Sunday, April 15, 2007

Those rascals have a mind of their own 

As Ken Livingstone has correctly observed, the opposition to president Chavez is largely based on lies. Lies about the economy, lies about poverty, lies about the oil industry, lies about human rights and lies about the government itself.

One of the principal lies about the government is that it is completely controlled by Chavez. We are told there are no separation of powers and that everything – the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, etc., is subordinate to the executive branch and Chavez himself. The pseudo reporter Phil Gunson gives us a clear example of this line of thought:

If the frequency of elections in Venezuela were the sole criterion of judgment, the country may be said to be suffering from an "overdose of democracy" - as Paraguay's president, Nicanor Duarte, put it in mid-March 2007 (in what was intended as a compliment). But if the definition of democratic rule includes the checks and balances provided by the separation of powers, Hugo Chávez's government fails to qualify.

First elected in 1998, and re-elected for a second time in December 2006 for a fresh, six-year term, the former army officer used to boast that his 1999 constitution increased from three to five the independent branches of government.
But since coming out of the closet as a "21st-century socialist" inspired by Marx and Lenin, he has accumulated powers more usually associated with a dictatorship. The five branches of government are now effectively extensions of the executive, required to display total loyalty.

For those who read his article I trust they’ll duly note the silliness of many of his assertions such as that he is “commander and chief” of the armed forces. Gee, I’ve heard of other countries where the elected president controls the military and that is usually touted as a positive, “civilian control over the military”, rather than evidence of a dictatorship.

Also, that notion “every member of the 167-seat, single-chamber parliament professes allegiance to Chávez following an opposition electoral boycott in 2005.” is so meaningless as to barely merit comment as he almost acknowledges in the second half of his sentence. Even if the opposition hadn’t boycotted the election there is little doubt Chavez supporters would have won a large majority. So what? Is it a crime to be popular and have people that support you win elections?

If so, than Franklin Roosevelt would have to be considered a leading criminal (or “strongman”, or “populist”, or “demagogue” to name but a few of the adjectives that are applied to Chavez) as he won four presidential terms and had huge majorities in congress, at times over 75%. Clearly, this critique by Mr. Gunson is meaningless reflects little more than the fact that he doesn’t like who is winning the elections.

Moreover, the National Assembly has its own electoral mandate which allows it to do whatever it wants. If it decided to oppose Chavez, there is little he could do. And in fact this has happened many times. Although Chavez and his supporters win elections easily there has been a tendency of some of his supporters to defect to the opposition while in office.

This happened with the previous congress, to the point that Chavez had a very slim majority, and with other key elected officials such as Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena who won on Chavez’s coattails only to turn against him and actively work to undermine the government. Did Chavez do anything? Did he somehow have these people dismissed from office? No, they were independent powers with their own mandates and remained so until they were voted out of office.

And what about other independent powers, the ones that don’t have independent electoral mandates? In the case of the electoral authorities (the CNE) we’ve seen them flex their muscles. For example, while Chavez cheered on his oil minister when he berated opposition supporters in the oil industry the CNE decided to fine him a months salary for those very same remarks. Clearly the CNE and Chavez aren’t in lockstep.

More importantly, what of the courts? Well, not to long ago the Venezuelan Supreme court made a ruling highly inimical to the interests of the government when it decided at all bonuses and “irregular” income should be exempt from income taxes. That ruling, which will cost the government badly needed tax revenue, certainly created quite a tizzy – yet both the ruling and the court that made it are still standing, as independent as ever.

In fact, recently it made another ruling guaranteed to really push some buttons in the executive branch. Of course, rulings that go against the government are a dime a dozen but given the non-sense being peddled by the likes of Gunson, it is worth taking a look at this one.

During the 02/03 oil strike led by the management of the State oil company, PDVSA, there were some interesting goings on by executives aimed at protecting their jobs. For example, the top executives of PDVSA actually tried to form a union to prevent Chavez from being able to replace them and control oil policy. As the strike fizzled after a couple of months some PDVSA managers claimed they had been unjustly fired because they weren’t really on strike but on vacation or some other type of leave!!

With that in mind it is interesting to look at this the case decided by the court. An executive at a PDVSA affiliate, Maria Lizardo Gramcko, decided to “retire” at the end of January 2003 just as it became clear the strike was failing. Her fellow managers apparently agreed to her retirement package. No sooner than she was out of PDVSA than she sued it for $125,000 because she claimed she was owed “special” payments. PDVSA contested this saying that the PDVSA president at the time, Ali Rodriguez, had not approved the arrangement.

In the first court to hear the case, the Superior Court of Caracas, Gramcko won. PDVSA, as was its right, appealed to the Social Chamber of the Supreme Court which ruled against Gramcko and in favor of PDVSA. Gramcko, wanting her money, appealed again to an even higher body, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, and, lo and behold, it ruled in her favor!

Again, lets remember the context here. President Chavez and the PDVSA executives were locked in mortal battle for years. After nearly being overthrown and seeing tens of billions of dollars in damage done to his country Chavez prevailed. Yet now the highest court in the land has opened the door for former PDVSA managers to bring all sorts of suits against the government seeking damages. As Ultimas Noticias puts it in the article there will almost certainly be a “torrent” of cases seeking payment for “special retirements”

I am not a lawyer, much less a Venezuelan one so I cannot pass judgement on this ruling. But I do know this decision sure has to be causing a world of upset to people like Hugo Chavez, Ali Rodriguez, and Rafael Ramirez. I certainly wouldn’t want to have been in the room with any of them when they heard about this decision.

Yet there the Supreme Court stands overturning tax laws, giving pensions to rebellious PDVSA managers, and making all sorts of decision day in and day out that may or may not conform to the wishes of other branches of the government.

Clearly, Mr. Gunson notwithstanding, the various branches of the Venezuelan government are alive and well and have minds of their own.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?