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Democracy and Environment under siege in Venezuela

By Gustavo Coronel

March 27, 2005 | I have been reading two extraordinary documents that serve as a guide to reflect on the current Venezuelan situation. One is the publication by the United Nations Development Programme titled Democracy in Latin America: Towards a Citizens' Democracy. The other is the magnificent book by Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute titled Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth. None of the two publications has been written with Venezuela in mind but their conceptual richness helps to evaluate what is going on today in my country.

The document on Democracy by UNDP is destined to become a classic and deserves widespread distribution in all the countries of the Latin American region. It introduces a definition of democracy that goes far beyond the narrow concept of electoral democracy. It reads: "True democratization means more than elections. . . . Granting all people formal political equality does not create an equal desire to participate in political processes. . . . Imbalances in resources and political power often subvert the principle of one person, one voice, and the purpose of democratic institutions." The report quotes Kofi Annan: "elections are not an isolated event but part of a holistic process" and Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP Administrator: "Free and fair elections are necessary but they are not sufficient. We are selling democracy short when we celebrate elections as proof of a democracy being in place."

The document offers a more solid definition of democracy based on the work of political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell. According to this definition, it is conceptually wrong to define democracy merely as electoral democracy. It should be defined, instead, as a system in which citizens can live together as members of a community, all possessing full rights. Democracy, in the words of Alexis de Toqueville, is "a form of society," not the simple outcome of an electoral event. Even the narrow definition of political democracy contains ingredients which go much beyond the electoral stage: free and fair elections; freedom of expression; freedom of association; respect for mandates; fulfillment of electoral promises and the rule of law. The democratic State should guarantee: separation of powers; an independent judiciary; the preeminence of civil power over the military and the accountability of government to citizens.

When I read those requisites that are essential for a real democracy, and compare them with what is taking place in Venezuela, I cannot understand how any person, no matter how well paid, could define Venezuela as "a vibrant democracy" ("In Defense of Hugo Chávez," Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S. Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Letter to the Editor, The Washington Post, March 23, 2005). In Venezuela the last electoral events have been tainted with numerous irregularities and strong indications of fraud. In Venezuela freedom of expression is being smothered by a Gag Law recently passed by the complacent National Assembly. The regime has violated its popular mandate and their electoral promises by deviating from radical democratic reform and becoming a socialist state. It has aligned itself with the few dictatorships left in the world, instead of inserting the country into the civilized community of nations. In Venezuela there is no rule of law or separation of powers. There is no independent judiciary, the military controls civilians and accountability to citizens is a thing of the past. I would ask Ambassador Alvarez Herrera to explain to us what kind of democracy can exist in a country where these basic and fundamental democratic principles are openly violated. We all remember the Propaganda Minister of Saddam Hussein, becoming an object of ridicule, by denying on TV the presence of U.S forces in Baghdad when the American M1A2 Abrams tanks were already in the city. The defense of the Chávez regime has been left in the hands of those who are directly or indirectly in its payroll, lacking all credibility, or to groups that would love anyone who hates the U.S.

The sad truth is that Venezuela is now under a dictatorship and that millions of Venezuelans are no longer free.

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The book by Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute was published three years ago and is basically an action plan to save the earth by changing the manner in which we are living and using our natural resources. Brown says that it is "up to national governments to develop long-term plans of where they want to go and how to get there." He adds a simple list of what has to be done: establish a balance between aquifer withdrawals and aquifer recharge, between trees cut and trees planted, between soil loss and soil regeneration and between human births and deaths. If these "simple" things are not done, he warns, we will enter chaos. The book contains specific examples of what countries are already doing along these lines: China has reduced its fertility rate and seems to be heading for demographic stability, Israel is using new technologies to raise water production, South Korea has engaged in a gigantic reforestation program, Iceland is planning the world's first hydrogen based economy, the U.S. has reduced soil erosion by 40% in the last 20 years. Brown warns us about altering habitats since this will decimate existing animal species. He says: "We cannot separate our fate from that of life on earth. If the rich diversity of life that we inherited is continually impoverished, eventually we will be as well." The list of animal species in danger of extinction, he mentions, is increasing dramatically.

When reading this book one becomes especially sensitive to the destruction of the world's habitats by ignorant governments and individuals. In Venezuela a "land reform" is currently being applied in violation of all civic rights, largely as political propaganda. Land reform in Venezuela has been much talked about in the past and, in fact, applied with modest success in the years from 1960 to 1975, under democratic presidents. Idle lands in the hands of the government were distributed among the population and some large ranches were legally expropriated, to incorporate them into the land distribution system. Some 400,000 families became small landowners during those years. However, agricultural production did not increase proportionally. In fact agricultural and beef production in Venezuela is in the hands of medium to large size landowners using modern techniques. The small farmer, without knowledge, without equipment or financing has largely immigrated to the urban centers, where he lives poorly but less so than in the rural environment.

Chávez is implementing his version of land reform, more as a political strategy than a plan to improve the lot of the poor. He is going after large landowners who do not agree with his regime, without offering these owners the possibility of normal legal defense and allowing squatters to install themselves in these lands. He needs this "reform" to show to the world that he is a champion of the poor. But in his desire to go after his adversaries he is trampling over properties in full production or being used for the preservation of life in our planet. At this moment, Hato Pinero, one of the most important preserves of animal life in South America or the world is being intervened by the Chávez regime, to take it away from the family which has owned it for more than 50 years and has made it into a place visited by thousands of nature lovers from all over the world. The place would be turned over to small farmers, who will most probably revert to hunting the species that have been protected by more than 50 years.

International environmentalists have not yet said a word in defense of Hato Pinero. Some of these organizations might be caught between their ideological inclinations and their professed love of nature. We will have to wait and see which side prevails. Every day that goes by, however, Hato Pinero is closer to extinction and thousands of wonderful animals are within sight of the shotguns of the ignorant.



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