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Democracy in Venezuela Is a Myth

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

FACT: on February 18, 2014, after a week of intense anti-government demonstrations all across the country, President Nicolás Maduro attended a rally with oil-sector workers. In his speech he said, “In Venezuela there are full democratic freedoms. We just had elections 8 weeks ago, or am I lying?” Minutes later he added, “I ask the whole world, where in the world have there been 19 elections in the last 15 years?”

This has been a central message of the revolutionary government, gaining particular strength in the last few months. But, how truthful is it?

CONTEXT: Article 2 of the Venezuelan Constitution defines the country as a democratic state.  Article 63 establishes that “voting is a right,” and article 66 establishes that voters “have the right to have their representatives offer transparent and regular public accounts about their management efforts, according to the program submitted.” These articles are the basis of the idea that Venezuela is a democracy.

Since February 12, 2014, the country has been living under intense political tension marked by protests, violence and repression. Participants and promoters of these protests have upheld various motives and objectivesgenerally lacking claritybut with a common denominator: they oppose Nicolas Maduro’s government because of the country’s serious inflation, shortages and criminal violence.

After almost two weeks of protests, there are complaints about violations of Constitutional and other Human Rights, media censorship and blockages to social networks, and the excessive use of force by the Central Government, including arbitrary detentions and alleged torture.

DEBUNKING THE ARGUMENT: equating multiple elections with the existence of a democratic state has been a key message of the Central Government for the past 15 years. In fact, electionsan average of 1.3 per year since 1999have been used to justify all of the Central Government’s acts, and to answer to criticism about its political model. But, are elections the only element of a democracy?

Polity IV is a project of the Center for Systemic Peace, which codifies characteristics of political regimes in order to classify themin opposite extremesas “Institutionalized Democracies” or “Autocratic Regimes”. To formulate the indicator, Polity IV considers the election mechanism for the Executive Power (meaning regulations, competition and open participation); institutional constraints on the exercise of power by the Executive Power; and the degree of regulation and political competition.

It must be said the, even though they are not included in Polity IV, other key factors in a democracy are the guarantee of civil rights, the rule of law, accountability, and freedom of the press.

Even though President Maduro claims that the 19 elections held in Venezuela between 1999 and 2013 confirm Venezuela’s democratic nature, in truth the country’s political system tends toward an autocratic regime.

Unequal conditions to participate in elections. Since 1999 we have had 1.3 elections per year, and in every occasion the Central Government and the National Electoral Council (CNE) have highlighted the reliability of the electoral system.

Although since at least 2005, not even the opposition has questioned if the sum of ballots was subject to vices or electronic fraud, there are those who report problems regarding campaign conditions and irregularities during Election Day.

In the particular case of the presidential campaign of April 2013, the opposition’s Comando Simon Bolivar presented 222 allegations of violations of electoral rules by the Central Government. These included the use of public resources to finance pro-government advertisement and events, the use of children for campaign purposes, and unbalanced broadcasting by state own media.

For example, between April 2 and 10, 2013, during the climax of the electoral campaign, VTV broadcast a cumulative 6 hours of speeches by the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, while Nicolás Maduro had over 65 hours of broadcast.

Also, among the irregularities registered by Comando Simon Bolivar during Election DayApril 14, 2013the stand-outs were the “assisted vote,” the violence inside and out voting centers and the forceful removal of opposition witnesses.

Citizens can express their preferences, but what’s the cost? The Central Government often argues that everyone in Venezuela can freely express opinions against it. But in fact, those who express dissent must assume consequences well beyond being immediately qualified as squalid one”, “traitor to the homeland”, “bourgeois”, “imperialist” or “fascist”.

For example, those who signed to support a Recall Referendum against Hugo Chavez in 2004 were included in the list known as “Tascón” or “Maisanta”, and consequently were fired from public offices, blocked from job opportunities related to the public sector, and benefits from social programs were denied to them.

Political discrimination from the Central Government has continued, including threats made to workers from the oil sector by Rafael Ramirez in 2006 or to employees of the Ministry of Housing by Ricardo Molina in 2013.

There have also been allegations of threats to voters during elections, and as a matter of fact, this is one of the reasons why results from the 2013 presidential elections were challenged by the opposition. There are even some who have criticized the Central Government from the ranks of chavismo and have had to assume some costs. Among them, Nicmer Evans, a pro-government political scientist, had his TV and radio shows cancelled after criticizing some decisions made by Maduro’s administration.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples that show how expressing favorable opinions and loyalty to chavismo’s project seems to be rewarded, and even more, those in positions of power face little chance of facing judicial actions against them: corruption allegations are droppedrunning over a protester is established as an “accident”, or the calling to a “withering counterattack” is not considered as incitement to violence even if the result is several people wounded and one dead.

The Executive has unlimited power. The legal framework of the 1999 Constitution increased the power given to the Executivesuch as more control of the President over the Armed Forcesbut also reduced checks and balances into decision-makingsuch as the substitution of a two-chamber legislature by a single chamber system, whereby the Senate was eliminated. In 2007, the late President Chavez proposed a constitutional reform that would have extended even more the powers of the Executive into every realm of national life.

