Winds of despotism started to gather in Venezuela in 1999, when newly elected President Hugo Chavez illegally convoked a Constituent Assembly ostensibly designed to write a new constitution. Instead, he used it to essentially dissolve all existing political institutions, replacing them with agencies and bureaucrats submissive to his political will. This progressive coup d’etat, akin to the slow boiling of a frog, went largely unnoticed in a world preoccupied with violent crises in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Since 1999 Venezuelan democracy has been dying before the indifferent and/or impotent eyes of the political leaders of the hemisphere.
Emboldened by the success of his maneuver, Hugo Chavez sold to Bolivian President Evo Morales and, later, to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa his idea of a Constituent Assembly as a mechanism for radical change in their countries. Both have been able to install an Assembly with supra-constitutional powers to “write a new constitution”, designed, in fact, to repeat the Venezuelan process of eliminating existing institutions in order to replace them with more pliable ones. So far, this strategy has worked reasonably well in both countries, as Bolivian and Ecuadorian societies have chosen not to learn from the Venezuelan disastrous experience.
As a result of this strategy, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are in advanced stages of being turned into undemocratic regimes.
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales decided to gather the loyal members of his Constituent Assembly in a military installation and ordered them to approve a new Bolivian constitution that will allow him to be indefinitely re-elected. The constitution was approved without discussions and without the proper knowledge of the people of Bolivia. However, six of the nine Bolivian provinces have rejected this coup d’etat and are essentially threatening with secession if Morales does not retreat from his absolutist pretensions.
In Ecuador, Correa has just installed “his” Constituent Assembly and has not lost time in dissolving the existing Congress and dismissing the Ombudsman, the Attorney General, the Banking Commissioner, the president of PetroEcuador, the Ecuadorian Petroleum Company and other top bureaucrats, many of them popularly elected. The Supreme Court and the Electoral Council members have been allowed to remain “as long as the Constituent Assembly considers it advisable”. In Ecuador, the people have been slower to react, allowing Correa to make substantial inroads in his way to dictatorship.
As I write this Venezuelans are voting, in a referendum, on whether they will agree or not to live under a fascist, military-driven dictatorship. This is a paradoxical political scenario, rarely seen in practice (though imagined by political philosophers, from Plato to Karl Popper). In flagrant violation of the existing constitution Hugo Chavez has imposed a referendum for his proposed constitutional reform which, if approved, would transform the country from a democracy into a tropical monarchy, allowing him to be re-elected indefinitely and giving him dictatorial powers.
As voting took place yesterday, all polls taken during the last two weeks indicate that the reform will be rejected but there is no guarantee that Chavez will admit defeat. On the contrary, Venezuelans fear an electoral fraud as the Electoral Council is under his control and the Electoral Registry includes more than two million voters without proper identification. His Defense Minister declared a few hours ago that “300,000 men of the National Reserves” stand ready to protect the vote. The minister was not talking about the regular army, which only consists of some 60,000 men, but of Chavez’s armed popular militia. In his campaign closing speech, last Friday, Chavez threatened violence if the Venezuelan opposition did not accept official results that are widely believed to be pre-determined.
At deadline time for this article no results are still available about the Venezuelan referendum. Three hours after all voting stations have closed down there is extreme official caution about giving results. This probably represents a bad omen for the Venezuelan opposition.
Whatever the results happen to be, the love of freedom of Venezuelans will ultimately be the lifeline that will keep the country democratic. Millions of freedom lovers all over the world hope that this lifeline will prove to be of sufficient strength.
It took nine long hours of suspense, after all polling stations had closed down, for the National Electoral Council to declare the opposition as the winner of the Venezuelan referendum. What went on during this time is slowly seeping out. Chavez and a hard core of followers did not want to concede defeat, in spite of the mounting evidence he had lost. It finally took a meeting with the top military brass to help him make up his mind. He almost certainly negotiated the very narrow margin of defeat that was stated by the National Electoral Council, so as to appear magnanimous and democratic. He suggested that much when he spoke at 3 a.m. saying: "This is a photo finish. I could have hold out until all votes were in, specially the ones from abroad (where he lost by a margin of ten to one) but I am a democratic ruler. I warn the opposition: I have lost for the time being " . In defeat he still managed to sound threatening and arrogant.