Venezuelans Vote: Democracy's Last Stand?
About This Event

Under the auspices of his Bolivarian revolution, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has drastically undermined the country’s democratic institutions, concentrated power in his hands, and engaged in costly “petrodollar” diplomacy as poverty and insecurity have grown at home. Although Chávez’s recent speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in October Listen to Audio


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damaged his international reputation (and did not help his bid for a UN Security Council seat), how will Venezuelans evaluate their president in the December 3 elections? Given his declared eagerness to remain indefinitely as president as well as the jarring changes to Venezuela’s institutions, could there be life after Chávez?

At this conference, panelists will discuss events leading up to the presidential elections and prospects for post-vote Venezuela, with a special focus on the media, the role of state-owned oil company PDVSA in both domestic and foreign policy, the decay of democratic institutions, and the state of civil society.

Agenda
9:45 a.m.
Registration
10:00 Keynote:
The Honorable Connie Mack, U.S. House of Representatives
11:00
Panelists:
Gustavo Coronel, former member of the board of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)
Thor Halvorssen, Human Rights Foundation
Roger F. Noriega, AEI
Noon
Adjournment
Event Summary

December 2006

Venezuelans Vote: Democracy's Last Stand?

Under the auspices of his Bolivarian revolution, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has drastically undermined the country’s democratic institutions, concentrated power in his hands, and engaged in costly “petrodollar” diplomacy as poverty and insecurity have grown at home. Although Chavez’s speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in October damaged his international reputation (and did not help his bid for a UN Security Council seat), Venezuelans reelected him by a 26 point margin on December 3. Given his declared eagerness to remain president indefinitely as well as his jarring changes to Venezuela’s institutions, could there be life after Chavez?

Panelists at a December 1 AEI conference discussed events leading up to the presidential elections and prospects for post-vote Venezuela, with a special focus on the media, the role of state-owned oil company PDVSA in both domestic and foreign policy, the decay of democratic institutions, and the state of civil society.

The Honorable Connie Mack (R-Fla.)
U.S. House of Representatives

If his first eight years as president of Venezuela are any indication, a resounding Chavez victory could give him the six years he needs to turn Venezuela into something that more closely resembles an undemocratic state. His presidency has been made up of one anti-democratic step after another. From threatening, intimidating, and marginalizing the opposition; snuffing out free speech and prosecuting reporters (Venezuela now ranks thirty-fourth out of thirty-five countries in the Western Hemisphere for freedom of the press); scaring voters so much during the recall referendum that the opposition did not field a single candidate for the National Assembly (which is now completely controlled by Chavez); and expanding the Supreme Court from twenty to thirty-two justices and packing it with like-minded comrades, Chavez has consolidated power in himself.

Chavez is also a threat to regional stability. His recent Russian arms-buying spree can only signal offensive purposes, since his neighbors--including the United States--do not pose a threat to the people of Venezuela. Furthermore, Chavez has meddled in the presidential elections of his neighbors (Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua), and even when these efforts are unsuccessful, they threaten the stability not only of those countries, but of the entire region. His strategy has been to help leftist candidates win elections, write new constitutions, and then promote strategic cooperation among left-leaning governments in the region. Oil money has been his key instrument.

The United States must do more proactively to preserve its role and influence in the region. Many in Washington and this administration, on both the Left and the Right, do not take Chavez’s threats seriously. But Chavez is a shrewd leader who sees a showdown with the United States as his way to go down in history. The United States must support an independent media in Venezuela in order to educate the population, reflect public opinion, and keep government officials honest.

Chavez will ultimately fail because socialism tends to collapse over the long run under the weight of broken promises. But we must be careful that Chavez does not snuff out his political enemies. Democracy is more than majority rule; it involves minority and individual rights, restraints on power, and freedom. In Chavez’s Venezuela, the flames of freedom and liberty are on the verge of being extinguished.

Gustavo Coronel
Former board member, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)

Supporters of Chavez argue that the transparency of his 1998 election victory established a foundation of legitimacy. However, the key to legitimate government is what is done following such a victory. Over the past eight years, Chavez’s regime has wiped away any semblance of legitimacy; even his inauguration address violated the basic principles of the Venezuelan constitution. Today, Chavez continues to be the pied piper of Latin America. This understudy of Fidel Castro promised to equalize the people of Venezuela, and in return he has brought about rampant corruption.

Under Chavez’s rule, PDVSA is just one of many examples of the current government’s illegitimate rule. Prior to 1999, the oil firm was ranked among the top four in the world, with 2006 production expected to exceed 5.1 million barrels per day. However, after running through six PDVSA presidents in the seven years since, Chavez has overseen a slump to 2.6 million barrels per day. Chavez actually admitted to the Venezuelan National Assembly in 2002 that he had manipulated the presidency of PVDSA so that its poor performance could lead to a state takeover. Employees are now obliged to wear red, and they have been publicly told that if they will be dismissed if they don’t vote for Chavez. Furthermore, the profits of PDVSA do not always go to the people of Venezuela: Chavez has spent $25 billion buying loyalties in Latin America, while the Venezuelan people have suffered under a stagnant economy, diminished human rights, and increased government corruption.

Thor Halvorssen
Human Rights Foundation

Over the past eight years, the Chavez regime has committed countless human rights violations. Freedom of speech, property ownership, and participatory government no longer exist in Venezuelan society. The political system has been shaped at Chavez’s whim. Cases of arbitrary detainment, exile, slavery, and torture are everyday occurrences for Venezuelans. Venezuela’s neighbors have already begun showing signs mirroring these situations.

A little known case in the international community exemplifies the disappearance of human rights protection in Venezuela. Francisco Uson, a retired army general, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for “slandering the Venezuelan armed forces.” In 2002, Uson angered the government by resigning in protest of Chavez’s use of Plan Avila (a military contingency plan to quell protests that resulted in human rights violations in previous uses) and wrote private letters to the head of the armed forces expressing his concern about the use of violence against protesters and the politicized promotions system within the military. When he appeared on television in 2004 to discuss the mechanics of flamethrowers allegedly used in a fire at the Fort Mada military base, he was charged with slander, although he in no way accused the government of involvement. Although a civilian cannot be tried in a military court, Uson was tried and sentenced in one and is serving out his sentence in a military prison. Subsequent allegations of torture and corruption related to Uson’s imprisonment are not limited to his case.

Roger F. Noriega
AEI

Hugo Chavez’s campaign slogan for the upcoming election asks voters to “risk it” or “dare to vote for the opposition.” This is a testament to the corrupt political system in Venezuela. The people of Venezuela no longer live in a representative democracy. In plain view, Chavez has undermined aspects of the Inter-American Democratic Charter which Venezuela signed.

The upcoming election will no doubt mirror this corrupt system. Chavez has constrained international electoral monitoring missions, like that of the Organization of American States (OAS), in such a way that they will have no impact on the legitimacy of these elections. In the case of the OAS, the mission is arriving only a few days before the elections, and its chief of the mission is gagged from saying anything public and forbidden to issue its report until the new president assumes office. Regardless of the outcome, Chavez has made it clear that he will not surrender to any opponent. A Chavez victory will therefore be nothing less than an undemocratic election.

The immediate implications of another Chavez victory are bleak for Venezuela. He will be emboldened on his quest to undermine regional democracy. The opposition must insist upon stronger international involvement with the elections. Portraying Chavez in a cartoon-like manner does nothing to improve the situation in Venezuela. The good news for Cuban-style dictatorship in Venezuela is that this style of governance will not be sustainable in the twenty-first century.

AEI intern Stephen Brennan prepared this summary.

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