Venezuela: Chávez administers the last rites to the rule of law
May 13th 2004 | CARACAS | AFP | The president is close to winning absolute power, making a peaceful solution to Venezuela's political conflict harder. A DASTARDLY opposition plot to use Colombian paramilitaries to overthrow the president? Or a government show, designed to discredit a shaky opposition and distract attention from its own manoeuvring to quash a recall referendum? Whatever the truth behind the arrest this week of 90-odd uniformed but unarmed men alleged to be right-wing terrorists at a ranch on the outskirts of Caracas, it spells more trouble for the opposition to Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez.
Mr Chávez, a populist former army officer, stands on the brink of winning absolute power in his country. The opposition's attempt to invoke the constitution and subject the president to a recall referendum looks doomed. Worse still, a new law enables the president to seize control of the supreme court. And the “paramilitary” incident is the perfect excuse for a crackdown.
“This is a country in which the last vestige of the rule of law has vanished,” said Rafael Marín, an opposition legislator, after an attempted raid this week on his house, ordered by a military judge. That is hyperbole—but only just.
After a long filibuster by the opposition was defeated, the National Assembly on April 30th approved a law that adds 12 new justices to the 20-member supreme court. Hitherto, judicial appointments and dismissals have needed approval by a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, which Mr Chávez lacks. Under the new law, likely to take effect this month, only a simple majority is needed. So the president can now both pack and purge the court. Since the supreme court controls the rest of the judiciary, every judge in the land will have to apply the law the way the government wants—or risk losing his or her job.
That is probably the final blow to the referendum. Six months ago, the opposition gathered over 3m signatures for this, well above the 2.4m required by the constitution. But the government-dominated electoral authority disqualified 1.2m of them—requiring those concerned individually to confirm their signature in a laborious exercise due later this month. Even if enough do, the matter is likely to go to the supreme court. Time is running out. If a referendum is held after August 19th (the mid-point of his term) and Mr Chávez loses, the upshot would not be an election but his vice-president taking over.
The opposition fears that the new law heralds the curtailing of the political liberties that have hitherto prevailed in Mr Chávez's Venezuela. “Those who dare to dissent from the regime will be punished,” says Gerardo Blyde, a constitutional lawyer and opposition congressman. This week, a mayor from his party was jailed on what the opposition says are trumped-up charges. Venezuelans who signed the referendum petition are finding that they may be denied everything from passports to bank loans, government contracts or jobs, and dollars at the cheap official rate.
Mr Chávez retains the support of at least a third of voters. He also controls the armed forces and the all-important oil industry. And with Venezuelan oil at over $30 a barrel, his government is awash with cash. Since Mr Chávez was first elected in 1998, income per head in Venezuela has fallen by 27% (partly because of a two-month general strike in 2002-03). But this year, the economy has started to recover.
So the president looks as if he will easily survive until the end of his term in January 2007, and perhaps longer. The opposition, a mosaic of parties and civic groups, faces an unappetising future. It is held together only by a desire to get rid of Mr Chávez. Absent a referendum, its rickety coalition may fall apart. Moderates may reach an accommodation with the government that allows them to survive—and Mr Chávez to present a façade of democracy. Radical elements, including some former military officers, may try rebellion, armed or otherwise. But the “paramilitary” affair has given the government a pretext to pre-empt any such efforts with a wave of arrests.
Like his mentor, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Mr Chávez thrives on enemies: he sees them not just at home, but in Colombia and the United States. His “microphone diplomacy” has the potential to strain Venezuela's relations with both countries.
A few years ago, the United States might have been expected to make a much more vigorous attempt to stop democracy from being extinguished in a large South American country. But the Bush administration has shown no sign of wanting to do anything that might disrupt the flow of Venezuelan oil ahead of November's election in the United States. So it is likely to confine itself to rhetorical tut-tutting.
Venezuela's relations with Colombia are more complicated. Security along the disputed border is a constant headache; both guerrillas and paramilitaries operate on the Colombian side, and have spilled over. President Álvaro Uribe's government in Bogotá has complained of lack of co-operation from Mr Chávez in dealing with the guerrillas. Venezuela's vice-president this week accused the head of Colombia's army, General Martin Carreño, of involvement with the Caracas “paramilitaries”. General Carreño denied this.
Mr Uribe has held peace talks with the paramilitaries, but these are close to breaking down. It is not wholly implausible that Colombia's paramilitary leaders—and even its army—might make an alliance of convenience with hardline opponents of Mr Chávez. True or not, the president is making it plain that the only role for a democratic opposition in Venezuela is impotence. One day, he may reap the whirlwind he is now sowing.
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