Competitive Enterprise Institute | 1899 L ST NW Floor 12, Washington, DC 20036 | Phone: 202-331-1010 | Fax: 202-331-0640
As the general strike against the leftist regime of Hugo Chavez grinds Venezuela's economy to a standstill, American policymakers worry about disruption of oil shipments from the fourth-largest U.S. supplier and further instability. For the Bush administration — and the rest of the Western hemisphere's governments — the current crisis is the result of a missed opportunity to help restore Venezuela's once-vibrant democracy. Now, as Chavez's rule teeters, we must learn from this mistake and not repeat it.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
That opportunity came — and went — just over eight months ago, on a date that today resonates to every Venezuelan, April 11, 2002. On that day, Chavez's thugs fired on a 150,000-strong opposition rally, killing 19 people and injuring over 100. Popular anger over the killings prompted military leaders to demand Chavez to step down to avoid further bloodshed. Chavez resigned, but loyalists reinstated him two days later — after the governments of the United States and every Latin American nation refused to recognize a transitional government led by Pedro Carmona, the former president of Fedecamaras, the country's largest business association.
The hemisphere's governments (several Latin American leaders were gathered at a summit in Costa Rica at the time) argued that the overthrow of Chavez constituted an extralegal transfer of power that violated Venezuela's constitution. And this week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged a "peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution." But the problem is that Venezuela has no rule of law to undermine!
Chavez's "constitution" is a farce instituted by Chavez himself in December 1999, a year after he was elected, to extend his hold on power. Chavez supporters, who controlled 121 of 131 National Assembly seats, rammed the document through the legislature. It was later approved in a national referendum in which over half of the electorate stayed away from the polls.
The new "constitution" dissolved the senate, extended the president's term from five to six years, gave greater power to the military, tightened state control over the oil industry, and limited the central bank's autonomy.
The document includes a "truthful information" press provision. It also allows the president to run for a second term, so Chavez can stay in power "legally" for up to 13 years. What happens at the end of the 13 years? No one knows, but it's important to remember that Chavez has tried to take power by force before, staging two failed coups in 1992.
Chavez's contempt for the rule of law is astounding. In the ongoing general strike, he has sent out troops to seize private gasoline-delivery trucks and ordered military commanders to ignore court orders to return the trucks to their owners. He has also seized control of the Caracas police department and defied a court order to return the department to the city's mayor's control. "A country where the judicial system is not autonomous and must submit to the executive is not democratic," said strike leader Carlos Ortega, president of the country's largest labor federation. "Listen well, Venezuela and the world: There is no democracy here."
There is little doubt how most Venezuelans feel about Chavez: They hate him, and for good reason. Many of his former supporters now consider him a dictator. His approval ratings have fallen to around 30 percent from a high of 80 early in his regime. His statist policies have brought the country to the brink of ruin. During Chavez's tenure, the Venezuelan economy has taken and nosedive — GDP shrank by 7.1 percent just in the first half of this year — and continues its descent. Meanwhile, his government has been selling 53,000 barrels of oil to Cuba a day at bargain-basement prices.
The most-remarkable thing about the strike is how broad it is — just about every major business and labor organization in Venezuela is participating. Most Venezuelans want to see Chavez go.
But the caudillo enjoys a cult-like following among a minority that is not only fanatical but violent — as the shootings that precipitated Chavez's brief April ouster and that occurred again recently in Caracas demonstrate. The April 11 revolt was a golden opportunity to restore democracy in Venezuela without violence because it happened so quickly that it gave Chavez's thugs little time to react. But recognition for Carmona never came.
Some would have decried recognizing Carmona's transitional government as a case of American hegemonic bullying of a Latin American country, but that is hardly the case. As a sovereign nation, the United States has the choice of which governments to recognize. Exercising this choice will bring a new moral weight to American diplomacy by emphasizing the importance of the rule of law. Extending or refusing recognition will not necessarily replace hostile governments with friendly ones, but it can let the opposition — and the tyrants — in those countries know whose side we're on.
Fedecamaras and the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation, the country's largest labor-union federation, who jointly called the April 9 general strike that led to the April 11 rally and Chavez's brief departure, also called the current one. Chavez has indicated he will cling on to power no matter what. And his "Bolivarian circles," armed gangs modeled after his hero Fidel Castro's infamous Revolutionary Defense Committees, have begun reprisals. This time, we must show the Venezuelan people we are on their side.
Venezuelans know their country has no rule of law. It's time the rest of the world realized it and got behind them. Breaking relations with Chavez's tyrannical regime would be a good start.