In a definition penned in 1850 by an American theologian named Theodore Parker (and generally attributed nowadays to Abraham Lincoln), democracy is government of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people. Dr. Taylhardat discusses political pluralism in his country and the part he personally believes the Inter American system should play to preserve democracy in the sense of rule of, by, and for all the Venezuelan people. Ed.
The new role of the international community
The international community has solemnly proclaimed that the fundamental rights of the citizens constitute a single, indivisible and interdependent whole, and that their promotion and protection require the highest priority. This was so established in the Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993.
The international tutelage of political rights
This is clearly the case of Venezuela. We have one of the most advanced constitutions in the field of human rights. But whenever one of those rights is violated, the citizens are practically unprotected, because the whole judicial system, as well as all the organs with competence to provide such protection, are totally under the control of President Chavez.
Venezuela is among the first countries whose foreign policy adamantly defended the respect and protection of human rights. Furthermore, in the decade of the sixties, Venezuela was also among the first countries that propounded the thesis that no country can shield itself behind the notion of national sovereignty to hide or justify transgressions to human rights.
Currently, a network of international treaties, agreements and pacts has created a system for the protection of human rights. Venezuela is a party to all of them. But there is something else. Article 23 of the new Venezuelan Constitution adopted in 1999 grants constitutional hierarchy to all those international instruments. This means that those international treaties, agreements and pacts are considered to be incorporated in the national constitution itself and have the same rank as any other provision of the constitution. Additionally, when those provisions are more favor-able, their application prevails over the constitution or any other national law.
In synthesis, this means that Venezuela unconditionally recognizes the role that the international community plays in the defense of fundamental human rights.
The protection of political rights
The protection of democracy within the inter American system
But all those instruments limit the protection of democracy, thus impeding the overthrow of democratically elected governments. Both the Washington Protocol, dated December 14, 1992, and Article 9 of the Charter of the OAS (amended by said protocol) limit themselves to contemplate a mechanism of collective action consecrated to deprive the quality of Member of the OAS to any State whose "democratically elected government has been overthrown by force". But as can be seen, the scope of this provision is exclusively limited to sanctify the right of governments to be protected against coups détat.
But it is well known that every right originates an obligation. In this case, the right of a "democratically elected" government to be protected against an eventual overthrow imposes upon that government the obligation to perform and fulfill its duties within the standards of democracy. That obligation in turn gives way to the right of the citizens subject to that government to demand that the constitutional order and the rules of the democratic institutions be respected and abided by.
The protection of democracy within the Inter American System did not take into account that the legitimacy of a president does not rest exclusively in the procedure by which he was elected and that the democratic nature of a government does not exhaust itself with the simple fact of the election. That fact is evidently a fundamental condition for the democratic legitimacy. But the conduct and the performance of the president during his mandate are also fundamental requirements of that legitimacy. A democratically elected president who violates the principles, conditions and fundamental codes of democracy, completely loses his/her legitimacy. The mechanisms for the protection of democracy created by the Inter American System did not take into account the conflicting situation that could emerge between the primary fact of the election of a president by the will of the people, and the deviation of that president towards an authoritarian regime, or towards dictatorship, as a result of his disregard or his violation of the constitutional democratic order that brought him to power.
It was only at the Summit of the Americas held in Quebec that a fundamental qualitative leap was given within the Inter American System by amplifying or enlarging the scope of the protection of democracy. In the Quebec Declaration, the heads of states and governments of the entire American continent adopted what is known as the "Democratic clause" through which they recognized that "the values and practices of democracy" are fundamental and that "maintaining and strengthening of the State of Law and strict respect to the democratic system are, at the same time, an objective and a shared commitment, as well as an essential condition for our presence in this and future Summit Meetings."
"Consequently adds the same document- any alteration or institutional rupture of the democratic order in a State of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for the participation of that Government in the process of the Summits of the Americas." The signatories of the Declaration agreed to consult among them every time that "a rupture of the democratic system in one of the countries participating in the process of the Summits" occurs.
At this stage, I wish to underline that this document uses a completely different language than the one employed in the Charter of the OAS. In the latter, the expression used was "democratically elected government overthrown by force," that is by a coup détat. Here, the expression "rupture of the democratic system" is sufficiently ample to include both the notion of a coup détat, as well as the improper or unlawful performance of a government.
This assertion is confirmed by the following text of the same Declaration: "The threats to democracy assume nowadays multiple forms:" Thus, with the aim of improving the capacity of response to those new threats, the heads of states and governments requested the enactment of an Inter American Democratic Charter, which should reinforce the mechanisms of the OAS for the active defense of representative democracy.
