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Five Years From the End of Venezuela's Democracy

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Some events are so momentous, so history shaking, all you need to refer to them is a date. 911 is, I suppose, the grand-daddy of them all, not to mention the main reference point American readers will have for the whole idea of the History Changing Date.

In Venezuela, we have bunches of them. Our convention, though, is to name them by the day of the month, followed by the month's first letter.

So when you say "27F" everyone knows you're talking about February 27th, 1989, the day violent rioting swept through the country in response to a fuel price hike. 4F is February 4th, 1992, the day Chavez attempted to violently overthrow the elected government of the time, while 11A is its mirror image: the date of the coup attempt against Chavez 10 years later, on April 11th.

A number and a letter is all you need to conjure up these events in Venezuelans' minds, because they're the turning points of our contemporary experience, key moments when our national narrative changed course, often in ways that are still hotly disputed today.

But not every turning point gets the number-and-letter treatment. A date like "1M", for instance, means nothing at all to Venezuelans. Which is ironic, because it was on May 1st, 2004 that Venezuelan democracy died and was replaced by one of the new breed of "Competitive Authoritarianisms" - a regime where electoral competition coexists with the openly autocratic use of state authority.

On Friday, it will be five years since Venezuela's National Assembly voted narrowly to approve a new Framework Law of the Supreme Tribunal. The law expanded the number of sitting magistrates from 20 to 32, and enabled new magistrates to be appointed by a simple majority vote in the National Assembly, effectively packing the court to ensure a permanent chavista majority.

The twist is that, in Venezuela, the Supreme Tribunal is more than just a final court of appeal: it's also the ruling body over the entire court system. Procedures for appointing new judges are set by a Supreme Tribunal committee - the so-called Direccion Ejecutiva de la Magistratura - which also controls the process for removing judges. Which means that, in Venezuela, controlling the Supreme Tribunal means controlling not just the highest court in the land, but all lower courts as well.

Thing is, 1M didn't produce any spectacular TV footage. It didn't make it onto the front pages of foreign newspapers. It barely made it into the front pages of our own newspapers! It was a one day story, soon overtaken by some flashier bit of news, a more galling outrage that seemed more pressing at the time but would soon be forgotten. And so, 1M soon got filed away over the category of "outrageous things chavismo does that we can't do anything about" and forgotten.

But that act, more than any other, marked the end of Venezuelan democracy. With it, chavismo ended the pretense that any part of the state could act as a curb on the president's power. The move heralded the era of the robed magistrate chanting pro-Chavez slogans inside the Tribunal chamber and of Supreme Tribunal chairmen openly declaring that the justice they were there to implement was "revolutionary justice" - openly partisan justice unabashedly dedicated to furthering the political needs of the leader.

In short, 1M was the day all the credibility was drained out of Venezuela's judicial system, the day any possibility that citizens could again use the law to seek redress against the abuses of power was closed for good. The 2004 Supreme Tribunal Law did away, at a single stroke, with society's most important means for protecting itself from the authoritarian inclinations of its rulers, ensuring a subservient justice system that would never again dare to act as a check on the power of the powerful.

Much more than we realize, Venezuelans are still living under the shadow of that day.

So as we approach the 5th anniversary of 1M, lets take a moment to reflect on the grim legacy of the day democracy died.