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Debate on the Legitimacy of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Part III

By Colin Forbes, April 1, 2004

Dear Mr. Wilpert,

Thank you very much for your prompt reply. One of my main purposes in participating in this debate is to demonstrate how persons who may have completely different points of view can disagree in a civilized manner. I totally agree with your statement that the insults launched by some members of the opposition against President Chávez’s supporters only serve to “dehumanize and disqualify fellow human beings.” It is important to remember that despite our serious differences, eventually we will all have to work together to build a country we can all be proud of. Hopefully, this is something President Chávez will remember next time he chooses to insult all those who oppose his Bolivarian Revolution. Without further delay, I will proceed to answer some of the comments in your letter.

1. Constitutional Reform - You argue that one of the reasons Chávez’s government was so eager to complete the Constitutional Reform process was that it believed that a new Constitution was necessary in order to implement his program and to fulfill his campaign promises. I think the government would be a little bit naďve Mr. Wilpert to believe that by simply drafting a new constitution, they would be able to resolve the deep social problems confronting them. One only has to look at the social and economic indicators since the implementation of the new Constitution to realize the absurdity of this idea. During Chávez’s government, poverty in the country has reached unprecedented levels. According to some generous estimates, approximately 70% of the Venezuelan population now lives in poverty. What is even more disturbing Mr. Wilpert, is that Chávez’s government has benefited for the majority of his period in office from the most favourable oil market since the 1970’s.

Therefore Mr, Wilpert, I would venture to say that somewhat less altruistic motives were involved in the government’s push for the new Constitution. The biggest reason why Chavez and his supporters were so keen on completing the new Constitution was to take advantage of the wave of popularity surrounding them after the elections. He knew that the faster a new constitution was drafted, the higher were its chances of being approved. He also knew that the quicker he held elections for the different posts under the new Constitution (i.e. the National Assembly), the higher were his chances of solidifying his hold on power. I have criticized President Chávez on many different fronts, but even I must admit he is a very cunning and astute politician.

In addition Mr. Wilpert, it would be an understatement to say I deeply disagree with you when you say that “as long as no rules were broken, the democratic nature of the state is intact.” Mr. Wilpert, let me kindly you remind you that the democratic nature of the state does not solely rest on the fact that rules are followed. Even the most barbarous and heinous of states possess laws. Democracy, Mr. Wilpert, also encompasses the accountability of public officials. It is very difficult for public officials to be accountable to the general public when those in charge of supervising their activities are named by those very same officials and are more than willing to overlook any offences. This situation compares to that of a corporation where all the members of the board of directors are named by management. These directors will not be in a position to safeguard the best interest of the shareholders of the corporation since inevitably they will seek to protect the managers to whom they owe their positions. To conclude Mr. Wilpert, a democratic government is one which fosters open discussion and tolerates dissent. Do you consider it democratic when President Chávez threatens to change the Law of the Venezuelan Central Bank simply because it would not give him the ‘insignificant’ sum of US $1 billion? In my opinion, a democratic system is one in which these matters are rationally and openly debated and a solution is reached through compromise and not through bullying and sheer force.

2. Inclusiveness of Chávez’s government – I would define by “inclusiveness” as any attempt made to insert the largest amount of people in the political and economic life of a country. I find it rather odd that you would mention Chávez’s enabling laws within a discussion of inclusiveness. As you mention in your letter, “these laws are what really embodied much of the Chávez government program.” The enabling laws are, however, a perfect example of the exclusiveness and the autocratic nature of Chávez’s regime. Similar to what is currently occurring with the Central Bank of Venezuela, the government’s goal was to exclude any negotiation or compromise and to achieve its objectives through any means necessary. By doing this, however, the government ignored the critical role that the Legislature plays in a democratic state. In a democratic society, the composition of the legislative branch of government should generally reflect that of the general population. Therefore, citizens are expected to obey the laws since they are inevitably the product of a delicate compromise between the different groups in society. By trying to bypass Congress and seeking to institute his programs through executive decree, President Chávez sought to avoid the kind of compromise and negotiation that would be necessary in order to obtain Congress’ approval. Therefore Mr. Wilpert, it should come as little surprise the kind of opposition the government encountered as it attempted to institute its programs through executive decree rather than through the normal legislative process. This kind of opposition Mr. Wilpert is normal when you try to exclude large segments of the population from the decision making process and is not simply the result of a ‘vendetta’ opposition members have against the government.

3. Corruption – In your letter you state that opposition members only complain about corruption but offer little or no advise on how to remedy the situation. Corruption Mr. Wilpert, and I think we both would agree on this, is a very complex issue and as such also requires complex solutions. In order to begin to eliminate the problem or corruption not only must we begin to offer public employees better remuneration, but we must also create more opportunities and jobs in the private sector. In addition, we must begin to create an atmosphere where people know that administrative crimes will be prosecuted and that any public official convicted of such crimes will be punished. Regarding my latter suggestion, I would suggest that a useful starting point, and this was suggested earlier, would be to place truly independent individuals at the head of those institutions in charge of supervising government activity. This is precisely the opposite of what currently occurs with Venezuela’s Attorney General’s office. It is impossible that a person who is so openly a Chávez supporter (in fact, he was his Vice-President) to fulfill his Constitutional obligation to ensure that public officials responsible for illegal administrative acts be brought to justice (1999 Constitution, Art. 285(5)). Even Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government, which the President and his supporters, denounce as one of the most corrupt governments in Venezuela’s history, had an independent Attorney General who successfully prosecuted Pérez of embezzlement and misappropriation of government funds.

As the list of charges of corruption against Chávez’s government continues to grow, it is imperative that these charges be properly investigated in order for the government to maintain any semblance of public credibility. This investigation, however, will continue to be neglected as long as government supporters remain firmly in charge of those institutions in charge of investigating and prosecuting administrative crimes. This may be the main reason why Chávez’s government has yet to be convicted of any crime. Quite simply Mr. Wilpert, without prosecution, it is impossible to have convictions.

4. Referendum Process – Regarding the referendum process you state that the government and its supporters have no doubt of their legitimacy and therefore this is not a valid reason to hold a recall referendum (RR). In my opinion, however, it is possible for a government to lose legitimacy during its time in office. A government even though it was initially elected by a majority of its citizens, seizes to be legitimate if during its time in power its popular support decreases up to a point where it can no longer be considered legitimate. When governments in Parliamentary systems experience a loss of support that virtually makes it impossible for them to carry out their agenda, they are dissolved and early elections are scheduled. Despite the fact we might continue to disagree on the matter of Chávez’s government’s legitimacy, we do agree on the fact that a RR is essential to achieve political stability in Venezuela. However Mr. Wilpert, you state that it is perfectly valid for the government to stall a RR for political considerations. Is a valid political consideration to try to maintain office at the expense of the welfare of an entire country? Let me kindly remind you Mr. Wilpert that what is at stake here is not only the life of President Chávez’s regime, but the lives of many Venezuelans. I do not believe I exaggerate when I state that as long as a democratic solution is not found to this problem there is a real possibility of a civil war in Venezuela. Furthermore, without a RR it will be impossible to create a climate which fosters economic activity in the country. If President Chávez truly is concerned about the welfare of the Venezuelan people, he should immediately remove any obstacles in the way of the referendum. Then maybe we can all begin to build a better country.

Best regards,

Colin Forbes

P.S. Congratulations to Venezuela on their historic victory in Uruguay. Arriba la Vinotinto!!!



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