August 07, 2008
Decrees issued by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez were deemed unconstitutional by the opposition, but prospects for successful resistance look slim.
CARACAS -- Still reeling from the impact of two dozen radical decree-laws recently issued by Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan opposition has slammed the surprise package as unconstitutional, with one of its leaders invoking civil disobedience. But the prospects for successful resistance look slim, given the government's virtual stranglehold on the legal system.
Street protests Wednesday underlined that, after the supreme court Tuesday upheld an election ban on hundreds of politicians, including some leading opposition figures such as Leopoldo López, a contender for metropolitan mayor of Caracas.
''We call on the country not to recognize any law that is contrary to the constitution,'' Julio Borges, coordinator of Justice First, one of the main opposition parties, declared Wednesday.
The 26 decree-laws cover matters as diverse as housing, social security, banking, the armed forces and the transportation system. Critics say the package contains many of the elements of a sweeping constitutional reform program, which was narrowly rejected by the electorate last December.
Among the most controversial of these is a substantial modification of property rights. The government will now have the right to seize any assets it deems ''strategic,'' without consulting parliament or paying fair compensation up front.
''Property becomes a kind of concession the government grants you, until it decides to expropriate you,'' said Gustavo García, an economist at the IESA business school in Caracas.
Another decree, covering food production and distribution, empowers the government, ''to tell people what, when, how much and at what price they can eat,'' said Rafael Alfonzo, president of the pro-free market think-tank Cedice. The decree downplays market-based prices in favor of other systems such as barter.
''Some day the people who promote and implement these measures will have to be put on trial,'' Alfonzo told The Miami Herald Wednesday. ``The Venezuelan people need to tell the world that we will not recognize illegal actions by this regime.''
The government denies accusations that the president acted unconstitutionally, pointing out that in February 2007 parliament granted him legislative powers for 18 months. The existence of the 26 decrees was revealed on July 31, the last day of the so-called ''enabling law,'' but their texts were not published until this week.
''The whole process was done in a legal manner,'' said Gladys Gutíerrez, the government's lawyer (known in Venezuela as the procurator-general). ``The only issue is that some sectors of the opposition want to make a fuss about a very simple matter by using false legal arguments.''
''Anyone who doesn't agree can go to the supreme court,'' pro-Chávez legislator Mario Isea told state TV. ``And in this country laws can be repealed by referendum.''
The opposition's experience with legal challenges is not encouraging, however. On Tuesday, the supreme court ruled that the state auditor was constitutionally empowered to bar politicians accused of administrative irregularities from standing for elected office.
The auditor's blacklist contains over 200 names, including several opposition leaders regarded as leading contenders in crucial state and municipal elections due on 23 November. The procedure has been endorsed by parliament, the national ombudsman and the public prosecutor, as well as the electoral authority and the executive branch.
The supreme court ruling, which many lawyers consider violates not just the constitution but international treaties to which Venezuela is a signatory, provoked a street protest Tuesday, led by López, who is mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao.
The supreme court, ''tried to bury justice and the constitution,'' López told reporters, ``but nothing and no one will stop us.''
In reference to the package of decree-laws, the mayor said it was, ``none other than the constitutional reform which we rejected.''
Should the opposition make predicted gains in the elections, the government is expected to divert resources away from elected regional authorities to appointed development boards.
The issue of the election ban has become a cause of concern beyond the borders of Venezuela. At the end of last month the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (a branchof the Organization of American States) agreed to hear the López case.
On Wednesday, two members of the human rights commission of the Mercosur parliament (on which Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay are represented, and Venezuela has observer status) arrived in Caracas to investigate the matter.
Venezuela's admission to Mercosur has been held up by the failure of the Brazilian and Paraguayan parliaments to ratify it. Some observers believe that evidence of undemocratic behavior by the Venezuelan government could further hinder its case