In the six pages that HRW dedicates to Venezuela in its World Report 2014, released this week, it manages to tell at least 30 serious lies, distortions, and omissions. Pointing out these lies is important, because many people believe that HRW is a neutral authority on human rights, and the mainstream press publish articles and headlines based on HRW report conclusions. Here are some of the headlines in both English and Spanish (translated to English) that have come out of the 2014 report:
Global Post – Venezuela intimidates opponents, media: HRW report , PanAm Post – Human Rights Watch: A black eye for Latin America , AFP – HRW criticises Venezuela in its annual report on human rights, El Economista – HRW: Democracy in Venezuela is fictitious, El Universal – Human Rights Watch report denounces persecution of media in Venezuela, El Siglo – Human Rights Watch: Venezuela is an example of “fictitious democracies”, El Colombiano: HRW describes Venezuela as a fictitious democracy , NTN24 – HRW warns that Venezuelan government applies “arbitrary” measures against media that is critical of its policies
The headlines which talk about a “fictitious” or “feigned” democracy, are referring to the start of the report, where HRW put Venezuela, along with other countries, under the category of “abusive majoritarianism”. There, HRW provides a very limited definition of democracy; “periodic elections, the rule of law, and respect for the human rights of all” and argues that Venezuela has adopted “the form but not the substance of democracy”. HRW cites Diosdado Cabello not letting legislators who didn’t recognise democratically elected President Maduro speak in parliament – yet the punishment seems soft, considering the crime.
Below, I’ve grouped the lies and omissions according to HRW’s own subheadings in its chapter on Venezuela. Unlike with other countries such as the US, HRW omits all of Venezuela’s human rights achievements in its assessment, and in reality a range of other subheadings would be deserving, such has right to have access to housing, people’s right to be consulted about policy, right of the poorer people to be heard in the media, right to education, the right to health care, to land, and so on. Of course, nowhere in the report does HRW mention the economic crimes committed by the business sector against Venezuelans’ right to access affordable goods (hoarding, speculation, etc).
15 lies and distortions
1. “The Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council rejected appeals filed by the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, challenging the results [of the April 2013 presidential elections]”. – The CNE did meet with the opposition and they came to an agreement to do a manual recount of the remaining 46% of votes which hadn’t already been revised on the day of the election. The entire recount was televised live. Given how incredibly flimsy Capriles’ “evidence” was, the Supreme Court would have been ridiculing itself to do anything but reject his case.
2. “Under the leadership of President Chavez and now President Maduro, the accumulation of power in the executive branch and the erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled the government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute its critics.” – HRW offers very little evidence to substantiate such accusations. The reality is the opposite; private media makes up the vast majority of the media, and freely criticises the government on a daily basis, to the point where it invents news and blames the national government for things it isn’t even responsible for. Just last week here in Merida a few opposition students held a protest by burning tires on a main road. For a week, traffic to a key hospital was blocked, and the students had no placards stating the reason for their protest. The police closed off the roads around them to protect their right to protest.
3. “In September 2013, the Venezuelan government’s decision to withdraw from the American Convention on Human Rights took effect, leaving Venezuelans without access to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, an international tribunal that has protected their rights for decades in a wide array of cases.” – The IACHR has not protected Venezuelans’ rights. From 1969-1998, a repressive period of disappearances, political repression, and massacres such as those at Cantaura, Yumare, and the Caracazo, it only considered six cases, and of those only one was brought to the commission. In contrast, from 1999 to 2011 it ruled on and processed a total of 23 cases. It did not take any action after the coup attempt against democratically elected president Hugo Chavez in 2002.
4. “Security forces used excessive force and arbitrary detentions to disperse anti-government demonstrations after the April elections, according to local groups”. -Though it may have varied from region to region, unlike HRW, I was at those protests, and took photos of and interviewed opposition protesters in Merida – one of their strongholds. Despite threatening to take over and destroy the CNE and the PSUV head offices, with large piles of projectiles like rocks and shrapnel and Molotov cocktails, the police merely cordoned off those areas. They were not armed, and there were no injuries or arrests observed. The threats were not empty ones either, as seen by other destruction carried out by the opposition around the country. HRW also needs to specify what it means by “security forces”, as the police system here is complicated and most police continue to be managed at a state level, but HRW implies that the national government is entirely responsible. Finally, merely attributing these claims to “local groups” is very vague. One might also say, HRW is a capitalist front, said local groups.
