Mary Anastasia O Grady
Wall Street Journal
December 15, 2006
Over the course of five days in Caracas last week, I couldn't help but notice the ubiquitous image of President Hugo Chávez peering down from hundreds of his campaign banners that read "Vote against the devil; vote against the empire." The nationalistic message denouncing President George W. Bush and the U.S. blanketed the capital.
On election night, as it became clear that more votes had been cast for Mr. Chávez than for candidate Manuel Rosales, the president appeared on the balcony of Miraflores, the presidential palace, to proclaim that "the devil who tries to dominate the world," had suffered another defeat.
The red-clad Chávez dramatically recited from the Lord's Prayer and then borrowed from it for his own prophesy. "Thy kingdom come," he bellowed, and thereafter, "the kingdom of socialism." The ailing Fidel Castro reportedly sent a short message from Havana congratulating Mr. Chávez and noting that "the victory was resounding, crushing and without parallel in the history of our America."
Mr. Chávez has for eight years been heading a devoutly anti-American government and he is widely considered the region's heir apparent to Fidel. But be prepared for the Venezuelan bad boy to become even more menacing to the U.S. now. The reason, in a word, is "legitimacy." Having gone through an electoral exercise against candidate Rosales, who managed to garner nearly 40% of the vote, Mr. Chávez is likely to be emboldened by the conventional notion around the region that he heads a "democracy."
This is regrettable. There isn't a shred of evidence to support the claim that Venezuela has a democracy and voices for freedom are badly needed to point out this reality.
The assault on Venezuelan democracy, which began before Mr. Chávez came to power, has been possible largely because of state corruption. But the Chávez government has taken the concept to a whole new level. In this space last week I cited a report by Gustavo Coronel, a former director of the state oil company. His paper, "Corruption, Mismanagement and Abuse of Power in Hugo Chávez's Venezuela," published by the Cato Institute, deserves a fuller airing.
Mr. Coronel, who was the Venezuelan representative for Transparency International from 1996-2000, has painstakingly traced the "hypercorruption" that is now flourishing as a result of record oil income, poor management, and the "ideological predilections" of a president trying to "play a messianic role in world affairs." In 23 pages he neatly shows that Mr. Chávez, who claims to represent the progressive left, is nothing but an old-fashioned authoritarian otherwise known in Latin America as a caudillo.
The report properly notes that government corruption is "the violation of public interest for personal or partisan gain," a definition that goes beyond graft to "the use and abuse of political power." Chávez corruption includes the 1999 constituent assembly, which was packed with his supporters and given supraconstitutional powers to dissolve the country's democratic institutions and create new ones made up of pro-Chávez actors. "This ended with all Venezuelan political institutions under the control of the government and eliminated effective checks and balances," Mr. Coronel writes. "From that moment on . . . Venezuela ceased to be a democracy."
Since then the government has used its unchecked power to "spend" the country's oil wealth arbitrarily and without any accountability. Using the data from the Center for Economic Research in Caracas, Mr. Coronel identifies $17 billion in Venezuelan "donations to politically friendly countries," various infrastructure projects around the region and weapons purchases. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who famously used street violence to bring down two elected governments, got $30 million on a visit to Caracas in January. "According to the Venezuelan Central Bank," Mr. Coronel writes, "about $22.5 billion has been transferred to accounts abroad by the Chávez government since 2004." Some $12 billion of it, he says, remains unaccounted for.
Mr. Coronel notes that "according to Transparency International 95% of all known public contracts are awarded without bidding." In a country where the state owns the oil and the oil is the economy this means massive politicized fraud. False invoicing and the signing of contracts with "nonexistent suppliers" are among the tricks of the trade and explain why the country is witnessing the "emergence of a new rich 'revolutionary' class."
The politicized Supreme Court, National Electoral Council (CNE) and state-owned oil company PdVSA no longer have any transparency obligations. The CNE, for example, has not allowed an independent audit of the voter registry, which contains almost 17 million names, "a statistical improbabilty" in a country of 26 million, "60% of whom are too young to register." With Chávez carte blanche comes power to destroy political enemies too. After a PdVSA strike to oppose the politicization of the oil company 20,000 skilled employees were fired in violation of Venezuelan labor laws.
Drug trafficking through Venezuela has also boomed under the Chávez government and there is good reason to believe the military is involved. A May report for Jane's Intelligence Review by Andy Webb-Vidal contains an interview with a former Colombian guerrilla who knows how to get illegal substances into Venezuela: "Once across the river, the [Colombian rebels] would make a payment to the National Guard and then transport the drugs in four-wheel drive vehicles."
Just days after the election, Mr. Chávez took off on a South American tour to exert his regional leadership as a man chosen by the people. His aircraft was escorted by the first two of 30 Russian-made warplanes that Venezuela has recently ordered. Back home his government had just announced a joint venture with Iran to make cars in Venezuela.
Venezuela is not a democracy by any definition and Mr. Chávez is sure to be a thorn in the side of democrats for years to come. But legitimizing his abuse of power, in face of all the evidence, only makes things worse.