Wednesday, January 31, 2007

So simple even the U.S. State Department gets it. 

Today was a pretty uneventful day in Venezuela. The economy is still humming along. The public works are getting built. People went to work, attended class, and some went to the beach. Oh yeah, and the National Assembly passed an enabling law giving Chavez power to rule by decree.

Why is the passing of the enabling law about as signiticant as people going to the beach? Mainly, because it has next to no practical effect.

Chavez just won relection with 63% of the vote. A year earlier his supporters won every single seat in the National Assembly after the opposition came up with the brilliant idea of boycotting the elections after the National Electoral Council caved in to their demands (that is right, they pulled out AFTER their demands were met, no one ever accused these people of being rational or smart).

Given that the National Assembly and the executive control all appointments to the other branches the entire government is, of course, pro-Chavez at this point. Not good you say? Maybe some of us would have qualms about any one person or party having so much power. But Venezuelans clearly do not as they have voted time after time for Chavez in ever larger numbers. The government is this way because Venezuelans want it this way - full stop.

Chavez has now asked for, and the National Assembly has given him, the power to rule by decree over the next 18 months. Predictably, those in the opposition are painting this as some sort of power grab or the advent of a dictatorship. As is usual, those charges are without merrit.

The right of the National Assembly to give the executive branch the power to rule by decree is specifically laid out in the Venezuelan Constitution. No conditions are attached to it - it does not require any kind of national emergency nor does it specify any powers which cannot be delegated to the executive and it does not impose any sort of time limit. The only requirement is that three fifths of the National Assembly vote in favor of it, a requirement easily met given the oppositions self-imposed exile from that body.

This measure is therefore completely legal and in no way contradicts Venezuela being a fullly functioning democracy. In fact, so clear is that point that even top officials at the U.S. State Department get it:

But the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, said the law isn't an issue for the United States.

``The enabling law isn't anything new in Venezuela. It's something valid under the constitution,'' Tom Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters in Colombia.

``As with any tool of democracy, it depends how it is used,'' he added. ``At the end of the day, it's not a question for the United States or for other countries, but for Venezuela.''

Indeed, rather than being any kind of sign of impending dictorship this is just another "tool" of democracy. And as Shannon correctly points out what really matters is how it is used.

Shannon makes another important point - the enabling law isn't anything new. As Eric Wingerter points out it has been used throughout Venezuela's democratic era.

Even more importantly, Chavez himself has had prior enabling laws. Given that Chavez has previously asked for enabling laws and pro-Chavez deputies in the National Assembly have granted it to him if the Venezuelan people had a problem with that they would have voted out the pro-Chavez A.N. members or voted out Chavez himself. Yet both have been re-elected. Cearly Venezuelans themselves have no issue with the enabling law.

[One interesting aside is that of course it is the people who voted AGAINST Chavez who are complaining about this. They curiously claim that he wasn't given a mandate to do this sort of thing. However, it seems to me rather inappropriate that people who have been against Chavez all along would pretend to discuss what his mandate is or isn't. I think that is more properly the realm of people who voted FOR Chavez and so far I'm not hearing any complaints from them]

Apart from being completely legal, what practical effect does this have? The answer is almost none. Given that the Assembly is highly inclined to vote in favor of anything Chavez wants there is no legislation that he will get with this that he wouldn't otherwise get. In other words, this enabling law does not change or expand what Chavez can do, it simply means he can do it faster. Now he can do in days what otherwise would take a few weeks or months.

So lets see what we have here:

1) a government that constantly renews its mandate at the ballot box in free elections and in accordance with the Consitution and which therefore represents the will of the Venezuelan people.

2) a government which is not violating human rights.

3) a legislature which is delegating powers in complete accordance with the norms established in the Constitution.

And the opposition is complaining about... what?

The real question with this law is not the law itself but rather how it will be used. What exact changes will Chavez make and will they take Venezuela foward and make it a better country or will they be misguided changes that hold the country back? That is the heart of the matter but one the opposition avoids because as we saw in the last election they have no alternative ideas or vision to offer the country.

The opposition chattering class is full of talking head who like to complain incessently about matters of form, such as this enabling law, while most people care about substance, such as whether or not the economy is improving. It is a free world so the opposition can keep bitching about these precedural matters for as long as they like. The vast majority of Venezuelans will simply ignore them and they will be off the road stuck in a ditch, just as they have been for most of the past eight years.


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