Venezuela: Political Reform or Regime Demise
Latin America Report N°27
23 Jul 2008
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
President Hugo Chávez faces mounting difficulties at home and abroad. The defeat of constitutional reforms in a December 2007 referendum, a year after re-election, was his worst setback since winning the presidency in 1998. It was not primarily the divided opposition, which lacks a broad social base, that dealt this blow but the abstention of three million Venezuelans, including many former government supporters. There is growing disenchantment over food shortages, rising inflation, public insecurity and corruption, as well as resistance to Chávez’s push to merge his coalition’s parties into a new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and concern about further concentration of power in the president’s hands and his foreign policy, including disputes with Colombia. Only by ending attempts to drastically alter the 1999 constitution is Chávez likely to return Venezuela to democratic stability. If he fails to compromise and govern more transparently and inclusively, November municipal and regional elections could produce a dramatic new setback for his increasingly autocratic “Bolivarian revolution”.
Following his landslide second re-election in December 2006, Chávez sought to accelerateimplementation of his “socialism of the XXIst century”. The government-controlled National Assembly (NA) passed an “Enabling Law” (Ley Habilitante), which grants him full legislative powers until the end of July 2008, and he proposed sweeping reform of the 1999 constitution. If approved in the referendum, the latter would have removed limitations on presidential re-election as well as paved the way for centralised education; further politicisation of the military; recentralisation of government through a new territorial and political order; and strengthening of communal councils charged with administering the executive-led social welfare programs (misiones). Attempts to impose decrees without broad discussion in the first half of 2008 sparked strong dissent that forced their withdrawal.
The chavista movement is losing momentum. It has become bureaucratic, corruption is spreading and the government’s management is poor. The president’s social programs are not meeting expectations and have not empowered citizens. In the cities and even in rural areas, where Chávez’s social base has been strongest, dissatisfaction is spreading due to shortages of basic foodstuffs and rising inflation and crime. The PSUV, established in early 2007, is unlikely to help Chávez regain lost support. On the contrary, at the grassroots and regional (state) and local (municipalities) levels, it is perceived as a top-down decision-making structure that reduces any space for political participation not blessed by the president.
The November elections will be a critical test for the Chávez administration and democratic processes in the hemisphere. If the political opposition is to make broad gains and capture several chavista fiefdoms, it must breathe life into the unity pact signed in early 2008, reach consensus on strong single candidates, attract the under-privileged sectors of the electorate and design a convincing national strategy capable of offsetting Chávez’s charisma.
To the Government and State Institutions of Venezuela:
1. Focus on applying the 1999 constitution and act immediately to improve public sector accountability and transparency by:
(a) establishing a high-level, civilian-led national commission to design a public security strategy to fight crime; members of the commission should include representatives of the interior and defence ministries, the National Assembly, the attorney general’s and ombudsman’s offices, a multiparty group from state governments and mayoral offices, national, regional and local law enforcement agencies and civil society;
(b) ensuring that any revision to the withdrawn intelligence decree is consulted widely with civil society, the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to ensure that it does not contain provisions violating the 1999 constitution or internationally recognised covenants protecting civil liberties to which Venezuela is a signatory;
(c) creating with the leadership of the comptroller’s office and the support of the attorney general’s office, the prosecutor general’s office (procuraduría) and the National Assembly a team of special prosecutors to conduct fair and independent investigations of charges of government corruption;
(d) alleviating food shortages by spurring domestic production, increasing support to small farmers and giving investment guarantees to national and foreign investors in agriculture; and
(e) integrating the social missions with existing public welfare programs and establishing effective and independent monitoring and evaluation mechanisms for them.
2. Establish guarantees for transparent conduct of the November 2008 municipal and federal state elections and respect of basic civil and political liberties enshrined in the 1999 constitution by:
(a) demonstrating in word and deed that violence will not be tolerated during the electoral campaign, including by avoiding the term “civil war” to describe the consequences should the opposition win in some key states and municipalities;
(b) inviting, jointly with the National Electoral Court (CNE), the Organization of American States (OAS) to send an international observation mission to help guarantee free and fair elections and making available to it information on all polling stations across the country; and
(c) lifting, in accordance with Article 65 of the 1999 constitution, the comptroller general’s ban on 258 candidates to stand for office – they have yet to be convicted by a judge – and encouraging the Supreme Court (TSJ) to rule on the matter before the end of the candidate registration period.
3. Pursue a foreign policy conducive to peace and security in Latin America and the Caribbean, including by:
(a) adopting a constructive stance on the Colombian armed conflict and its political resolution by appointing a new ambassador to Colombia, reactivating the bilateral cooperation mechanisms that have been suspended since the bilateral crisis erupted in late 2007 and, in accordance with the 17 March 2008 OAS resolution, reinforcing border cooperation to prevent the use of sanctuaries by illegal armed groups;
(b) sending a clear message of non-interference in any way with other countries’ constitutional and political processes; and
(c) continuing economic and technical assistance programs in Latin America and the Caribbean in close coordination with the partner governments, prioritising development goals without political conditions.
To the pro-Chávez Political Parties and Social Movements/Organisations:
4. Defend the 1999 constitution and Venezuela’s democracy more actively by promoting, in and outside the National Assembly, accountability, transparency and the separation of powers.
5. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) should establish a dialogue with the other members of the Patriotic Alliance regarding the fair and transparent selection of single pro-Chávez candidates for state and municipal offices in the November 2008 elections.
6. The communal councils and other local and grassroots organisations should urge the national government to promote and respect the 1999 constitution, seek to enhance pluralism and political participation at the municipal level and contribute to strengthening the social missions.
To the Opposition Political Parties and Movements:
7. Recognise and reiterate publicly that, in accordance with the existing constitution, President Chávez’s term will end in 2012, and clearly commit to attempt no extra-legal activity with a view to ending it prematurely.
8. Continue to pursue unity for the November 2008 elections by sticking to the 23 January National Unity Agreement, including selection of single candidates for regional and local offices.
9. Increase efforts to establish a shared programmatic platform and engage broad sectors of the electorate in that process.
10. The students’ movement should continue its vigorous defence of civil liberties, urging both the pro-Chávez and opposition camps to act democratically.
To the Organization of American States (OAS):
11. Prepare for the sending of an international observation mission to guarantee free and fair November 2008 elections.
To the Government of Brazil:
12. Increase dialogue with Venezuela aimed at promoting regional cooperation and integration, prioritising respect for democratic processes and the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
To the Government of Cuba:
13. Continue working with Venezuela on technical assistance programs in Latin America and the Caribbean in close coordination with the partner governments, prioritising development goals without political conditions.
To the Government of the U.S.:
14. Support ongoing Colombian and Venezuelan efforts to resolve their diplomatic differences; promote Colombian-Venezuelan cooperation on border control; and engage in confidence-building measures to reassure Venezuela that the new designation of U.S. vessels in the region as the Fourth Fleet is not intended to be provocative.
Bogotá/Brussels, 23 July 2008