Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Do cry for Venezuela: the vulnerability of an easily amended Constitution

Castro's not really dead, although most likely dying, despite his TV cameo appearance.

Chavez's star, however, is in the ascendance, and expanding fast. He's the new Castro, with a bigger field to play on than Castro ever had: Venezuela.

Chavez has set the stage by taking on greatly expanded powers to nationalize Venezuela's industries as part of his campaign to "maximize socialism" in Venezuela. He plans to use his newly acquired powers to nationalize and/or control telecommunications, electricity, the oil and gas industry, and:

....dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model."

Okey dokey; that's democracy, I guess. After all, as his supporters say [italics mine], "Socialism is democracy," and, "We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy and 'power to the people'" (now, just where have we heard that last phrase before?)

I haven't followed every in and out of Chavez's rise to power and his successful grab at more power, but I am under the distinct impression it was done with the appearance of following the rules of democracy.

You might think that, as a neocon, I champion democracy in all its guises. But the type of democracy I support (and I actually prefer a republic, but we'll leave that aside for the moment) is one that includes a constitution that explicitly protects freedoms and individual rights, and features a system by which it is extremely hard to change that constitution and expand a leader's powers as Chavez has done.

If you read the Reuters article carefully, you'll note that Chavez gained his expanded powers through a vote by Venezuela's Congress, which is at present overwhelmingly composed of his supporters. This unanimity was gained because the opposition boycotted the last election, held in 2005.

Why? Why would the opposition boycott the election of a man they knew was bent on becoming a socialist dictator? This seems so counterproductive that it's obvious there's much more behind it. The often-criticized Wikipedia has a lot to say on the matter. The opposition was initially afraid that fingerprint scanners would be used to match voters with results, and even though the scanners were removed the boycott proceeded. Chavez's supporters say that the boycott reflected the fact that the opposition knew it was sunk; others say the opposition distrusted and greatly feared Chavez and his crew.

At any rate, the boycott enabled Chavez to attain--between his own party and allied parties--virtually 100% control of Congress, far more than the 2/3 it would need to amend the Constitution. One thing appears true: the election was controlled by a National Election Council totally sympathetic to Chavez, and the opposition perceived that, even if they participated, the voting would be rigged.

The entire process points out the utmost--and I mean utmost--importance of guarantees against such usurption of powers (which, by the way, Hitler used, as well, in his ascendance to becoming Fuehrer; Germany had a similar clause that allowed dictatorial powers to be given a leader by a 2/3 vote of the Reichstag, which Hitler then proceeded to abolish).

The United States, by the way, does not allow this dangerous and pernicious route to amending the Constitution (see this for our far more restrictive method). But that's not going to help Venezuela.

The AP adds some interesting facts about Chavez's plans:

Chavez...also has formed a commission to rewrite the constitution and expects to hold a referendum on the changes by the end of the year. Among the changes, Chavez has proposed doing away with presidential term limits to allow for indefinite re-election. Term limits currently bar him from running again in 2012.

No surprise, that. He's on his way to becoming President for Life, despite claims that it will all be oh-so-democratic. With the opposition silenced and frightened, the entire legislature in his pocket, and the path cleared for an indefinite reign, the picture seems very ominous indeed.

I've often thought about our own FDR's propensity to grab power by bending the rules, or at least tradition: the attempt to pack the Supreme Court, and his four Presidential terms. But he never changed the Constitution, he merely took advantage of its silence on certain subjects. Congress deflected his first effort, and the US Constitutional amendment process was used to change the law to fill in the gap on the second, by making the two-term limit explicit after FDR.

But back to Chavez. One possible limitation for his plans involves the fact that, paradoxically, most economies based primarily on oil don't seem to do all that well; they are very vulnerable, and in good times have no incentive to diversify, and at the moment oil prices are "softening." And, of course, socialist economies in general don't have a great track record.

Even if the Venezuelan economy ends up tanking, it's hard to see how these trends toward dictatorship can be easily reversed. Once such powers are given--especially when war is not the ostensible excuse--they are rarely taken away, except by the force of arms. That's why, traditionally, the military has been feared by dictators as rivals in such countries--they are often the only ones who can accomplish the removal of a dictator. Unfortunately, they sometimes replace one with another.

Venezuela is a country with a built-in weakness in addition to its social and economic problems: a Constitution that allows for the easy usurpation of basic checks and balances. How many other democracies are vulnerable in this way I don't know, although it would be an interesting thing to research. My guess is that it's quite a few.

[For some fascinating background and eloquent commentary on the Venezuelan situation, Daniel in Venezuela has been watching the downward spiral for quite some time. Take a look at his archives: see this, for example. And here's his description of the 2005 election; here he offers some background to it, and here is his take on how the public lost faith in the voting process in the buildup to the 2005 election.

Daniel's summary statement:

I have written the diary of Venezuela slow descent into authoritarianism, the slow erosion of our liberties, the takeover of the country by a military caste, the surrendering of our soul to our inner demons.]

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