Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pluses and minuses 

Although I gave my own take on the enabling law last week as is not uncommon I found someone who expressed my feelings on it better than even I could. The honor goes to Greg Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis who wrote this excellent article:

Venezuela’s Enabling Law Could Also Enable the Opposition

Venezuela’s opposition and critics of the Chavez government around the world finally feel vindicated (again). The Venezuelan dictatorship that they have been predicting for the past eight years has, according to them, finally come to pass – for the sixth or so time. Already when Chavez was first elected in 1998 critics predicted Chavez would bring about a dictatorship in Venezuela. They kept having to revise their estimates for when this dictatorship would set in, though, because following each prediction of impending dictatorship Chavez would do something that completely negated the announcement.

For example, following his election in 1998, the first thing he did was to call for a referendum on whether to have a new constitution and held a vote for a constitutional assembly. When the constitutional assembly took on more powers than the legislature, opponents were again screaming “dictatorship,” except that the assembly proposed a constitution that was more democratic than the previous one. Similarly, the 49 law-decrees of 2001 were another marker for the onset of the Chavez dictatorship, except that these laws democratized land ownership and access to credit in Venezuela, among other things. Then again, the April 2002 coup was justified with the story that Chavez was ordering supporters to shoot at opponents, except following the coup very few of the coup organizers were arrested. This pattern repeated itself again with the 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown and with the struggle around the 2004 recall referendum. Each time the opposition and international critics were forced to revise the start date of the Venezuelan dictatorship backwards, much like a religious cult that predicts the end of the world and keeps having to revise its doomsday date.

Now, with the latest series of Chavez’s moves, of asking for and getting a new enabling law, of not renewing the broadcast license of a TV station, of launching a united socialist party, and of proposing an indefinite number of reelections, Chavez’s opponents are at it again. This time, they say, Chavez is definitely stepping over the line. After all, what could be more dictatorial than “ruling by decree,” “closing” an independent TV station, forming a “single party,” and becoming “president for life”? If this were what is happening in Venezuela, it would be ominous indeed. However, these descriptions, taken from the opposition and the international media, are completely removed from what is actually happening in Venezuela. Let’s take a closer look at the “rule by decree” story, which poses risks, but not the ones that opposition analysts are hyperventilating about.[1]

“Rule by Decree”

Even a progressive media outlet such as the extremely popular radio program Democracy Now! adopted this terminology for the recently enabling law that Venezuela’s National Assembly passed.[2] After all, isn’t this the essence of what the enabling law means, that Chavez can “rule by decree”? The problem is that this term can cover a wide range of situations, but is often associated with the power of a dictator or monarch to issue any decree he or she pleases and that everyone must follow, no matter what. Classic examples of such power are the governing styles of an Augusto Pinochet or an Adolf Hitler.

In Venezuela, however, the enabling law is completely different from the above type of “rule by decree” in that it is limited in several ways. First, the President is bound by the constitution. He can only issue so-called “law-decrees” in the areas named by the National Assembly, in the time limit the Assembly imposes, and that are consistent with the constitution. In other words, he cannot arbitrarily order someone’s arrest or do away with basic civil rights, for example. Some of the laws even need to be submitted to the Supreme Court, which vets the law for its constitutionality.

Second, contrary to popular belief, even though Chavez supporters control all branches of the state, law-decrees can be reversed by the most important power of all: the citizens. That is, law-decrees can be rescinded by popular vote. According to Venezuela’s 1999 constitution all laws can be submitted to a referendum if at least 10% of registered voters request such a referendum. Law decrees have an even lower signature requirement, of only 5% of registered voters (800,000 out of 16 million registered voters).[3]

Third, the National Assembly may also modify or rescind law-decrees, at any time, should it feel the need to do so. This is quite unlike the enabling law in the U.S., known as the “Fast Track” law, where the president may sign international treaties that are automatically binding and not open to revision or rescinding by the population.

I highly recommend that you read the rest here.

I think he reallly drew up the balance sheet of the plusses and minuses of the enabling law quite well.

The only place where I might differ is in his estimation of some of the potential impact. I think that idea that the opposition as it is currently composed would ever take up arms as the "contras" did is off the mark. The opposition is solidly middle class and they won't fight - they'll move to Miami (and actually they won't even do that right now as they are making too much money). It is only if the working class and poor were to become disenchanted that there would be any risk of a guerilla type movement. And even then it is unlikely as there is no need for it - if Venezuelans want Chavez out they can simply vote him out.

Also, I don't see the opposition elements like Petkoff becoming any more radicalized by this than they already are. Petkoff runs a daily "newspaper" which prints lie after lie, generally of the most hysterical form, and has no other purpose than to drive Chavez from power.

Yes, the danger of an opposition led coup or other violence is very real. But that has nothing to do with the enabling law. That results from their inability to win power through electoral means. Some of them are so desperate for power, and the money it brings, that they don't want to wait until the next round of elections - they want power and money and they want it now.

But aside from those small differences I think this puts the enabling law in perspective and contributes much to the RATIONAL and SANE discussion of it.


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