Los Angeles Times
June 09, 2008
The decree, which opponents said would have turned Venezuela into a nation of snitches, was widely denounced as 'fascistic.'
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Bowing to popular pressure, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would rescind a new intelligence law that critics said would have forced citizens to spy on one another and would have moved the country toward a police state.
During his Sunday talk show "Alo Presidente," Chavez said he had had second thoughts about the National Intelligence and Counterintelligence Law that he decreed May 28, a law that has been under attack from the nation's human rights and legal experts as unconstitutional.
"All Venezuelans can be sure that this government will never trample on their liberty, regardless of their politics," Chavez said. "To err is human. We're going to correct this law."
Chavez has the constitutional right to make and undo laws by decree, and he previously described the intelligence law as a defensive measure against a possible U.S. invasion. But speaking Saturday in Maracaibo, he acknowledged that it had generated fear.
"Here there is no dictatorship. Here no one is obligated to say anything beyond what they want to say," Chavez said. He insisted that it "wasn't a bad law," but that his opponents had unleashed a "terror campaign" against it over the Internet and on television.
Chavez is facing state and local elections in November, and opposition candidates are already gaining strength in several areas of the country. His reversal probably stems from an assessment of the damage it might have caused his allies in the voting, said pollster Luis Vicente Leon.
"This was an absolutely pragmatic move," Leon said. "Until November he will avoid anything that will produce a shock or which has the appearance of radicalism that could set people against him."
Leon estimates that opposition gubernatorial candidates could win seven or eight of 23 states, up from the two governorships held currently.
Chavez's change of heart shows that when "people confront him, he backs down," said radio commentator Nelson Bocaranda.
"This is a law that just a week ago Chavez was describing as a marvel," Bocaranda said. "What may have really upset him was the comparisons some made with President Bush's anti-terror law, the Patriot Act. The very idea that he resembled Bush in some way may have been what convinced him to scrap it."
Now in his 10th year in office, Chavez has a 56% approval rating, according to Leon's Datanalisis consulting firm. Chavez has slowly consolidated legislative, judicial, military and political control.
But Chavez suffered his first defeat at the polls in December when voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to seek reelection indefinitely. His refusal last year to renew the broadcast license of the popular RCTV television station also cost him support. In addition, his efforts to overhaul Venezuela's educational system along socialist lines have so far run aground.
The intelligence law is similarly unpopular, prompting opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, students, news media and human rights groups. Among other features, the law would require people to cooperate in investigations or face jail time.
Monica Fernandez, a law professor in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, and human rights advocate whose civil society group filed an injunction request with the Supreme Court on Friday, said the law was "fascistic."
"This law is shamelessly anti-constitutional," Fernandez said. "It violates the rights of defense, privacy, property and due process."
The law gave police the right to conduct searches without a court order, which she said "would have led us to a police state, I have no doubt." It also followed the Cuban model of appointing neighborhood leaders to whom citizens would be compelled to bring incriminating information about their neighbors, she said.
Roman Catholic Msgr. Baltazar Porras, who is archbishop of Merida in western Venezuela, said in a telephone interview that the law put the "well-being of the state above that of human beings, of human rights."
"But we can't be too confident about the president's promise to change it. The enabling law gives him the right to make laws without any public discussion or input from legal experts," Porras said.
Gerardo Fernandez, a constitutional law expert, said Chavez's change of heart was a response to "popular pressure. . . . It was seen as a totalitarian law, a snitch law to make people accuse others, content that is at odds with Venezuelans' personality."
During his television appearance Sunday, Chavez also issued a surprising appeal to Colombia's largest rebel group, the FARC, to release its hostages, lay down its arms and make peace with the Colombian government.
The statement is at odds with the volatile leader's past support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and its cause. After helping win the release of six hostages this year, he sought to secure nonbelligerent status for the FARC, a first step toward diplomatic recognition. But the only nation to agree was Nicaragua.
Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.