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Why Hugo Chávez is an illegitimate President

By Gustavo Coronel

June 10, 2005 | Many world governments, even democratic ones, still consider the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chávez to be legitimate. Although they are increasingly aware of the authoritarian and repressive nature of the regime, they justify their diplomatic accommodation by claiming that Chávez came into power through elections. For too many years now, the definition of political legitimacy has rested exclusively on the manner in which political power was obtained. Transparent elections seem to be all that was needed for a government to be classified as legitimate. Political scientists now tell us that such a definition is highly inadequate. Legitimacy requires much more than elections. A document published by the United Nations Development Program ( Democracy in Latin America, UNDP, 2004) argues that countries need to progress from electoral democracy to a citizen’s democracy. The true democratic nature of a government and its degree of legitimacy have to be tested against a set of criteria, such as the ones listed by the United Nations Commission of Human Rights in 1999, which include:

* Freedom of opinion, of expression and of association
* The rule of law, equal for all citizens
* Universal and equal suffrage
* Political participation, with equal opportunity for all
* Transparent and accountable government institutions
* Equal access to public services.

I have no doubt in my mind that the regime of Hugo Chávez fails this test for legitimacy and should be classified as illegitimate by international organizations such as the U.N. and the O.A.S.

This belief is based on my analysis of the Venezuelan situation during the years under Chávez rule. It is, of course, a subjective analysis, but is largely backed by facts. Let us take a look:

Sources of political legitimacy

1. Free and Fair Elections.

The Chávez regime came to power through free and reasonable transparent elections. After his clear initial victory, Chávez went on to control the electoral system, by placing his followers (Carrasquero, Jorge Rodriguez) in the top positions of the National Electoral Council. The cases of government intervention and manipulation have been amply documented. The call for the presidential recall referendum in 2004 generated a process characterized by open abuse of power by this council. The results of the recall referendum itself have been denounced as fraudulent and, as a result, an important portion of the population has lost credibility in the electoral system. This lack of trust will result in progressively higher levels of absenteeism in future electoral events, weakening the legitimacy of the regime. In spite of these irregularities, the electoral origin of the Chávez regime remains as its main and practically sole claim to political legitimacy.

2. Accountability.

A legitimate government has to be accountable to the people for their actions and for the manner in which they utilize national assets and resources. This is definitely not the case with the Chávez regime. Citizens are largely kept in the dark regarding the utilization of those assets and resources. There are no controls to the way Chávez decides to use them. Three examples: (1) 90,000 barrels per day of oil are going to Cuba at highly subsidized prices, partly bartered in exchange for obsolete technologies and medical services of questionable quality. Chávez went ahead with this agreement without proper institutional approval and against the desires of the Venezuelan people. Cuba already owes Venezuela over US$2 billion but the mandatory steps to interrupt this unpaid supply have not been taken by the negligent Venezuelan authorities. (2) The oil income, all of which should go to the Venezuelan Central Bank is being illegally diverted from the national treasury, to be used directly by Chávez without any transparency or accountability. At this moment there are over US$3 billion unaccounted for, a gigantic crime that the majority of the people remain unaware of, due to its rather complex technical nature, and (3) The attempt at handing over to China the patents to manufacture Orimulsion, a Venezuelan technology to mix extra heavy oils with water and emulsifiers (a transaction that was being done in secret, without the knowledge of Venezuelans and without proper public disclosure).

3. The Rule of Law.

The law is not being applied in an impartial manner. Members of the opposition do not receive the proper protection of the law or of the institutions that should protect them. In fact the Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez and the ombudsman, German Amundarain, have become the main enemies of political dissenters: Journalists are being persecuted, political prisoners are already counted by the dozens. The Supreme tribunal of Justice is stacked with Chávez followers. Citizens can no longer trust in the impartiality of the law.

4. Social Inclusion.

Chávez has built his following among the very poor. This certainly would not be objectionable if it were not for the two following reasons; (1) that most of the promises made by Chávez to the poor remain tragically unfulfilled, to the extreme that poverty is now greater than when Chávez arrived in power, and (2) that the money being handed out to the poor in terms of subsidies and freebies does not constitute a structural solution to poverty and is being done at the expense of the impoverishment of the other half of the population: the regular workers, the middle class and the private industrial sector. What the regime understands as popular participation and inclusion is simply participation by, and the inclusion of, his followers, not over all inclusion and truly collective participation. Today half the country is excluded from participating in the issues that affect all Venezuelans. This is a fraud.

5. A Strong and Independent Media.

For some time after his electoral victory Chávez respected the freedom of the media. During the last two to three years, however, this freedom has been progressively restricted through the harassment, by diverse agencies of the regime, of TV stations and newspapers that oppose Chávez. The major blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela has been the enacting of a Law that regulates the content of media news. This law has been combined with changes in the Penal Code that make it punishable by prison, of up to six years, any "disrespect" by the media of Mr. Chávez and his relatives and inner circle, "disrespect" defined by the regime itself. Obviously this has led to major self-censorship among the media. As a result, much information that should be known by Venezuelans is not reported upon, for fear of retaliation based on the Gag Law and the revised penal code.

