Stop me if you've heard this one before: "Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is above reproach for his authoritarianism because he is a model democrat, having won many majority elections." Perhaps more commonly, you have heard this one: "We cannot dare to speak about human rights violations in Venezuela when Washington has Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib on its record." But the biggest card to play is of course still economic justice: "Chávez is selflessly representing the poor against the elites and the aggressions of the American empire."
These widely held myths were what brought the Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, to Washington this week, after staging a six-day hunger strike in protest of the president seizing his budget and authority of office. Speaking the day before his OAS meeting at the Council of the Americas (see the video here), Ledezma and his colleagues asked that we reconsider a number of these assumptions about the fragile status of Venezuelan democracy.
Perhaps Quixotic, Ledezma is a walking contradiction to this line of thinking. Thanks to a new law pushed through after the February elections, a "super mayor" surrogate is handpicked to rule over Ledezma, despite the fact that the mayor was democratically elected by almost as many votes as Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Another item added to Chávez's slash-and-burn constitutional editing was a law on decentralization, which, in violation of Article 164, centralized power over the regions -- including all ports, airports, and transportation infrastructure.
If these legislative changes didn't look bad enough for Venezuelan democracy, there is also an increasingly open attack by this government on judicial independence and rule of law. In the past few weeks, two Venezuelan criminal judges have come forward to denounce the political pressure and threats placed on them by the executive to abuse their authority to railroad political opponents. Considered together, the human rights horror stories of these judges pose an indefensible dilemma to Chávez supporters.
The most recent is the criminal judge Alicia Torres, who on July 18th announced that the Magistrate Venice Blanco threatened and pressured her to sign an order restricting the travel rights of Guillermo Zuloaga of Globovisión, a TV station on the brink of closure by the state. Zuloaga is currently awash in a sea of trumped up lawsuits and criminal complaints, including some as absurd as environmental charges for an item of taxidermy in his office.
For her refusal to sign an illegal order to strip the media executive of his passport, Torres was summarily suspended from her job, and understandably fears for her physical safety. In her television interviews, you can see her quake with fear and tears for what may come next.
Torres is unfortunately not the only judge to have her career destroyed under the hammer of the Venezuelan state. On July 15th, Judge Yuri López appeared on a panel at the National Press Club in Washington DC, relating her own story of persecution. Back in February of 2007, she was randomly assigned to rule on a complaint filed by a defendant, the businessman Eligio Cedeño, whose case I am directly involved in as an international defense attorney. By December of that year, Judge López was forced to flee Venezuela with family to seek political asylum in the United States after suffering threats, insults, personal assaults, and, finally, the attempted kidnapping of her 11-year-old son.
In an interview with El Nuevo Herald, she explains that when she admitted the complaint, "a war started against me." Below is a video from López's visit to Washington, while Spanish speakers can view the full videos here.
One connection between the two judges is Magistrate Venice Blanco, whose numerous bodyguards crowded into Judge Torres's office to intimidate her into signing an order against Zuloaga. Back in 2007, Judge Blanco was also the same control judge which originally ordered that Cedeño be put into prison before he was even properly indicted -- an open violation of the law. For her loyalty to the regime, she was promoted, and now sits atop a network known as the "political prosecutors" of the judiciary (see the Danilo Anderson frame-up), a subsection within the court system which represents the interests of President Chávez.
Rule of law and its total absence in Venezuela is not important because of political prisoners, nor because of opposition politicians barred from elections, nor because of silenced journalists or even seized property. The rule of law is so important in Venezuela because our assumption of its existence constrains our ability to engage successfully with Chávez. For examples, look no further than OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza who, after meeting with Ledezma and opposition members, said he couldn't pass comment on Chávez's deconstruction of state and municipal rights because "it's a decision of the courts."
The fact that Chávez has taken over the courts and brandished them as political weapons must be viewed in parallel with his treatment of the constitution and his methodology of power being projected outward. A new governing model has been created for export, which in the absence of separation of powers and constitutional legality is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship, but an authoritarian-style state which uses elections not for representation, but to lend popular legitimacy to institutional destruction. It may look and smell like a democracy to fawning movie stars and celebrity athletes of the vanguard left, but the core is rotten and lawless.
The coup in Honduras certainly provides a reminder of how serious of a threat the Chávez model poses to regional stability. While the Venezuelan president is having fun playing hero of democracy and cheering for Zelaya to ride back into power "aboard a gringo tank," he is also busy buying his own new tanks from his good friends in Russia. The only thing more absurd that FARC issuing statements on the benefits of democracy are those still foolish enough on the right wing to deny that a coup even happened.
As argued by the former Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquín Villalobos, unlike Cuba's support for insurgencies throughout the 60s and 70s to bolster its own security, Venezuela is disrupting democracies even though it faces no blockades, no contras, no assassination attempts, and the United States is his number one oil customer. The surrogate states of the Bolivarian empire are eager to follow suit, with Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega pushing for reelection with no term limits, and perhaps soon Ecuador's Rafael Correa. How much longer before these countries have their own groups of persecuted judges like Alicia Torres and Yuri López?
Although we can expect passionate supporters of Chávez to manufacture arguments as to why kidnapping the children of judges is a necessary part of the revolutionary process (after all, the crime family of Barinas is quite good at it), or perhaps debate the merits of legal actions based on taxidermy, none of this should leave in doubt the overwhelming body of evidence that confronts us on the country's justice system. Without control over the courts, Chávez loses his ability to act with impunity and without oversight in his dangerous transformation of the region.
If this president is indeed an embodiment of the people's will, who only seeks constructive and cooperative relationships in his foreign policy, then he should have nothing to fear from an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case, and one fears that without a genuine Venezuelan perestroika in the near future, the current crisis could send the people tumbling toward yet another terrible collision.