Truth and Justice in Venezuela

Following three hearings in the past two weeks, the Venezuelan Supreme Court has ruled that it would deny the attorney general’s motion for a trial against the four high-ranking military officers accused of military rebellion in the April 11 coup attempt against the government of President Hugo Chavez.

In effect, a slight majority of 11 to 9 supreme court justices dismissed the charges against the four officers, with the argument that they do not see sufficient proof for a viable trial. The ruling has caused an avalanche of accusations, recriminations, and street battles between opposition, police, national guard, and government supporters.

Supporters of President Chavez, as well as most international observers I have spoken to, find the prospect that the court does not see sufficient evidence for military rebellion quite baffling. That is, on the night of April 11 these officers were seen on Television reading declarations of how they would no longer recognize the authority of the president. How much more evidence for military rebellion does one need?

Not only that, numerous ministers and others present in the presidential palace during the coup report that officers threatened to bomb the presidential palace if the president and his ministers did not leave the palace within ten minutes. Finally, the coup regime had even dissolved the Supreme Court. It is quite difficult to fathom that either no one was responsible for these acts or that they all had a legal justification, as the defense claims.

The officers and the opposition, however, argue that since no weapons were actually used during the “supposed” coup (except by the police) and since they were resisting Chavez’ decision to mobilize the military so as to prevent further bloodshed, their act does not constitute military rebellion, but rather an exercise of their legitimate right to resist a regime that was violating Venezuela’s constitution.

Early in the day of April 11th Chavez did order the mobilization of troops, in order to, according to him, stop the opposition demonstration from clashing with the pro-government demonstrators. The police, as active participants in the opposition demonstration, clearly could and would not stop the demonstration.

Also, Chavez has said that he knew early in the day that a coup was in progress and apparently he had hoped that removing the troops from the direct command of the generals, by placing them in the streets under his direct command, he would prevent the generals from using the troops against him. Chavez has always been quite confident that the lower-ranking officers are on his side.

As hard as it is to believe, the Venezuelan opposition still steadfastly claims that April 11 was no coup, but rather, that the president resigned voluntarily and that this resulted in a “vacuum of power”, which the military asked the “civil society” to fill by appointing Pedro Carmona as president. By what authority the military or “civil society” (that is, the opposition) named Carmona president is left to the imagination (he ended up swearing himself into power). Also, this cover story conveniently ignores the fact that the Venezuelan constitution provides for a succession of power through the vice president and the president of the legislature.

It should be obvious that the consequences of accepting the opposition’s claims and of not trying the military coup plotters in a court of law would significantly weaken Venezuelan democracy because it gives the military a free pass to oppose the government as it pleases.

So why would a supreme court that was appointed by Chavez’ party and his supporters rule against the government and in favor of the coup plotters? The reason is complex and almost certainly has to do with the fact that the members of the Supreme Court were by and large nominated by Luis Miquilena, the former minister of the interior and of justice.

Miquilena, who is considered a “moderate” with presidential aspirations of his own, left the government last Fall and recently formed his own political party, “Solidarity”, along with several other of his followers, who broke from Chavez’ coalition in the National Assembly. Many suspect that Miquilena was involved in the coup attempt and rumors were circulating before the coup that in the event of a coup he would be named as president.

As is so common in Venezuelan culture, personal loyalty counts for a lot and this gives Miquilena significant influence over the Supreme Court. William Lara, the president of the National Assembly and member of Chavez’ party, claimed, prior to the court’s final decision to dismiss the charges, that “Luis Miquilena, together with leaders of Acción Democrática [the former governing party] is putting pressure on the Supreme Court, so that they make a decision contrary to the rule of law and in favor of the accused officials.”

It does not help, though, that Chavez, in his weekly radio and television address, went even further than Lara and said that he has “possible evidence that there are judges who are being manipulated from outside the country by people who have a lot of money.”

He then went on to make a comparison to a baseball game, his favorite imagery, where an umpire who consistently makes bad rulings ought to be removed from the game. The next day all of the main newspapers ran headlines that Chavez was threatening the independence of the Supreme Court. Even if Chavez’ claims turn out to be true, making such a public announcement was strategically a foolish move, given how fragile his hold is on the presidency.

Some of the evidence Chavez mentioned has since surfaced, which appears to show an effort of manipulation on the part of the opposition, in the form of a tape recorded phone conversation between a leader of Acción Democratica and an associate of Luis Miquilena’s, where they discuss the need to put pressure on one of the Supreme Court justices.