The Inter American Democratic Charter
The Charter, starting with a clear differentiation between an "unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order" and an "unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order;" institutes a double system for the protection of democracy:
To attain this end, the Charter enumerates the "essential elements of representative democracy" and the "essential components of the exercise of democracy" as a means of determining when a government is effectively fulfilling its duties and obligations inherent to the democratic performance or, on the contrary, is acting in disregard of those essential elements and components of democracy.
The Venezuelan case
The regular Session of the OAS General Assembly was held in Barbados between May 2 4 and it adopted a "Declaration on Democracy in Venezuela:"
Venezuela from the Perspective of the Inter American Democratic Charter
The essential elements of representative democracy
2. Access to and exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law.
On the other hand, the access, and the procedure to accede to the highest organs of the administration which are not subject to popular election, specifically those which are part of the citizen power, the electoral power and the judicial power, have been flagrantly violated. The constitution itself has been violated and its application has been suspended with the argument of a constitutional transition that allowed the appointment of those high officials, by-passing the requirements and the procedure established by the constitution. This has provoked a complete lack of faith and credibility in those organs and their officials.
3. - Holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as expression of the sovereignty of the people.
All this looks wonderful in writing. The members of the National Electoral Council were appointed "transitionally" under the above mentioned "constitutional transition," however, by a legislative organ totally controlled by the ruling party and without any participation whatsoever of the civil society.
This has also resulted in a progressive weakening of representative democracy and discredit of the Electoral Council. The transitory nature of the electoral power has been prolonged indefinitely as a result of the refusal of the ruling party to discuss the law which should establish the procedure for the appointment of the members of the Electoral Council
4. The pluralistic system of political parties and organizations.
The freedom to organize political parties is seriously hampered as a result of the provisions of the constitution. First of all, the 1999 Constitution avoids mentioning "political parties" and speaks only of associations or organizations with political purposes. Furthermore, and in an unacceptable interference with the freedom to organize political parties, the constitution gives the electoral council the power to organize the internal elections of the organs of the political parties.
In Venezuela, the right to political pluralism was progressively violated. First, the president launched a campaign to discredit the political parties and their leaders by accusing them of corruption and of destroying the political, economic, and social structure of the country. At the same time, the president, from his privileged position, has integrated the ruling party into the government. Violating the constitutional provision that establishes that public officials are exclusively at the service of the state and should not show any political partiality, the president himself presides over the ruling party and many of the ministers of his cabinet hold supervisory positions in the party. In Venezuela, the state is at the service of the ruling party and, vice-versa; the latter is at the service of the former. In this situation, the rest of the political parties have been practically subdued by the government. Furthermore, the public administration is being used as the source of employment of the members of the ruling party at all levels.
Additionally, the president and his party are engaged in a process of politically organizing the entire society, with the support of the state governors and local mayors, and through the "Bolivarian circles," which are groupings dedicated, among other things, to enrolling and indoctrinating the citizens, particularly those of a low economic level.
Political pluralism, which is an essential element of democracy, is seriously threatened in the name of a pretended "Bolivarian revolution" launched by the ruling party through the "Political Command of the Revolution." which operates directly from the high levels of the government and is financed with public resources.
5. Separation of powers and independence of government branches.
But this separation is only theoretical because none of them enjoys independence and that means they lack impartiality and objectivity.
The ruling party holds the majority in the National Assembly. This would seem normal in any democratic system. The problem is that the president controls the ruling party and that brings as a result that the National Assembly does only what the president commands. In the cases where a member of the parliament, elected within the lists of the ruling party, acts with some independence or impartiality, he is immediately criticized and called a traitor to the "revolutionary process."
The members or heads of the remaining powers, having been appointed by that National Assembly, are also instrumental to the executive power or, more precisely, to President Chavez.
Appointment of the magistrates of the Supreme Court was based on the illegitimate constitutional transitional mechanism I referred to previously. Most of the Supreme Courts decisions have been biased in favor of the official interests. The Supreme Court, which should play the role of controlling the legality and/or the constitutionality of the executive branchs actions and decisions, is instead submitted to the control of the president.
In respect of the components of the Citizens Power, the situation can be summarized as follows:
The essential components of the exercise of democracy
1. Transparency in government activities.
2. Probity. Responsible public administration on the part of governments.
First there were the serious irregularities denounced in respect to management of the Fondo Unico Social, an organ created to administer the resources of the welfare and social benefit projects. The military officer who was heading that organ had to resign after public denunciations, but so far no sanctions have been imposed to the responsible of the fraud.
