Venezuelan Legal System: An Interview with Fernando Ramón Vegas Torrealba

In early September, 2009 I went to Venezuela to give a talk about economic vision at a conference there. I stayed a week, and with Greg Wilpert interviewed numerous people about the Bolivarian Revolution. These interviews will appear in coming days and weeks on ZCom. Here is one we did about the role of the law and legal system, held with Fernando Ramón Vegas Torrealba, justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court.

– Michael Albert



Okay, by way of introduction, who are you and what is your position here in Venezuela?


My name is Fernando Ramón Vegas Torrealba and I am a justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. I work in the Electoral Chamber which has five other Justices, and in total the whole court has thirty two justices in six chambers.



How did you get where you are? Briefly, what is your history?


I was selected by the committee of the National Assembly, people from society, on the one hand, and deputies of the assembly on the other. They do a first screen, then a second, and go through various procedures, and the deputies in the whole assembly make the final selections.



Before you were in the Supreme Court you were…


Just before, I worked for two years with what is called the political police – I was director of education. Before that, I taught in university and also worked at my profession, as a lawyer.



In the U.S. legal system, it is assumed that if a prosecutor and defense council both pursue victory in a fight over the future of the accused or over the dispute) each not caring at all about justice but caring only about winning that fight, the result will be more often than with any other approach, justice. What I am wondering and would like to try to explore is whether here in Venezuela there is any disagreement with that and any inclination toward a new approach to adjudication?


What you describe has been and remains a basic part of the process here too – but there of course really should be justice after the contest.


Our first problem here in Venezuela was that access to justice was very narrow because it was only for people who could pay lawyers, and only people who could feel that they could go to court – because many people are afraid because of the majesty and so forth. So our first task was to widen the capacity of people to have access to justice.


When I told you about how many judges we have in the Supreme Court, it is because we have opened up access and so we have many more cases before the courts. More people can and do come to the courts for justice now.



If I was talking to the planning minister or to someone involved in the economy and I said what is the difference between Venezuela and the U.S., or Venezuela now and Venezuela in the past, they would talk about the new approach to property, the new approach to the organization of work, and the state stores, and so on. They would talk about changes inside the economy. Are you saying that you feel the key thing that is different about the legal system now in Venezuela compared to the past, and even in the future compared to the past, is access?


That is one difference, yes. The other big difference is that we now have an inclination to lean toward the people who have less power. For example, suppose a laborer has a dispute with an owner, or a community member has a dispute with a mayor. Who is the weak party in the dispute? And then what does that imply, when you decide who the weak participant is?


The law, in Venezuela, first investigates and then actually tries to help the weak party. The task is to apply the law, yes, but in a way that will help those who are weaker and poorer, and that will diminish gaps rather than widen them.


What if the case is, one person is poorer, has less education, less means, etc., but is also accused of murder.


Well, that is different. The idea of inclining the law toward aiding the weak is mostly about disputes. On criminal charges the help to the weaker party is mostly about aiding people to defend themselves.


If someone is accused of murder, or some other crime, and is weak, then the law helps him to defend himself. But there is no privilege because of poverty or other weakness, regarding guilt in a criminal trial. The accused gets the same defense, but if guilty, also gets the same punishment, as a rich criminal.



But his defense will be comparable?


Yes, it will be provided by the state, with a lawyer, public defense, etc.



So when you talk about leaning toward justice for the weaker, you are talking about when the courts are resolving a dispute, like a lawsuit?


Yes. Here is an example that the law provides to help the weaker party in a dispute. When a worker has signed a paper with a boss in which the worker has reneged some of his rights, if they are in a dispute, the court ignores it. It is as if the worker never signed it. Because he is the weaker side of the equation, and he has to be defended even as the dispute is addressed. The employer cannot use the document against the worker.



What if the employer has signed a document…


That would be held against him, used as evidence, etc.



Okay, so as changes we have increased access and a bias to protect the weak against the strong.


