RAÚL ISAÍAS BADUEL - Op-Ed Contributor
The New York Times
December 01, 2007
ON Dec. 17, 1982, three of my fellow officers in the Venezuelan Army and I swore our allegiance to the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army 2000. We considered ourselves to be at the birth of a movement that would turn a critical eye on Venezuela’s troubled social and political system — and formulate proposals to improve it. One of the officers with me was Hugo Chávez, the current president of Venezuela, whom I have known since I entered the military academy 35 years ago.
Hugo Chávez and I worked together for many years. I supported him through thick and thin, serving as his defense minister. But now, having recently retired, I find myself with the moral and ethical obligation as a citizen to express my opposition to the changes to the Constitution that President Chávez and the National Assembly have presented for approval by the voters tomorrow.
The proposal, which would abolish presidential term limits and expand presidential powers, is nothing less than an attempt to establish a socialist state in Venezuela. As our Catholic bishops have already made clear, a socialist state is contrary to the beliefs of Simón Bolívar, the South American liberation hero, and it is also contrary to human nature and the Christian view of society, because it grants the state absolute control over the people it governs.
Venezuelan society faces a broad array of problems that have not been addressed in the eight years Mr. Chávez has been in office, even though the present Constitution offers ample room for any decent, honest government to do so. Inflation, threats to personal safety, a scarcity of basic supplies, a housing shortage and dismal education and health care are problems that will not be resolved by approving this so-called reform.
How is it that we, the people of Venezuela, have reached such a bizarre crossroads that we now ask ourselves if it is democratic to establish the indefinite re-election of the president, to declare that we are a socialist nation and to thwart civic participation?
The answer is that all Venezuelans, from every social stratum, are responsible for the institutional decay that we are witnessing. The elite never understood — and still fail to understand — the need to include, in every sense, the millions who have been kept at the margins of the decision-making process because of their poverty. At the same time, President Chávez led the poor to believe that they are finally being included in a governmental model that will reduce poverty and inequality. In reality, the very opposite is true.
In recent years, the country’s traditional political parties have come to see the Venezuelan people as clients who can be bought off.
During the economic boom years, ushered in by a sustained increase in oil prices, the parties dispensed favors, subsidies and alms. In the end, they taught the people about rights rather than obligations, thus establishing the myth that Venezuela is a rich country, and that the sole duty of a good government is to distribute its wealth evenly. President Chávez has been buying and selling against this idea, continuing to practice the kind of neopopulism that will reach its limit only when the country receives what economists call an “external shock.”
Exorbitant public expenditures, the recurrence of government deficits even at times of record-high oil prices, the extreme vulnerability of foreign investments, exceedingly high import tariffs, and our increased domestic consumption of fuel at laughably low prices are all signs of what lurks on the horizon. It now seems that, even without an appreciable dip in global oil prices, our economy may well come to a crashing halt. When it does, it will bring an end to the populism that the government practices and has tried to export to neighboring countries.
Venezuela will thrive only when all its citizens truly have a stake in society. Consolidating more power in the presidency through insidious constitutional reforms will not bring that about. That’s why the Venezuelan people should vote no tomorrow, and prepare to pursue a political culture that will finally be able to steer our beloved nation toward true economic and social progress.
Raúl Isaías Baduel was commander in chief of the Venezuelan Army from 2004 until July. This article was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.