Further deteriorating the sense of institutionality and public order in Venezuela are a series of confrontations between police and demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court, who are protesting against the court’s unwillingness to take the military coup plotters to trial.

The municipal police, who are controlled by a mayor who belongs to the opposition, has been cracking down hard on these demonstrators, regularly dispersing them with tear-gas and shooting with live ammunition, so far seriously wounding at least eight demonstrators. Some demonstrators, however, have also been shooting and several police officers were wounded in the process.

Also, a new urban paramilitary group has announced its presence, in defense of the Chavez government and has claimed responsibility for ambushing a police van with high-caliber gunfire, as the police was pursuing demonstrators into a strongly pro-Chavez neighborhood. Chavez has rejected the support of this new group, but the opposition is using this incident as yet more evidence for the destructiveness of Chavez’ “bolivarian revolution.”

This new leftist paramilitary group, which calls itself the “Carapaica,” after an indigenous leader of the 16th century, has also given the opposition another reason to call on the military to “do its duty and disarm groups such as the Carapaica” (Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña).

This is nothing other than a thinly-veiled call for a coup, since the only one who could mobilize the military for such a task is the president, but the call was pointedly not directed at the president. In addition, Francisco Arias, a former ally of Chavez, until he ran a failed campaign for president against Chavez, has openly called on the military to intervene should Chavez try to challenge the ruling of the Supreme Court.

Perhaps the only thing that could truly have helped move Venezuela from the abyss of permanent confrontation was a truly objective and highly respected investigation into what really happened on April 11 to 14. Shortly after the failed coup, there were some serious efforts to create a truth commission, which would independently investigate what happened.

However, both sides were hopelessly suspicious of the other and no agreement could be reached in the national assembly as to who would constitute the truth commission. Instead, the national assembly has produced two reports on the coup, one written by government supporters and one written by the opposition, with two vastly different interpretations of the events of April 11 to 14.

Chavez now faces an extremely delicate balancing act, where wrong moves, such as his public accusations against the Supreme Court, could easily lead to another coup, his indictment by a pro-coup Supreme Court, or renewed efforts by the opposition to mobilize all oppositional sectors of society against him.

Chavez’ supporters, such as the political director of Chavez’ party, Guillermo García Ponce, are deciding to go all-out and have warned that if Chavez should be indicted, the party would launch a new constitutional assembly to revamp all of the political powers in Venezuela.

While extremists on both sides of Venezuela’s political conflict appear ready to lynch each other, one can only hope that Chavez and those around him take this blow to democracy more calmly. Worse than allowing a coup against a democratically elected regime go unpunished right now would be to challenge the fragile institutional order Venezuela has by insisting on removing judges that appear to be in the hands of the opposition.

This might seem like an intolerable trade-off to the Chavistas, but it is more likely that democratic culture in Venezuela is strengthened in the long run through strict adherence to judicial procedure than through mob justice, as some here are calling for.

Unfortunately, this incessant conflict over coup, counter-coup, judicial decisions, and hyperbolic accusations causes the media and other observers to willfully or carelessly ignore the real achievements of the Chavez regime.

The media and other observers never mention the fact that over half of Venezuela’s population is the potential beneficiary of real urban and rural land reform, which is currently in the process of being implemented. Also, no one ever mentions the tremendous increases in health services and education for the poor. These achievements would be reversed if the opposition came to power, as they were during the brief coup regime of Carmona.

Instead, besides the daily unverified opposition charges that the news media trumpet with all their might, they focus their attention primarily on the fact that most of Venezuelan society is suffering from the devaluation of the currency and the consequently high rate of inflation, both of which are mostly due to politically motivated capital flight. This is politically motivated capital flight because Chavez’ economic policies, in essence, do not stray all that much from those of his predecessors-except, significantly, his oil policies.

While the economic situation is serious and has contributed to recession and increased unemployment, it points to the no-win nature of politics in the age of globalization.

That is, this is a global politico-economic context in which policies that intentionally favor the least well off of society lead to economic decline due to national and international capital flight and thus to more poverty, while policies that benefit the business sector, such as neo-liberalism, also lead to more poverty. This problem is what really ought to be on the agenda in Venezuela, instead of impatient-since his mandate can be democratically revoked next year-and undemocratic efforts to get rid of Chavez.

Gregory Wilpert, a former U.S. Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, currently lives in Caracas and is a sociologist and freelance reporter who is also doing independent research on the sociology of development. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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