There is another dimension, as well. Consider a case with a child and adult. They are not only the object of the process, as we understand the law, but also the subject of the process. So, the child, for example, can talk in the court, no matter what age. The child can speak out as a subject of the process, not only an object.



The constitution says that Venezuela is a state of law and justice, not just law. Is that related to what you have been summarizing?


Yes, exactly.



And are there any other implications of saying it is law and justice, rather than just law?


Well, yes, I think there is more to come, because we are working it. We don’t yet have a finished system. Every day we are providing more elements and features to try to deliver justice to people. The constitutional phrase means that justice has to prevail. In a case if you find a strict application of the law is bringing you an unjust result, you have to work for justice. You have to reinterpret or add to the results.



What would happen if a worker in a private firm came to the court and said I know the law says that it is okay for the employer to pay me the wage I am getting, but it is unjust. I should be paid more, much more. Now what happens?


No no, in this case….



It is true, isn’t it?


Yes, it is true. That could happen, of course…



If I was working, and I knew that this is how the legal system worked, I would be right in here seeking better wages, and much more.


No. you would not, be granted that. Because it is a legal contract…



But the worker is the weak party…


Well, yes, but was the worker kicked out wrongly, or paid less than the agreement? Or forced to do overtime and not paid properly. That would be different. Then the worker could go to court and get redress.



This brings us to another line of concern I wanted to ask about. To what extent does it make sense, or not, for the Bolivarian Revolution to obey laws constructed for an entirely different time and purpose and to abide institutions with those old roots, as well? And that’s exactly what the last situation was. The law says that the owner can pay exploitative wages, and you abide it, at least for awhile. It is a very contradictory situation you are in, it seems to me.


It is transition. If we had already constructed socialism we wouldn’t even need to talk about this. But that is not the case. We still have enterprises owned by capitalists that work under a set of laws that they have to abide. The owner pays a wage, the worker has to labor some agreed number of hours per day. And so on. 



But insofar as you are an advocate of the revolution, don’t you feel torn at times?


(Laughs) Well, I wish it could be otherwise, sure. What you are trying to say is am I uncomfortable.



Yes, that is what I am asking.


Well, I am in some cases, but in other cases not. For example, if someone comes up to you and he might get into a fight with his boss, and then the court can behave positively and justly.



So you do the best you can, basically?


Yes. My heart is not so joyous about some cases as others.



What about the fact that the right wing will use the law whenever it is to their advantage and violate it when it isn’t?


They do it all the time…



And doesn’t that frustrate you…


(Laughs) Yes. Of course. They voted against our constitution but now they microscopically examine it to find any technicality they can use.



And the hypocrisy…


Gets you fed up. Tremendously. But what can you do about it? They can say what they want.



That leads to another issue. There are all these newspapers in Venezuela that represent a sector of the population who are opposition, and that are full of all sorts of manipulation and lies and the government has been incredibly patient about the whole thing. What do you think is the root of that patience? Is it free speech, or is it the tactics of how to go about social change successfully? I should say, I suspect it is much more the latter than the former…


(Laughs) Our process is different than the Cuban process, for example. We have free elections here. We have free speech. And the way the media are connected internationally, and the way they are owned, if we were to alter them, all of a sudden we can have a big stone on our head.


One of the things our opponents can’t say, or it is very difficult and duplicitous to say, is that we have a dictatorship. They say it, but it is talking in a vacuum. We not only have elections and people saying whatever they like, we go beyond what other western countries permit in these regards.



But it is one thing to be able to say what you wish, and it is another thing for a small sector to be able to dominate the airways with what they want to say, routinely lying. That’s not the same. Free speech doesn’t guarantee the right to scream in everyone’s ear, which is what the mainstream media is doing.


I keep on telling that to people but not everyone gets it. Some get it though. Many citizens harass newspaper reporters, yelling at them when they venture out into the street, and that’s okay.



That happens?


Yes, all the time. With the TV reporters who folks recognize.