Politics & Policy

Hugo Choice

Democracy or dictatorship.

Venezuelan novelist Arturo Uslar Pietri coined the term “magical realism” to define the mixture of fact and fantasy, physical and psychological realities that characterized Latin American fiction in the 20th century. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez maintained that Latin American reality was stranger than fiction.

How right they are. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been known to keep an empty chair by his side in cabinet meetings, for revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar. On Sunday, Venezuelans will participate in an event so bizarre it could only be defined as magical realism. They will vote in a democratic referendum to decide if the country remains a democracy or if it becomes something akin to a tropical monarchy. President Chavez’s proposal to reform the constitution would transform Venezuela’s liberal democracy into a socialist dictatorship, a model of government that is expressly prohibited by the existing constitution. The referendum slated for Sunday amounts to asking Venezuelans to vote for their own political and social suicide.

In the last two weeks, the percentage of Venezuelans who have decided to vote “no” has increased so rapidly that all polls taken by the five most credible Venezuelan polling agencies show the vote to reject the reform leading by eight to ten points. The trend is so decisive that the Chavez government has ordered the agencies to stop publishing the polls altogether.

I have just received information that the Chavez government has already printed, at significant expense, some eight million copies of the “new” constitution, one that has not yet been approved and could well be rejected. How’s that for transparency?

Chavez’s proposed reform violates core articles of the existing constitution (2,3 and 6), which stipulate that Venezuela will always be democratic, politically pluralistic, and have alternating political leadership. If approved, Chavez’s plan would convert Venezuela into a dictatorial state with no other possible ideology than socialism, and allow him be reelected indefinitely.

Among other negative changes, the reform calls for rigid administrative and political centralization as well as complete executive authority over financial matters, military promotions, the naming of regional vice presidents in charge of political and economic management and the selection of community leaders, dispensing with the popular election of these public officers. The reform also introduces severe restrictions to private property and private economic activity. School children and workers would be politically indoctrinated.

Faced with the necessity of rejecting the reform, which they consider immoral, Venezuelans are split between those who will vote “no” and those who refuse to vote on the grounds that it would validate an illegal proposal. Those who refuse to vote argue that the National Electoral Council is completely controlled by the government, and that a fraud is in the making. The Electoral Registry is, in fact, deeply corrupted and includes millions of registered voters without known addresses.

Close to two million voters without proper identification or known adresses have been added to the Registry in the last three years. Many counties show more voters than population. Almost 40,000 voters are reported as being over 100 years old, more than in the U.S., which has a population ten times higher. Thousands of voters show multiple ID papers, allowing them to vote more than once. Colombian terrorist Rodrigo Granda is registered to vote under ID card 22942118.

I recently presented detailed proof of these distortions, compiled by Venezuelan experts, to the Organization of American States.

What will happen Sunday? Under normal circumstances, the rejection of the constitutional reform proposed by Chavez would be all but assured. However, the tight control the regime maintains over the Electoral Council, the army, the media, and most public institutions could enable the government to claim victory. If this is the case, the level of civic resistance by freedom-loving Venezuelans could well approach open rebellion.

– Gustavo Coronel is the author of the Cato Institute study, “Corruption, Mismanagement and Abuse of Power in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.” He served on the Board of Directors of Petroleos de Venezuela (1976–79). As president of Agrupacion Pro Calidad de Vida, and he was the Venezuelan representative to Transparency International (1996–2000).


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