6. Existence of Institutional Checks and Balances.

A legitimate democracy requires checks and balances. No one should be able to dictate his or her wishes to the rest of society without the limitations imposed by the public good. Today Chávez is the law of the land in Venezuela. What he says goes, without any opposition from the institutions that should make sure that no one could become a dictator. These institutions: the Attorney General, the Comptroller General, the Ombudsman, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the National Assembly and the National Electoral Council are all in Chávez's pockets, due to the invertebrate nature of the position holders. The illegal use of public assets (airplanes and other state owned equipment) and monies (billions of dollars diverted away from the proper agencies) goes unchecked. The persecution and imprisonment of dissenters go unchecked. Decisions of foreign policy (Cuban-Venezuelan agreements, Orimulsion to the Chinese, alignment with Iran and other States to build an anti-U.S. global coalition) which are highly detrimental to our nation go unchecked and are taken without public discussion or accountability. The abuse of State Television and the imposition of TV and radio hookups to allow Chávez to give long and irrelevant speeches go unchecked. There is no restraint of power, there are no minority rights, there is no civilian control over the military, and there is no independent Central Bank. The authoritarian posture of Hugo Chávez is no longer a matter of biased perceptions by the opposition but an integral component of an arrogant and disdainful style of ruling. Chávez already considers himself to be above the law and this is the main characteristic of dictators.

7. Economic and Political Stability.

A legitimate government has to provide a nation with reasonable economic and political stability. This is not the case with the Chávez regime. During his six and a half years in power Chávez has received about US$130 billion from oil exports but this money is nowhere to be seen, except as in the form of handouts. He has doubled the national debt. He is attempting to grab a good portion of the international reserves, a move that would greatly increase our country risk and keep international investors away. He has imposed for years a rigid exchange control that has been used as a political tool to punish companies managed by dissenters ("not one single dollar for the enemies of the revolution," he has said). Exchange controls have forced the closing down of hundreds of businesses. While the hemisphere has been enjoying an economic mini-boom, Venezuela has remained as the almost only Latin American country with double-digit inflation (25% plus) and extremely high unemployment (17% and higher). Fiscal deficits remain enormous and it seems evident that oil income, no matter how great, will not be enough to satisfy the thirst for money Chávez has developed. Bureaucratic corruption levels are extremely high due to the lack of controls and the ineptness of the top members of the administration. Petróleos de Venezuela, the main source of hard currency, is suffering great deterioration and is being subject to partial liquidation of its assets (Orimulsion patents being turned over to China, petrochemical assets being turned over to U.S. companies, Citgo refineries on sale). Poverty is increasing although money showering, in the form of handouts, is temporarily keeping the poor reasonably hopeful that their lot will improve.

This bleak economic picture leads to an equally bleak political situation and they feed on each other. The revolution is beginning to show serious signs of internal fracturing, due to personal ambitions among the revolutionary leadership and the desire of competing groups (PPT, MVR, the military) to get their portion of the spoils. The Armed Forces and the political parties that support the regime are at increasing internal odds due to: (1) the creation by Chávez of a popular, armed militia that will eventually serve to replace the regular army, (2) the increasing alignment between Chávez and Castro's Cuba that is rapidly converting Venezuela into a Cuban political satellite and, (3) the desire by these groups to attain more political power and financial rewards. The opposition, although still in disarray, is ardently opposed to the violation of Chávez electoral mandate to conduct democratic change and to his recent and arrogant declaration of being a Socialist and leading a Socialist revolution, something that even his followers did not have in mind when voting for him. Venezuelans will not accept this attempted political rape without a determined fight.

8. Equal Access to Public Services.

Today there are many second-class Venezuelan citizens who do not receive proper attention from government agencies. They are the ones who signed the petition for the presidential recall referendum. These citizens are not given government jobs or have been dismissed from their existing jobs, are not extended passports or identity cards. These citizens are in a black list generated by a man called Luis Tascón, under orders of Hugo Chávez. This list alone would suffice to render the regime of Hugo Chávez illegitimate.


I think that these comments will show that there is a growing issue of illegitimacy surrounding the Hugo Chávez presidency. But, even if this were true, people might ask: "So what?" Who can remedy this situation? Venezuelan society appears incapable of generating an internal protest strong enough to force a change in this situation, at least in the short term. Elections are a highly doubtful alternative, as Chávez controls and manipulates electoral mechanisms. An armed rebellion, such as the one Chávez staged in 1992, would either fail due to incompetence of the leaders (as it happened with Chávez in 1992) or, worse, would result in the replacement of Chávez by an armed gorilla, someone even worse than Chávez, who would take us even farther back into the 19th century.

Ousting Chávez will require a combination of strategies, including domestic and international components. The starting point must be a rational and unselfish commitment by the opposition to work towards a unified leadership, a common political platform and a systematic campaign to open the eyes of all Venezuelans to the national disaster that Venezuela has become under the rule of Chávez. The main obstacle to the short-term success of this strategy is the illusory feeling of progress Chávez has been able to instill into the poor, due to his expedient policy of handouts. Millions of my countrymen and women live on a day-to-day survival mode. This is understandable but limits the power of any message designed to make them see that this illusion of progress is temporary, that it will end when the regime runs into economic difficulties and that the true answers to their existential problems are of a more structural nature. This limitation should not stop the putting into effect of the strategies designed to stop the Chávez crimes against the nation.

These strategies, in fact, should have started yesterday!

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