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Re Venezuela: Open letter to Gregory Wilpert

By Colin Forbes, March 29, 2004

Dear Mr. Wilpert,

I truly appreciate the fact that you would take the time and effort to participate in an open debate regarding Venezuela’s current political situation. One of the main problems in Venezuela’s current power struggle is that passions on both sides have become inflamed to the point where there is little or no debate among the parties involved. On the one side, the government and its supporters accuse opposition members of constantly scheming to overthrow President Chávez; while on the other side, opposition members accuse President Chávez of trying to create an autocratic regime in Venezuela. As long as this situation continues, there is the constant danger that either of the parties involved will try to end the stalemate through violent means. In order to avoid this outcome, it is imperative that both sides try to reach an amicable resolution to their dispute through an honest, open, and public debate of their differences. Hopefully, your exchange with Mr. Boyd will encourage others to follow along a similar path. Having said this, there are a number of comments I would like to make concerning the statements you made on December 23 in response to Mr. Boyd’s comments.

I would like to begin on some of the comments you made regarding the Constitutional Assembly’s appointments. Although you recognize that there were significant problems in the appointments of the Supreme Court’s judges, the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, and the Human Rights Ombudsman, you seem to justify these actions based on the fact that the whole process of drafting the new Constitution was a bit haphazard and that some uncertainty is inherent in any such process. Let me kindly remind you Mr. Wilpert that it was not opposition members who were demanding that the new Constitution be quickly drafted, but it was the government who seemed to be desperately pushing for a new Constitution. Could it be the case Mr. Wilpert, as it is often said in Venezuela, a muddled river benefits the fisherman? In addition, Mr. Wilpert, you state that the uncertainty surrounding the drafting of the new constitution does not in any way affect the “legitimacy of the Venezuelan state.” Although as you say this does not affect the legitimacy of the state, does it not raise some serious issues regarding the democratic nature of the state? Finally Mr. Wilpert, the ratification of these appointments by an elected National Assembly does not eliminate their questionable nature. The Venezuelan public’s mandate to President Chávez was for him to fulfill his electoral promises; it was not a carte blanche for him to destroy all institutional constraints on the exercise of power.

I would also like to make some brief statements regarding your opinion that President Chávez’s government is more inclusive than previous governments. First you state that one of the ways that Chávez’s government has been more inclusive is through his land reform program, which for the first time has allowed many peasants to own their land. I do have to give President Chávez credit for bringing up such a sensitive issue in Venezuela considering that landowners are such a powerful interest group in the country. However, to the best of my knowledge, Chavez’s government has made little or no progress in land reform and there has been little change from the situation that existed under previous governments. In addition, you mention that citizens have been empowered through the creation of local councils of public planning. Once again, I must applaud the government for having such an innovative idea, but the sad truth is that these councils have little or no input in the decision-making process. I would even venture to say, that many of these councils spend more time trying to monitor the activities of government detractors rather than discussing local politics. I could continue to discuss some of the other examples of public participation you have mentioned, but I believe that the previous two examples are sufficient to highlight what is the basic problem with Venezuela’s current government: that it is yet to fulfill the vast majority of its promises.

Another point on which I respectfully disagree with you Mr. Wilpert is that there has been a modest decrease in corruption during Chávez’s government. As you clearly pointed out Mr. Wilpert, corruption is indeed a very difficult thing to measure. Nevertheless, as you also pointed out in your response, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index is the most authoritative standard used to compare corruption among the different countries. According to this index, however, from 1998 to 2003 Venezuela’s CPI score went from 2.3 to 2.4 (not 2.5 as you mentioned in your comments). This seems to be a rather modest improvement for a government who has often stated that the war on corruption is one of its main objectives. In addition Mr. Wilpert, you highlight the fact that the Chávez government has done a great deal to fight corruption by reducing the amount of funds assigned to the “partidas secretas” (secret funds). One of the main problems with these secret funds was that the lack of control over the use of the funds bred rampant corruption. Do you not consider that the Chávez’s government did a similar thing when it gave the military nearly unsupervised use of public funds through the Plan Bolivar 2000?

In addition, Mr. Wilpert, I find somewhat disturbing your justification for Chávez’s constant disregard for the rule of law. You seem to justify his actions by arguing that Venezuelan society as a whole shows a wanton disregard for the rule of law. This seems to be the classical argument of a child when he is caught by his parent doing something wrong responds, “everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I do it?” The answer to this question Mr. Wilpert, is that the President of a country is not any common citizen. He is under a sworn obligation not only to abide by the Constitution and laws of the country, but also to ensure that these rules are enforced. If any leader is to effectively fulfill this obligation, he must first show that he is willing to follow the precepts of the law. Only then, can he truly demand that other citizens (i.e. the opposition) also abide by the law.

Finally, Mr. Wilpert, I would like to know if in light of the latest decision by the Electoral Council and the Supreme Court, you would reconsider your statement that Chávez’s government has advanced “the democratic exercise of the will of the people” through the creation of the referendum mechanism. It seems to me that the creation of such a mechanism is of little use when you create an endless amount of obstacles before it can be implemented. I understand the government’s concern that these mechanisms be carefully regulated in order to eliminate any possibility of fraud. Nevertheless, it seems to me that what should be carefully supervised is the referendum itself and not process leading up to that referendum. It would only seem logical that the government given the amount of political instability over the last couple of years would be more than willing to submit itself to an election process that would dissipate any doubts concerning its legitimacy. Do you not agree, Mr. Wilpert?

Thank you for your patience, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Colin Forbes



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