, must wonder why he ever supported the Chavez regime. [End]
Thor L. Halvorssen is a human rights and civil liberties activist who grew up in Venezuela. He now lives in Philadelphia.
Chavez had threatened to fine banks and withdraw the armed forces' deposits from private institutions if they didn't resume activities. Bankers said they provide a public service, which influenced the decision. "We owe the public," Nelson Mezerhane, the council's vice president, said after a Wednesday council meeting. "They have their earnings and money in our institutions." Fearing effects of the work stoppage - shortages of food, medicine, fuel and cash - could hurt their cause, many businesses plan to reopen next week. The possibility of having to declare bankruptcy by remaining closed also prompted owners of shopping malls, restaurants, franchises and schools to soon open their doors to the public. ***
Latin Americans should take note.
In Spanish lawsuit, Venezuelan lawyers accuse Hugo Chavez of crimes against humanity [Full Text] CARACAS, Venezuela - A group of lawyers filed a lawsuit against Hugo Chavez in Spain's highest court accusing the Venezuelan president of crimes against humanity and state terrorism. Attorney Alfredo Romero, representing 6 Spanish citizens and 24 Venezuelans, told The Associated Press in Caracas Tuesday said the suit argues that Chavez was responsible for disturbances on April 11, 2002.
The violence erupted when pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrators clashed in downtown Caracas - 19 Venezuelans died and hundreds more were wounded, among them one Spaniard who was killed and three injured, he said. The riots spurred a coup that ousted Chavez for three days, before military loyalists returned the former paratrooper commander to power. The suit was filed in Madrid, Romero said, because of the Spanish nationals killed in the riots. As well, he said, Venezuelan officials have been slow to form a commission to investigate the April 11 slayings and he accused Venezuelan courts of being biased toward the government.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who is accused in the lawsuit along with Chavez, Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez and other top government officials, downplayed the case. "The ones who should be brought to trial internationally are others, specifically the terrorists and saboteurs in the oil industry," Rangel said. He referred to dissident oil executives at Venezuela's state-run oil company who have joined a 58-day-old strike against Chavez. Chavez has been accused of corruption in nearly a dozen cases before Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal and attorney general's office.[End]
True enough. But citizens of the US should take note as well. We are not immune from the problems of Venezuela and other fledgling 'democracies'.
The US has been trending away from representative government for some time now, the buffer between the desires of factions and the power to enact those desires is eroding. It started with the war between the states and the consolidation of federal control. It continued when Senators became elected by popular vote. The individual states are largely irrelevant in our federalized system. The 2000 election left many calling for 'popular elections' and doing away with the electoral college. I'm sure there are countless smaller such events that I have overlooked but each is a step away from the republic we started with and toward the chaos we see in so-called democratic countries.
The author of the original piece asks "Has Democracy Failed?". Of course it has. And it should come as no surprise. I humbly suggest the author reads at very least the Federalist Papers, particularly #10.
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