November 29, 2007
Will Venezuela still be considered a democracy if it approves a referendum Sunday that would give President Hugo Chávez near unlimited powers? Will Chávez still qualify as an ''elected'' leader?
I asked these questions earlier this week to Tom Shannon, the State Department's top official in charge of Latin American affairs. I was curious about his response, because when I asked him a few weeks ago whether Venezuela can still be considered a democracy, he answered ``Yes.''
According to Venezuelan opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists, Venezuela would become a Cuban-styled communist dictatorship, with only cosmetic democratic institutions, if a Chávez-proposed constitutional reform is approved in Sunday's referendum. If the 69 constitutional amendments are passed, Venezuela will have voted itself out of a democracy, they say.
''The proposed constitution redefines the country as a socialist state,'' said Ana Julia Jatar, a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. ``That, by itself, means that there is no space for other ideologies.''
Among other proposed changes:
• The reform would abolish the Central Bank's independence, in effect leaving Chávez with control of the legislative and judicial powers, the Central Bank, the military, the electoral tribunal and much of the media.
• Chávez would be allowed to create ''Strategic Defense Regions,'' or new provinces, through which he could bypass elected opposition governors.
• It would allow Chávez to decree states of emergency in which he would be able to suspend freedoms of expression and arrest people without charges.
• It would extend presidential terms to seven years, and would eliminate constitutional provisions that prohibited Chávez from being reelected indefinitely.
• It would define elections as aimed at ``the construction of socialism.''
Former Defense Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel, until four months ago Chávez's most trusted general, has called the proposed changes ''a coup d'etat'' to give Chávez unlimited powers.
And pollsters, who in the past accurately predicted Chávez's wins, say that many pro-Chávez Venezuelans are likely to vote against the constitutional reforms, triggering speculation that Chávez will postpone the vote or step up intimidation of voters.
In response to my question on whether he will still consider Venezuela to be a democracy if the constitutional changes are passed, Shannon -- the ultimate diplomat -- said he does not like to answer hypothetical questions. When told that there is nothing hypothetical about proposed constitutional reforms that have been published by the Venezuelan government, he said: ``We have our own opinions and concerns about these proposed constitutional reforms, and they are not unique: They are shared by many other democrats in the region who have expressed worries about the centralization of powers.''
Shannon added, ``But at the same time, it's wrong to anticipate Sunday's vote. This is a decision that has to be made by the people of Venezuela based on their criteria and interests.''
My opinion: If you believe that democracy means just holding elections, Venezuela will still be a democracy if the proposed constitutional changes are adopted, even if Chávez ''wins'' through massive use of government resources, voter intimidation, a government-controlled election tribunal and official hurdles that effectively forced Organization of American States and European Union observers to decline monitoring Sunday's vote.
By that token, Fidel Castro's Cuba holds elections as well and calls itself a democratic country, as did Benito Mussolini's Italy and so many other dictatorships.
But if you believe, as I do, that a democracy entails a separation of powers, and tolerance for peaceful opposition parties, the proposed constitution's very definition of Venezuela as a ''socialist'' country will preclude the Venezuelan people from deciding their political fate in future elections.
For the record, I don't have anything against the word ''socialism'': Spain, Chile and several other countries have socialist governments that are often excellent, but their constitutions allow their citizens to decide the political color of their leaders in free elections.
And while other countries, such as India, retain references to socialism in their constitutions, their leaders -- unlike Chávez -- don't hold Cuba's dictatorship as their model society.
If the proposed constitutional reforms are adopted, Venezuela should be called a ''cosmetic democracy'' or 'elected dictatorship' -- but not a democracy.