Even though it was rejected, in 2009 a constitutional amendment was approved to allow for the unlimited reelection of government officials by popular vote, including the President.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the Executive maintains control over the other Public Powers. For example, it has had legislative powers in 5 occasions through enabling laws.The late government representative Carlos Escarrá actually said “we also don’t accept the separation of powers, since it weakens the Executive and the government’s efficiency” (El Universal, Aug/29/2010).

Also, Luisa Estela Morales, in December 2010, while she was President of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) said that “we can’t keep thinking of a separation of powers because that is a principle that weakens the state”, while proposing the revision of this constitutional principle (Informe21, Dec/05/2009).

A relevant example of the predominance of the Executive is the recent arrest and imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo López. Putting aside the procedural irregularities claimed by his legal team, López is in jail because the President wanted him there. Nicolás Maduro said during a speech broadcast by mandatory national broadcast on February 20, 2014, that Lopez “is in jail as I said he would be, thanks to the courts and the prosecution”.

Fewer civil liberties guaranteed. The vast majority of civil, social, cultural, economic, and political rights in the Constitution are not guaranteed, and in fact have been violated by the Central Government itself, either through action or omission.

Among these violations, the stand-outs are those concerning personal freedomphysical, mental and moral integrityfair defense and legal assistancepublic safetyproperty rights,freedom of expressionaccess to informationprotection of honor and private life, and the rights to protest. The exercise of civil liberties should not be selective.

To give some examples, although the security forces are entitled to arresting those who are a risk to public order and the safety of others, their physical integrity must be respected and protected. Since February 12, 2014 and up until today, many protests led by students across the country have been harshly repressed resulting in a large number of arrests, injuries, even torture, and very sadly, deaths.

Up to the morning of February 24, 2014, Foro Penal Venezolano, a local NGO, reported 539 detentions, of which 200 were released without even being presented in court, 138 were undergoing penal procedures, 19 had received the penalty of deprivation of liberty, around 50 were still waiting for their hearings and only 10 had regained full extent of their liberty. Later that day, 60 others were arrested.

In Venezuela there seems to be no rule of law or accountability. It is not surprising that Venezuela is the third country with the weakest rule of law in the world, largely due to the already mentioned lack of autonomy of Public institutions. Additionally, fiscal account management, para-fiscal funds, the currency allocation system, and official statistics are all a “black box”, thus, a fertile breeding ground for corruption.

By the end of 2013, Venezuela was ranked the most corrupt country in Latin America, and the fifteenth most corrupt country in the world (amongst 177 countries). It should be noted that the Central Government has made indiscriminate use of public resources according to their electoral interests.

Between 2010 and 2012, the period prior to the last two presidential elections, Venezuela registered ​​a nominal increase in public spending of 99 percent, reaching a fiscal deficit of the Central Government Budget of 4.9 percent of GDP. Moreover, public debt of the Central Government Budget increased by 47 percent between 2010 and 2012, going from U.S. $2,490 per capita to U.S. $3,542 per capita.

In Venezuela there is little freedom of press. Article 58 of the Constitution establishes that “every person has the right to timely, accurate and impartial information, without censorship”. This means that it’s not enough for the Central Government to inform, but that independent media should also be allowed to provide information.

Reporters Without Borders places Venezuela in the one-hundred-and-seventeenth position amongst 179 countries regarding freedom of press. Also, between 2002 and 2013, the NGO Espacio Público reported 418 cases of censorship, reaching a high record in 2013 with 77 cases. In 2013 alone there were 219 cases of violation of freedom of expression.

By 2014, the situation had deteriorated: on the one hand, restrictions in the allocation of currency have caused some printed journals to stop publishing because of the lack of paper, while other journals keep publishing but reducing the count of pages printed. And private national TV and radio stations have been keeping a self-imposed censorship to protect their possibility to broadcast, while the Central Government blocks international media channels such as NTN24.

The CNN case also stands out: On February 20, 2014, Nicolas Maduro informed during a mandatory broadcast that the Central Government had begun an administrative procedure to “get them out of Venezuela” if they didn’t change their editorial line regarding the protests in the country.

The next day, The National Union of Press Workers (SNTP for its acronym in Spanish) reported through Twitter that the Ministry of Information and Communication (Minci) had revoked some of the CNN correspondents’ credentials to work in Venezuela, only to return them 24 hours later. Of course, we should also mention that the government has allegedly blocked weg pages, some Twitter contents and internet and phone service in Táchira.

The situation has deeply deteriorated since the protests began: Between February 12 and 20, 2014the first 9 days of protestsNGO Espacio Público reported 43 cases and 72 violations of freedom of speech, which equates to eight violations per day.

Elections are necessary, but not sufficient for the existence of a democratic system. Since the main distortion experienced by the national system is the lack of autonomy of powers, it is important for citizens to make real use of their political rights, and in case of conflict defend those rights, such as the right to protest. Despite the statement by Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela is not a strongly democratic country.

This piece originally appeared on Caracas Chronicles. The authors are from the consulting firm ODH.