Miami Herald, December 20, 2004
Topeka Capital - Journal - January 14, 2005
The recent round of Venezuela-bashing from the U.S. State Department, Washington-based foreign policy organizations, and some newspaper editorial boards is symptomatic of a broader problem. And it's not Venezuela's problem: it's ours.
Last week the government of Venezuela decided, after a vote of its elected General Assembly and the approval of the executive, to add 12 new justices to its 20- member Supreme Court. Human Rights Watch denounced the move as a "severe blow to judicial independence" and the Miami Herald said Venezuela "stands at the brink of being an elected dictatorship."
These allegations are unfounded. Imagine, if you can, that a group of military officers in the United States overthrew our elected President, dissolved our elected Congress and Supreme Court, and abolished the Constitution. Now imagine that democracy is restored but the Supreme Court rules that the officers who kidnapped the President and overthrew the government cannot be tried for any crime. That is what happened in Venezuela.
Our Congress would certainly use its constitutional powers to impeach that Supreme Court. So it should not be surprising that Venezuela's General Assembly, where pro-government parties hold a slight majority, would do the same thing by legally "packing" the court with new judges.
Personally, I favor an independent judiciary. But Venezuela -- like much of Latin America -- has never had such a thing, and to pretend that it did and is now losing it, is quite misleading.
Such exaggerations, many of which appear almost daily in the press, have created an astoundingly false impression of Venezuela among Americans. Most Americans think of the country is some kind of quasi-dictatorship "ruled" by the "authoritarian" Hugo Chavez. In fact President Chavez has considerably less power than our own president.
Freedom of speech, the press, assembly and other political freedoms prevail. In fact these compare favorably to the United States, where journalists are being thrown in jail for refusing to reveal their sources, and broadcast stations are fined for violating decency standards. Venezuela's mass media is possibly the most virulently (and often dishonestly) anti-government media in the entire world.
Most of the media is explicitly part of the opposition and supported the April 2002 coup.
Yet in six years of Chavez' presidency the press has not been censored. And despite the outcry about the recently passed "Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television" -- which included some valid criticisms -- it is doubtful that any censorship will occur under the present administration.
No reputable human rights organization would claim that Venezuela under Chavez is less democratic that under previous governments, or compares unfavorably in terms of human rights or democratic freedoms to the rest of Latin America.
On the positive side, even Chavez' opponents concede that millions of poor Venezuelans -- the majority -- now have access to health care, education, literacy programs, land titles, and credit for the first time, as a result of the government's social programs.
Sadly, the biggest threats to Venezuela's democracy still come from Washington, which has funded and allied itself with the anti-democratic leaders of Venezuela's opposition, including supporters of the failed coup. This funding and support has been acknowledged by the U.S. State Department. The National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by our Congress, has also funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups. And recently-released documents from the CIA show that the Bush Administration had detailed advanced knowledge of the coup but lied about what happened: the White House tried to convince the press and other countries that it was not a coup at all, but rather a legitimate seizure of power by "pro-democracy" forces.
After failing to overthrow the government by means of a military coup and an economically devastating oil strike, the opposition turned to a recall referendum last August. They lost overwhelmingly. Although the vote was certified by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, most of the opposition -- including the media -- has not accepted the results. And Washington seems intent on regime change, currently imposing several types of economic sanctions on Venezuela, despite the fact that it is a democracy and poses no security threat to anyone.
So expect to hear a lot of criticism of Venezuela in the next few years -- much of it exaggerated, dishonest, and false.