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If Venezuela is becoming “authoritarian“ then what is the rest of the world? A Response to Gabriel Heltland


Any analysis of Venezuela’s violent protests which doesn’t highlight the April 2002 coup which briefly installed a dictator, Pedro Carmona, who abolished its democratic institutions entirely, facilitates a repeat of that coup. Human Rights Watch failed to denounce the 2002 coup. Washington was obviously pleased with the coup and funded groups involved in it before and after it took place. The New York Times editors were especially delighted with it and gushed over the “respected“ Pedro Carmona who they claimed had rescued democracy. Today the Venezuelan opposition is led by people who supported or even participated in the coup (Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, Henry Ramos, Julio Borges, Maria Corina Machado among others).  There is no reason to suppose the US government, establishment-friendly NGOs like Human Rights Watch, and the international media have undergone any reform since 2002 either. The unprecedented defeat of a US-backed military coup in 2002 simply meant that the vilification campaign against the Venezuelan government continued for the next fifteen years.

So there is a really grave problem with emphasis in Gabriel Hetland’s piece entitled “Why is Venezuela Spiraling Out of Control? Opposition violence and the government’s increasing authoritarianism are both to blame.” Any measure of a government’s “authoritarian” tendencies that doesn’t properly factor in and emphasize the threat that it could be violently overthrown is seriously out to lunch.

Hetland made some remarks which I will quote at length below then respond to.

Yet, while previous claims of Venezuela’s authoritarianism have had little merit, this is no longer the case. A series of government actions since early 2016 has made it increasingly difficult to challenge claims that Venezuela is moving in an authoritarian direction. First, throughout 2016 the Supreme Court, which is clearly and even openly subordinate to the executive branch, blocked the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which won the legislative majority in December 2015, from passing any major legislation. In some cases, the legislature was attempting to act beyond its authority, for example, in seeking to grant amnesty to prisoners like Leopoldo López. Yet the Supreme Court’s systematic blockage of the National Assembly effectively rendered the opposition’s newly-captured legislative majority—and thus the December 2015 election results—null.

Problems with judicial independence are not at all unique to Venezuela. If Republicans dominate all major elections in the United States for the next eighteen years, as Chavistas have done in Venezuela in free and fair elections, then the Supreme Court would be lopsidedly Republican. An elected Supreme Court (in Venezuela, United States and many other countries) with fixed terms would be a major improvement.  One could seriously debate whether elected Supreme Court judges should have terms that are both longer and harder to cut short through recall than other elected officials, but if it is “authoritarian” to not have such a system in place then most countries around the word are also “authoritarian”. However, under no system will judges ever drop out of the sky to deliver politically neutral judgements.

Moreover, the opposition victory has absolutely not been rendered null. Its victory has allowed it to threaten foreign governments and businesses with whom Maduro’s government has attempted to negotiate economic deals. Henry Ramos, former head of the National Assembly, has openly boasted of having had a lot of success with this approach. It’s also a total contradiction to opposition demands for “humanitarian aid” which the international media has, quite predictably, failed to highlight at all.

Second, after months of dragging its feet, the government cancelled a constitutionally allowed recall referendum process in October 2016.

The CNE (the electoral authority) did drag its feet. However the opposition also delayed for over three months before initiating the recall process because of internal divisions over how to use their majority in the National Assembly to oust the government. In 2004, the recall process took over eight months and the recall referendum was held just days before the deadline for it to trigger a presidential election had Hugo Chavez lost it. Opposition leaders (Borges and Capriles for example) have been blatantly dishonest about the 2004 recall process to deny the significance of their delay.

The United States does not have a recall process at the presidential level but it does have them for some of its state governors. The recall process in California’s 2003 recall election took 7-8 months depending on how you define the start of the petition drive. Wisconsin’s in 2012 took 6-7 months. Can anyone imagine an international campaign demanding that the United States speed up its recall process?

Third, the government indefinitely postponed municipal and regional elections that should have occurred in 2016, according to the constitution (although Maduro recently moved to set a date for the elections).

It is the regional, not municipal, elections that were due in 2016. The CNE – which, remember, was accused with some justification of not going fast enough on the recall process – also postponed local elections for 8 months due to the 2004 recall process. The CNE should have done all it could to set a clear date for regional elections even if it went over the constitutional limit. There should be a way to have a simplified and expedited recall process that does not result in other elections being delayed. However, as noted above, the delay in the recall process, and therefore in the holding of regional elections, was also due in part to the opposition’s tactical divisions.

Fourth, as noted, the Supreme Court issued a ruling dissolving the National Assembly in March, before partially reversing itself days later, after Maduro asked the Supreme Court to review its decision. Maduro was spurred to action when his own attorney general, Luisa Ortega, took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning the Supreme Court decision as “a rupture in the constitutional order.”

Ortega’s dissent and the reversal of the decision make thin gruel out of this example of “authoritarianism”. Additionally, the National Assembly was not dissolved.

Fifth, in April 2017 Henrique Capriles, a leading opposition figure and two-time former presidential candidate (in 2012 and 2013), was banned from participating in politics for fifteen years, on highly dubious grounds.

In the United States or Canada, Capriles would still be in prison (or more likely dead) had he participated in the violent ouster of the government, the kidnapping of an official, and attacks on a foreign embassy. Capriles served months in prison and then went on to run and win the governorship of the state of Miranda. The really valid and important criticism is that Capriles and others have enjoyed an outrageous amount of impunity thanks to their powerful cheerleaders abroad and access to sympathetic media coverage at home. That is where those of us who live in rich imperial countries like the Unites States and Canada need to be focusing.

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