Venezuela´s great divider

Por Venezuela Real - 27 de Noviembre, 2006, 8:48, Categoría: Electorales

Ana Julia Jatar
Boston Globe
November 26, 2006

ON DEC. 3, Venezuelans will decide whether to elect President Hugo Chávez to another six-year term. Many American liberals will be rooting for Chávez to win because they see him as a champion of Venezuela's poor and admire his fierce opposition to President Bush. However, they should recognize him for who he is and not for who they wish him to be.

When he recently called Bush the devil and commented that he could still smell the sulfur left behind, Chávez shocked the international community, but not Venezuelans. Since Chávez was first elected in 1998, he has consistently turned opponents and other independent voices into demonic enemies to be obliterated. He has attacked the Catholic Church, saying that priests have the devil under their cassocks. He has promised to "fry the heads" of opponents. He has derided business leaders as the "predatory oligarchy."

With this tactic, Chávez has been able to avoid objective debate about issues important to Venezuelans. This has created a nation deeply divided by his insults. People either love him or hate him. Venezuelans who don't love Chávez incur his wrath. As he once said, "He who is with me is with me; and he who is not with me is against me."

Today there are more than 200 political prisoners in Venezuela. Many more Venezuelans, including present and former elected officials, former Supreme Court justices, journalists, military officers, trade union leaders, and members of civil society defending democracy and human rights, are forced to divide their energies between fighting to improve their country and avoiding arbitrary imprisonment.
The government has passed laws restricting freedom of expression, including one making it a crime to express "disrespect" for the president and other public officials, even in private conversations. Additionally, Venezuela's counterpart to the US attorney general regularly uses his powers as a weapon against Chávez's opponents.

In Chávez's Venezuela there is not only political persecution but also political discrimination. More than 3 million citizens are segregated for having signed a petition for a constitutional recall referendum against Chávez in 2004. The list of those who signed was placed into a database and published by a pro-Chávez national assemblyman on his website. Thousands on that list have unjustly lost their public-sector jobs or been denied government services.

Telephone conversations of Chávez's opponents are taped and aired on government-owned TV stations. The minister of communications read one of my e-mails on a government channel.

In short, Big Brother has created an environment of fear and intimidation against independent political expression. Among others, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, and the Society of the Inter-American Press have severely criticized this repressive climate.

Additionally, Chávez controls virtually every public institution, including those that remain independent in genuine democracies. The Supreme Court was expanded from 20 to 32 members and packed with Chávez supporters. Chávez even controls the National Electoral Council, which oversees all elections. Last December, more than 80 percent of registered voters boycotted parliamentary elections because of distrust in the fairness and secrecy of the electronic voting system.

None of this can be rationalized by Chávez's purported efforts to help the poor. Venezuela's economic performance under Chávez has been dismal. Despite record oil revenues, poverty has not declined and the middle class has shrunk.

Moreover, it denigrates Venezuela to suggest that its president cannot both champion the poor and respect democracy. In fact, Chávez's principal opponent, Manuel Rosales, has proposed to distribute 20 percent of Venezuela's oil revenues directly to the poor and the middle class. He has also presented detailed plans to address their education, health, and housing needs. At the same time, he has pledged to uphold democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for all 26 million Venezuelans.

If the election were conducted fairly, Rosales would have a good chance of winning. However, the National Electoral Council has placed several obstacles in his path. For example, it has overlooked the extensive use of public resources to promote Chávez's reelection in violation of its own rules. It has also limited presidential candidates to just two minutes a day of advertising per television station, while permitting Chávez to continue his weekly, six-hour program, "Aló Presidente." Chávez also regularly exercises his constitutional prerogative to usurp unlimited airtime on all television and radio stations for his unending speeches. As a result, the ratio of Chavez's airtime to Rosales's on Venezuela's five national television stations has been 22 to 1.

Clearly, a Chávez victory would deserve little credence. Furthermore, as Bill Clinton recently said, "Democracy is about way more than majority rule. Democracy is about minority rights, individual rights, restraints on power." In Chávez's Venezuela, minority and individual rights are disrespected and restraints on power are nonexistent.

In the '70s and '80s, American liberals established a legacy of opposing right-wing, authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America. They should not stain that legacy by embracing the authoritarian Chávez simply because he comes from the left and joins them in fighting President Bush.

Ana Julia Jatar is author of "21st Century Apartheid: Information Technology in the Service of Political Discrimination in Venezuela." 

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