Under Hugo Chavez, the key pillars of Venezuela’s democracy have been consistently undermined. This has included efforts to concentrate power in the hands of the presidency, to personalize the source of legitimacy and governmental authority in the person of Hugo Chavez, and to attack any and all centers of power that could challenge his rule. As Chavez’s health has deteriorated over the past several years, he, and those around him, have taken to actively preparing Venezuela for “Chavismo without Chavez.” The men around Chavez are intent on this happening, and because of this they have taken to parading him, although he is seriously ill, on the Venezuelan and international stages for there own purposes.
–Expanded Executive Powers–
Since 2010, when a lame duck session of the Venezuelan National Assembly granted Chavez broad new powers, the President has effectively been able to legislate by decree. Since this new law was implemented, Chavez has promulgated over 20 legislative decrees, bypassing established legislative channels and negating laws previously passed by a democratically elected assembly. These powers would be made available to any of the military junta surrounding Chavez in the event that he passes from the scene. These are men whose connections to the most sordid elements of the international drug trade would push Venezuela further along the path of narco-authoritarianism.
Chavez has launched an unabashed assault on judicial independence. This assault began in 2004 with a court-packing scheme that filled the bench of the country’s Supreme Court with political allies of the president, and gave the executive branch the power to evict justices whose rulings don’t mesh with the regime’s imperatives. In 2010, Chavez-aligned legislators changed the rules on judicial nominations to allow the appointment of a slew of Chavez-aligned judges.
Numerous judicial officials have faced harsh consequences for showing independent judgment. One judge, Maria Lourdes Afiuni, has spent the last three years in pre-trial detention for authorizing the conditional release of a banker accused of corruption. The judge in her case has publicly pledged fealty to Hugo Chavez.
Chavez’s rule has resulted in a worrying erosion of free speech. This limiting of free speech has been achieved through government discrimination against opposition media outlets and the creation of an atmosphere that increasingly demands self-censorship.
From a legal perspective, this limiting of free speech includes laws that criminalize “disrespect” for high-ranking government officials, as well as the government’s passage of legislation that allows it to arbitrarily revoke the broadcast rights for television and radio stations for what has been labeled “incitement”. This latter piece of legislation has been expanded to include the Internet.
In 2009 alone the government shuttered 32 radio stations. This has led numerous other stations to refrain from producing content critical of the Chavez government. The same phenomenon has struck the country’s television stations, with the most well known opposition station RCTV being kicked off the air in 2007 and its successor shut down in 2010. Other stations critical of Chavez have faced stiff penalties for seemingly trivial reasons.
–Targeting Critics and Human Rights Defenders–
Numerous individuals, some of them high-ranking opposition political figures, have found themselves imprisoned for expressing criticism of the Chavez regime. One of them, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, the former governor of Zuila state, was sentenced in July of 2011 for accusing Chavez of violating democratic principles and colluding with drug traffickers. While he is out of prison, his freedom is conditional, and he is barred from leaving the country.
While Chavez maintains the pretense of fighting for the “working man”, when he has disputes with organized labor he is more than prepared to throw its leadership in prison. Take the example of Ruben Gonzalez, the secretary general of the Ferrominera Orinoco Union. He was handed a seven-year sentence for leading a strike against a government owned company. His treatment has drawn condemnation from the International Labour Organization and leading Venezuelan labor unions.
Chavez’s dependence upon the military and its corrupt leadership has grown so deep, and his illness so debilitating, that he himself no longer has control over what happens in his name in Venezuela. This is because a corrupt band of leading generals has used the authority associated with their positions for a variety of corrupt practices, most obviously narcotics trafficking, all in the name of increasing their own power.
Not only does Chavez maintain close personal, political, and financial relationships with leading members of the military that are propping up his administration, he has created a dangerous network of paramilitary organizations dedicated to prolonging his rule no matter the electoral result in October. These so-called citizen supporters are a tool that the Chavistas may use to overturn the democratic outcome of the coming elections, a prospect that should be a major concern of the international community.
The Chavez years have seen a harsh crackdown on private enterprise in Venezuela with the nationalizations of numerous formerly private companies, often for explicitly political reasons. Combined with tight control over the financial sector, government largesse when it comes to fuel subsidization, and clear government favoritism of politically connected firms, economic freedom is clearly under assault.
State run firms have also become tools for the advancement of Chavez’s agenda. In the case of PDVSA, the state controlled oil firm that has become a personal kitty for Chavez’s attempts to spread the warped ideology and program of Chavismo, the president has gone so far as to gut the company of its most technically capable staff members. Between 2002 and 2003 Chavez fired 22,000 members of PDVSA’s managerial, engineering, and clerical staff. The former employees have been denied severance, due process afforded by Venezuelan law, and many have found themselves blacklisted and unemployable in the Oil and Gas sector in Venezuela. Less one think that Chavez was merely trimming the fat from a bloated government firm, in the intervening years he has hired nearly 70,000 regime loyalists to the payrolls of the company.