Politics & Policy

A Long Goodbye to Democracy

Venezuela reenacts the Cuban Revolution in slow motion.

For students of the Cuban Revolution, it was an ill omen to hear Hugo Chávez in the final weeks of Venezuela’s presidential campaign proclaiming that “there is no longer room in Venezuela for any project other than the Bolivarian Revolution.” Sure enough, just one month after his reelection victory, Chávez is moving against both opposition parties and opposition press. Venezuela is staring into the abyss of fascism.

When Castro arrived in power early in 1959, he moved fast to suspend the constitution, form a single party, and push through an agrarian land reform that severely impaired property rights. When members of his own cabinet criticized these steps towards Communism, he forced them to resign. A few months later, on learning that a revolutionary tribunal of his own making had acquitted some 50 officers of Fulgencio Batista’s air force for lack of evidence, Castro immediately replaced the judges, explaining that justice was now a matter not of evidentiary technicalities, but of “revolutionary conscience.” The new slate convicted the officers, who were swiftly machine-gunned to death en masse.

These and other moves did not take long to generate heated opposition to Castro’s nascent dictatorship — and Cuba’s free press started turning hostile. In early 1960, one of Cuba’s most important radio stations prepared to denounce Castro as a Communist and to call for elections by a date certain. Castro shut the station down. On the following day, newspapers and radio stations across Cuba protested the assault on freedom of speech. Castro then brazenly shut down the entire free press — hundreds of newspapers and scores of television and radio broadcasters. When the Catholic Church protested the repression, Castro proclaimed that nobody who was really Christian could be against the Revolution. For my grandfather and hundreds of thousands of other Cubans, this was the last straw. The only hope of freedom was now in exile. Nearly 20 percent of the country’s population fled in the ensuing years. Driven by an almost limitless taste for egotism and cruelty, only partly obscured by the smokescreen of revolutionary nonsense, Castro took only 18 months to establish a totalitarian dictatorship.

When Chávez arrived in power in 1998, among his first moves was to convene a “constituent assembly” to draft a new constitution. Judges who opposed this unconstitutional move were replaced with provisional judges. (Today, Venezuela’s judiciary is saturated with these “provisional” judges, who are beholden only to Chávez.) Chávez made it illegal for the national assembly to meet, instead creating a “legislative committee” of his own constituent assembly to pass all legislation. Opposition politicians and journalists were intimidated, and as Cubans had done 40 years before, tens of thousands of Venezuelans sought freedom and personal security in exile.

When a popular uprising briefly toppled Chávez, the U.S. reaction was timidly muted. America was slow to recognize that democracy in Venezuela could no longer be restored by elections. It was through elections that democracy had been destroyed. Latin Americans have had to learn the hard way that institutions are more important than charismatic personalities. People should not be fooled by his electoral landslides: Venezuela is no longer in any institutional sense a democracy of laws. Chávez explicitly rejects checks and balances as contrary to the thinking of Simón Bolivar (which is nonsense). Instead, he calls for government by “the people” — recalling Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat. The power of the executive is limitless, as Chávez controls the judiciary, the legislature, and PdVSA — the national oil company. Elections cannot change the fact that this is not a democracy.

The only checks on Chávez’s power have been the opposition political parties and the still free press. Now, emboldened by his reelection victory, he used the month of December to open attacks on both.

According to a December 19 CNN report:

 

Venezuela’s ruling party took the first step Monday toward creating a single pro government party, a move opponents criticized as a push to consolidate more power in the hands of President Hugo Chavez after his landslide re-election. Ruling party leader Willian Lara said the Fifth Republic Movement was being dismantled in order to merge with other parties in the new Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela. Before he was re-elected December 3, Chavez proposed the new party to consolidate and unify a collection of loosely allied parties as he steers the oil-producing country toward socialism. “It’s a new party that is born out of the revolutionary process,” Lara said. Chavez also announced Monday he was planning to make changes in his Cabinet and called on top aides to tender their resignations. “I asked everyone to offer up their posts — the vice president and the ministers,” Chavez said. “I’m going to make some adjustments.” Critics argue the push for one pro-government party is strikingly similar to Fidel Castro’s creation of a single party in Cuba in the early 1960s.

 

Opposition parties haven’t been made illegal — but rest assured they will be before too long. That is the next logical step — as Chávez has already demonstrated with the opposition press. On December 31, France’s Reporters Without Borders condemned

 

the Venezuelan government’s decision, announced by President Hugo Chávez, to withdraw the licence of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Venezuela’s oldest commercial TV station. The organisation reiterated its appeal to the government to revise its stance on the broadcast media and to create an independent body to assign and renew licences.

“There will be no licence renewal for this putschist TV station called Radio Caracas Televisión,” Chávez announced on 28 December. “Here, we will not tolerate any news media that is in the service of those who make coups against the people, against the nation, against national independence and against the dignity of the republic. Venezuela must be respected.”

RCTV maintains that it signed a licence contract under the 2000 telecommunication law, a year after it took effect. RCTV president Marcel Granier said he would file a legal appeal in order to hold on to the licence, which expires in 2012, he said. This is disputed by the government, which claims that the assignment of a frequency to RCTV expires on 27 May 2007.

What Chávez is orchestrating in Venezuela is the Cuban Revolution in slow motion. The decision to strip RCTV of its license did not come on the heels of any regulatory procedure or investigation. It was simply the diktat of a dictator. If Chávez is successful in using this justification to knock one of Venezuela’s most important networks off the air, then all the independent press in Venezuela will know that they stand to lose everything if they criticize the government.

Opposition parties and a free press are now all that is standing between Venezuela and a fascist dictatorship. Those who care about Venezuela must realize that this may be the last chance to save it.

As Chávez’s conduct of power and waste of national resources grow more excessive and abusive, it will become increasingly perilous to say anything about it. It’s the Cuban Revolution, all over again. And if Chávez is as reckless in allying himself with America’s enemies as Castro was in his day, Venezuela’s tragedy will not take long to become a grave problem for its neighbors.

 – Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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