Later, there were the allegations regarding the management of what is called "Plan Bolivar 2000," which implied the assignment of large financial resources to the armed forces for the purpose of undertaking social and welfare activities. Although there have been sufficient proofs of the deviation and mismanagement of those resources, no indictment of any of the responsible has taken place until now.
To those scandalous situations we have to add the recent demands for trial of President Chavez himself as a result of several situations he has been involved in. These include the misappropriation of more than three thousand million bolivares from the Macroeconomic Investment Fund, an institution created to act as a savings bank to keep the financial surpluses originated from the rise of oil prizes in order to use them when a fall of the oil prizes could create financial difficulties in the country. After the denunciations of disappearance of those resources were made public, the government explained that the money had been used to pay salaries and bonuses to public employees. To the previous figure one has to add the interest not accounted for.
There is also the denunciation of a contribution of one and a half million dollars, donated by the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya as a contribution to President Chavezs presidential campaign in 1998, the destination of which is unknown. There have been allegations that Chavez concurred in embezzlement and kept that money for himself.
Additionally, there is the situation created by the Oil Cooperation Agreement subscribed by Chavez with Cuba, according to which Venezuela furnishes oil to Cuba under excessively favorable conditions, which are harmful to the Venezuelan oil industry and to the country as a whole.
Another irregularity refers to the use of public money in the campaign in favor of the current minister of education when he was running for the presidency of the main workers union organization.
In total, there are sixty-one cases against President Chavez for various crimes pending decisions in the Supreme Court. Among those there are some in which the mental instability of the President is being alleged.
3. Respect for social rights.
President Chavezs Government has tried by all means at its disposal to intervene and control the existing workers union organization and to replace it with a Bolivarian Federation of Workers.
The 1999 Constitution contains a provision that is, in itself, contrary to the international instruments regulating the legal situation of workers, when it attributes competence to the National Electoral Council to organize and manage the internal election within the workers union. Confident that this provision would favor him, Chavez presented his own candidate for the presidency of the CTV (Venezuelan Workers Confederation). After the failure of this attempt, Chavez has managed to impede the National Electoral Councils recognition of the victory of the candidate who won the election. This has given rise to the absurd situation that, several months after his election, the president of the CTV is not recognized by the government. In view of this, the recently held International Labor Organizations General Conference issued a strong resolution condemning the behavior of President Chavezs government and recognizing CTV as the legitimate representation of the Venezuelan working class.
4. Freedom of expression and of the press.
In my view, the explanation to President Chavezs attitude towards the media should be found in the fact that the media is the only genuine tribune that the opposition can utilize to spell out its views and opinions about what is happening in Venezuela. He knows that people listen to the radio, watch television, and read the newspapers, and through those means of communication the citizens of the country learn about the critical social, economic, and political situation of the country. Chavez pretends that the media should only publish good news about his government and becomes infuriated because the information objectively reflects what is happening. He doesnt dare to act directly against the media, but sends his mobs to attack them, and to commit acts of terrorism against them and to physically assault the journalists. At the same time he continues with his defamatory speech and his diatribe against the media in general and against their owners.
I now return to the first of the essential elements of representative democracy which I have left behind.
Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
But enunciation of rights and liberties in the Magna Carta is not sufficient to grant the citizens the enjoyment and exercise of those rights and liberties.
Since he assumed power, President Chavez has engaged in developing what he calls "the Bolivarian revolution," which is an attempt to impose a system and a regime similar to the one prevailing in Cuba. He has publicly declared that his objective is to take Venezuela to a "sea of happiness similar to the one created by Fidel Castro in his country." Every action, every measure taken by Chavez, is aimed at gradually transforming Venezuela into another Cuba.
The current concentration of power prevailing in Venezuela has resulted in a persistent violation of some of the fundamental rights of the citizens enshrined in the Constitution. The right to a due process is probably the most violated right. This has resulted in a situation of total legal insecurity and absolute mistrust in the judiciary organs.
There have been numerous national and international accusations of forced disappearances by the so-called "grupos de exterminio," or exterminating groups, operated by some regional police corps. The Inter American Human Rights Commission dealt with those accusations during its recent visit to Venezuela.
There have been numerous and repeated threats and attacks against freedom of expression. I have already referred to the frequent cases of physical aggressions against TV stations, television and newspaper reporters, and political analysts. President Chavez himself has repeatedly accused the media, their owners, and the journalists as traitors and conspirators, at the same time stimulating hate against them with his speech.
In addition, the government is preparing what is known as the "Law of Content." a legal instrument that would provide it with means and ways to control and censor the radio-electrical communication media.
