With Hugo Chavez in ill-health, Venezuela has a chance to rid itself of its corrupt and dictatorial leader. It is time the Chavez administration considered new candidates to view for political power, argues Daniel Willis.
The recent news to come from Venezuela indicated that the populist President Hugo Chavez is suffering from bowel cancer. Despite having a tumour approximately the “size of a baseball” removed in late June he has recently found it necessary to return to Cuba for possible chemotherapy or radiation treatment, as was announced last week. Whilst still maintaining an iron grasp on the country, the recent revelations have sparked debate not only regarding the health of the President, but the directions the country may take if he either succeeds in re-election or stands down. In light of this, it seems prudent to look briefly (and critically) at a Presidential career that deteriorated from the emancipation of people from poverty, into befriending tyrants and thugs, some of whom are currently being shelled by rebels in the Middle East.
Since gaining power in 1998, Hugo Chavez’s government tackled one of the key challenges facing the new left in regards to society’s democratization and group relations, particularly in the realms of gender and sexuality. Indeed, with regards to democratization of society, one of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’s’ effects in Venezuela has been the inclusion of the “poor majority”, which until recent years had been undermined and ignored. Under Chavez’s administration the challenges of greater social inclusion have been addressed well, particularly women’s rights. In 2003, Chavez introduced a social service infrastructure of Misiones which included many working-class women. Further developments were also made economically, as the year 2001 saw the “Women’s Bank” offer micro loans for poor entrepreneurs. These helped members of the community alleviate themselves from poverty and become active contributors to the economy.
Whilst it is arguably the case that without Chavez’s communication skills there would be nowhere near the amount of reform and social inclusion in politics, it has also been suggested that this very style of leadership is an obstacle to democratisation. Chavez was even reluctant to devolve power despite cancer treatment in a foreign country. This jealous type of leadership considerably slows development in areas that need democratisation and the establishment of an institutionalised public administration service.
Among Chavez undemocratic actions include his abolishment of congress following his election, whilst simultaneously strengthening his own presidential powers and stripping the judiciary of its ability to provide checks and balances on the government. He effectively made the judiciary his personal tool, which has lead some to believe Chavez purposefully sought to neuter legislature and the courts.
It is arguably the case that manoeuvres such as this have flagrantly disregarded the principles of democracy. By encouraging single-party rule, Chavez has diminished the reputation of Venezuela as a Democracy altogether. When Human Rights Watch conducted its 2011 world report, it identified a number of undemocratic tactics conducted by new leftist Latin American countries, and in particular, Venezuela. There were allegations of corruption and signs of authoritarian rule over the judiciary and media freedom. There were police abuses and unfair treatment of government critics.
The reason the judiciary appears to have become a government tool lies in the observations made in the 2011 World Report, which identified how Chavez’s followers in the National Assembly “launched a political takeover of the supreme court, filling it with government supporters” and has seen instances of the Chavez government making “efforts to limit freedom of expression” which is a violation of the “rights enshrined in Venezuela’s constitution”. Indeed, action taken to nationalize power and oil sectors have also seen critics accuse him of creating a “Bolivarian bourgeoisie” made up of “corrupt officials and cronies”. Further questions of democratic freedom have been raised about imprisonment of one of Chavez’s fiercest critics, Raul Baduel. Additional signs of suppression have been seen in the “pending charges” underway against the former opposition candidate, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, who was accused of “conspiracy” after remarking that Venezuela had become a “haven for drug trafficking”.
About freedom of speech in the media, Human Rights Watch proposed that the Chavez government has “abused its control of broadcasting frequencies to punish radio and television stations with overtly critical programming”. A particular media outlet under scrutiny was the Globovision news channel, which is “openly critical of the government”. The Chavez administration has planned a “legal offensive” to “revoke its license before it expires in 2015” based on accusations of “media terrorism” by the government.
Other critics have condemned Chavez for the company he keeps politically. He has befriended countries which have been hounded by the international community due to their human rights violations and dictatorial regimes, such as Gadaffi’s Libya, and Iran. Recent years have seen Venezuela and Iran engage in military and intelligence cooperation as well as deepening trade ties. Indeed, one may be prompted to wonder at what point the extreme left becomes the extreme right.
During the recent military involvement in Libya, in which Western forces attacked the Libyan army, Chavez criticised the “indiscriminate bombing” of the country, and accused the United States of simply trying to “lay its hands on Libya’s oil and water”.
Rather than a democracy based on participation, some critics now suggest the recent decisions in Venezuela have to some extent pointed toward a one-man dictatorship and a reduction of political rights. The complex issue of democratisation of the left is a challenge facing not only Chavez’s government, but many New Left administrations where corruption remains an issue. Indeed, the democratisation and engagement with society seems unlikely if the governments themselves have un-democratic tendencies.
In contrast, countries such as Brazil have established themselves as a “society in which rule of law and resistance to graft and other corruption” and where the Brazilian press in particular has “done well in exposing corruption”. As a result, Brazil has “consolidated its place as one of the most influential in regional and global affairs in recent years”. Evo Morales of Bolivia also proved popular with the electorate due to him being “cleared of corruption charges and his anti-corruption platform”. It seems the scholar Jorge Castaneda was right when he suggested there were two lefts in Latin America, one “reconstructed and formerly radical” that is ultimately sensible and democratic with the other rising from a populist, nationalist past with few ideological underpinnings.
During a visit to the UK in 2006, the nauseating Ken Livingstone welcomed the former military officer as “the best news out of Latin America in many years”, yet the possibility of his departure may suggest changing opinion. The price of Venezuelan bonds have raised in recent weeks, as some investors have predicted that a change in Presidency after 15 years may shift economic policy, increasing the chances of the country repaying its debts. Venezuela’s sovereign bonds rose 0.32% in price terms last week in New York on the J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Global.
Nevertheless, a full recovery from Chevez may prompt varying results, as it would increase the likelihood of re-election in 2012, which is still the current goal of Chavez. However, this may dampen the prospects for Venezuela’s economy. Patrick Estruelas, an analyst for the ratings agency Moody’s, stated “Chavez’s re-election would also likely be accompanied by a steady deterioration of Venezuela’s credit fundamentals over the longer term.”
Given the high crime, weak economy and high inflation currently proving problematic for Venezuela, perhaps the latest revelations will prompt the Chavez administration to not only consider delegation, but new candidates to a political forum in need of an overhaul.
To read Daniel Willis’s other articles visit Daniel Willis’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast and Daniel Willis.