The Rule of Law During the Chavez Era

October 18, 2013 • Online Content, The World at Yale • Views: 896

BY HANNAH FLAUM

On Wednesday afternoon, Yale World Fellow, Carlos Vecchio addressed a group of Yale students and faculty in his lecture: “The Rule of Law During the Chavez Era.”  Before beginning his presentation, he expressed that, in his opinion, the request for him to give this talk was an ironic one because, “since Chavez took power, we started the process of dismantling the rule of law in Venezuela.”  The start of this process, he explained, began in 1999 with the election of a “costume-made” constituent assembly controlled entirely by Chavez himself that appointed all of the top officials in the Venezuelan public branches.  Vecchio noted that this manipulation of the entire political system achieved by taking advantage of a political majority is not unique to Venezuela; Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, have followed suit.

The first of the public branches, the judiciary, has been entirely corrupted by Chavez and retains no autonomous power from the Supreme Court all the way to the lower court judges.  Vecchio showed a video in which the 32 Supreme Court magistrates collectively cheered Chavez’s name at a public speech held by Chavez, affirming their strong support of him and allegiance to his government.  Not only has the Constitutional Chamber never ruled against the government in political cases, but it has also effectively re-written and overridden the Constitution to accommodate the government’s whims.  Lower judges, appointed by the Supreme Court, are equally unjust.  Because lower judges are not permanent members of the judiciary they are “susceptible to political manipulation” exposing them to “discretionary dismissal;” in laymen’s terms, all parts of the judiciary work for Chavez and not for the people of Venezuela.

The congressional body in Venezuela, called the National Assembly, has essentially given its law-making powers to Chavez by granting a total of four “enabling laws” to him between 1999 and 2012.  Utilizing the powers granted to him under the provisions these enabling laws, Chavez passed 215 acts without the consultation or approval of any members of the National Assembly.  Vecchio referred to this system, in which the National Assembly has “self-annulled” its powers, as a “monarchy, not a democracy.”  Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, is simply emulating his predecessor by requesting yet another “enabling law” to further secure his role as the sole, all-powerful force behind the Venezuelan government.

Lastly, Chavez completely manipulated the electoral branch to ensure his retention of power.  He had three major tools for manipulation: first, state resources, second, television and media, and third, voting center environments.  Vecchio explained that there is no limit on the use of state resources to fund election campaigns.  In 2012, there was an increase of 45% in spending from that in 2011 as a result of the election.  Additionally, Chavez used “cadenas,” obligatory, televised broadcasts of his speeches that could span an unlimited amount of time without interruption.  During his presidency, Chavez’s “cadenas” totaled over 2,000 in number and over four months in duration.  Lastly, violence in voting centers and extreme pressure on voters when they attempt to vote have caused a severe change in voter behavior and on a broader, more fundamental level, have led to unfair elections and have generated an undemocratic voting system.  The term Vecchio introduces, “ventajismo,” which refers to the historically unfair and imbalanced campaign conditions in Venezuela aptly summarizes the undemocratic nature of the electoral branch.

The limitation on civil rights and the assault on the freedom of speech have had severe, tangible effects throughout Venezuela.  For instance, to intimidate the public and any individuals who oppose him, Chavez criminalized peaceful protests.  Additionally, he withdrew from human rights conventions and attacked human rights defenders in his country.  Vecchio explains that one of the most critical limitations on civil rights is the imposition of political discrimination on those with views that differ from Chavez or that do not fully support the government.  Vecchio, after publicly denouncing Chavez, was fired from his job at a university in Venezuela.  One of Vecchio’s friends within the Venezuelan, also after publicly denouncing Chavez, was fired from her position as a magistrate.  In addition to the “cadenas” he forces upon television stations, Chavez also closed one of the most notable television stations in Venezuela as a result of its negative opinion toward the government.  This, as well as the attacks on journalists for any anti-Chavez opinions, has created a system of self-censorship in the media because the of the possible repercussions for opposing Chavez.

Vecchio concluded with his belief that in Venezuela there is no plural political system, no effective democratic participation, no transparency in government, no access to justice, and there are no free and fair elections all because of Hugo Chavez and his systematic dismantling of the rule of law.  Vecchio expressed little hope for the short-term, but noted that the election in 2015 offers a chance for Venezuelans to choose a new president which would – hopefully – begin the process of reinstating the rule of law.

Hannah Flaum is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at hannah.flaum@yale.edu.

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