The privacy of communications is constantly violated by tapping telephone calls. In several cases the illegal recordings from such tapping are publicly used for the purpose of discrediting and exposing people to public rejection. Parliamentarians of the ruling party have, with impunity, exhibited the recordings of telephone conversations of journalists and political opponents.
On several occasions, physical violence has been exerted against political personalities participating in public rallies. Also, the members of the National Assembly are constantly harassed and attacked by the mobs mobilized by the governments political party which has organized and operates what is known as the "Bolivarian circles," more commonly known as the "death circles." These are groups organized following the model of the Cuban CDR "Comités para la Defensa de la Revolución". It is a known fact that those circles are financed with public resources, most of them have been provided with weapons and are mobilized by the government every time it needs their support. Parliamentarians of the opposition are constantly insulted and verbally and physically attacked by elements of those circles when entering or exiting the headquarters of the Parliament.
But the most gruesome violation of human rights was the horrible massacre committed by the government on April 11, when snipers and members of the Bolivarian Circles assassinated eighteen citizens and left hundreds of wounded among innocent people who were participating in a peaceful march organized by the civil society, the opposition parties, and the workers union. It has been demonstrated that the murderers who committed such carnage are individuals belonging to the Bolivarian circles, thus obeying orders of the ruling party.
To all the above we have to add the fact that President Chavez has created a deep division of classes in the Venezuelan population by sowing the seeds of hate between the haves and the have nots. Venezuelans have always been peaceful people. There have been differences of economic level, but at the same time we have lived within one of the most permeable societies. Any Venezuelan who attains fortune through work or through professional activity has been capable of reaching the higher levels of living standards in the society.
Since Chavez assumed power, he has encouraged social resentment. In public speeches he has announced that he will take away the houses of the rich to give them to the poor. In a speech pronounced during the celebration of a national holiday he said that he justified those who stole from the rich in order to cover their needs. But in Chavezs lexicon rich means anybody who has attained a better living standard with the sweat of his brow.
Today, Venezuelan society is deeply divided. Those who have are afraid of those who have not because at any moment, under the incendiary harangue of the agitators of the Bolivarian circles, they could start sacking and pillaging. To understand this it is important to know that Caracas is a city located in a long narrow valley. Most of the hills surrounding the city are shanty house slums, similar to the Brazilian favelas. Today people fear "el día en que bajarán los cerros"-- "the day when the hills will come down" (or better, the day when the people from the slums decide to invade ande sack) and this is provoking a general schizophrenia that is leading members of the middle class population to also arm themselves in order to defend their properties, their own lives, and those of their families.
In his speech, Chavez is also using racisms as a political weapon, accusing his opponents of discriminatory feelings. This is another grotesque lie. We have always lived in a multiracial society. Venezuelans of all colors live and work together without the slightest sign of discrimination. By doing this, he injects additional fuel to the division of classes he is aiming at promoting, and additional cause of hate for the purpose of consolidating his control of the country.
Additionally, Chavezs regime has been using the armed forces as a political instrument of its increasingly socialist "Bolivarian Revolution." This has also opened deep ideological and class divisions in Venezuela's military that were not present before Chavez became president. These divisions have been aggravated by Chavez's strategy of driving a wedge through the FAN's traditionally close relations with the U.S. military and provoking Washington with anti-American rhetoric and friendships with individuals and groups like Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, the FARC, and the ELN.
What happened on April 11?
The above-described picture has given way to the conviction of the vast majority of the people that Chavez must quit, that he must step down from the presidency. April 11 acted as a valve that let the accumulated impatience and irritation of the population blow off. A march in support of the employees of the Venezuelan Petroleum Company (PDVSA) had been originally convened. That march gathered approximately one million persons. At a certain point, the cry to continue marching towards the presidential palace was shouted. I am sure you are all aware of how the psychology of masses reacts to this type of rallying cry. The mass continued marching for some twelve kilometers in the direction of the Miraflores Palace. What happened then is well known to you.
It is important to know that the 1999 Constitution contains a provision, Article 350, that grants the right to civil disobedience. The text of that Article reads as follows:
The decision of the marching mass to move to the Presidential Palace to demand Chavez to step down falls entirely within the terms of this provision.
This situation evidently had some influence when the military high command decided to disobey Chavezs order to implement the Avila Plan. Article 350 of the Constitution does not distinguish between civilian and military disobedience. Thus, the military high command also acted within the frame of that constitutional provision. It was a legitimate decision aimed at trying to avoid the carnage that followed.
What happened afterwards was a chain of errors and improvisations which only contribute to confirm the assertion that there was never a plot nor a coup détat.