5. “Official sources reported that nine individuals were killed at the time, although the circumstances in which the deaths occurred remain unclear. President Maduro and other high level officials have used the threat of criminal investigations as a political tool, attributing responsibility for all acts of violence during demonstrations to Capriles”. – Does HRW want an investigation or not? The violence occurred the day after the presidential elections, and all of the victims and buildings destroyed were Chavista supporters or part of national programs. It was clearly political, why is it a problem to mention that, and why does it become a “threat” when Maduro talks about bringing murderers and those who set fire to public hospitals, to justice? A thorough investigation was conducted, and those who were responsible for the deaths were arrested.
6. “The judiciary has largely ceased to function as an independent branch of government”. – While it is true that there are serious problems in Venezuela’s court system: HRW doesn’t mention those: the delays and corruption. Instead, it argued the judiciary is not “independent” because it doesn’t always rule against the government, as HRW would like. If it is not independent, why were almost a hundred supposedly pro government workers in SAIME, SENIAT, the China-Venezuela bank, and so on, arrested last year for corruption?
Freedom of Media
7. “Over the past decade, the government has expanded and abused its powers to regulate the media… fear of government reprisals has made self-censorship a problem” – No it hasn’t. What the government has done, over the last four years or so, is pass legislation which limits media abuse: racism, extreme violence, and sensationalism that is so extreme it can be psychologically damaging. Those regulations apply equally to the private, public, and community media, but the reality is it is the private media which tends to be most abusive. Nevertheless, Conatel has emitted less than 10 fines over the last few years.
8. “The government has taken aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming.” – HRW is not able to cite any examples to back up this statement. Instead, it refers to one case from years ago, RCTV, who’s license was not renewed after it played an active role in the 2002 coup.
9. “In April 2013, Globovision was sold to government supporters… since then it has significantly reduced its critical programming”. The owners of Globovision sold it to a group of Venezuelan investors headed by businessman Juan Domingo Cordero, who is not a government supporter. Since then, Globovision’s coverage is somewhat less extreme and sensationalist, but it is just as critical.
10. “The government has also targeted other media outlets for arbitrary sanction and censorship”. – The government has not censored any media. Today alone, for example, Tal Cual freely published these headlines: “The fiscal report is a time bomb”, “The government uses violence as an excuse to censor the media” , “Dance with death” (to refer to the government) and “The government tragicomedy”. El Nacional received a fine in August last year for using a three year old photo of naked corpses on its front cover, and that is it.
Human Rights Defenders
11. “The Venezuelan government has sought to marginalise the country’s human rights defenders by repeatedly accusing them of seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy with the support of the US government”. – The lie here is “the country’s human rights defenders”. HRW is referring to a select few organisations such as itself and other individuals, who use human rights as a front for their right-wing political agenda. The government is completely within its right in pointing that out.
Abuses by Security Forces
This section is somewhat accurate, but lacks any causal analysis.
These criticisms are also somewhat legitimate, though the information is selective. For omissions, see below.
12. “Political discrimination against workers in state institutions remains a problem. In April 2013, Minister of Housing Ricardo Molina called on all ministry personnel who supported the opposition to resign, saying that he would fire anyone who criticised Maduro, Chavez, or the revolution”. Though perhaps a bit extreme, HRW forgets to point out that Molina made that remark in the context of the opposition not recognising a democratically elected president. That there is political discrimination against workers is largely untrue, though may occur in isolated situations. It is no secret that most of the public education and health workers, for example, support the opposition.
13. “The National Electoral Council (CNE), a public authority, continues to play an excessive role in union elections, violating international standards that guarantee workers the right to elect their representatives in full freedom” – Actually, what the CNE provides to unions is logistical support: machinery that makes cross-country elections much easier. If there were concern about the CNE somehow influencing elections, the opposition would not have also used its logistical support for its primaries in February 2012.
Key International Actors
14. “For years, Venezuela’s government has refused to authorise UN human rights experts to conduct fact-finding visits in the country” – That’s why the UNESCO and the FAO have both recently praised Venezuela’s education and food development. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right’s most recent report on Venezuela was made in September last year, it was about Venezuela’s elimination of racial discrimination.
15. “In June 2013, Venezuela became the pro-tempore president of Mercosur… The Asuncion Protocol…states that “full respect of democratic institutions and the respect of human rights” are essential…By not addressing the absence of an independent judiciary in Venezuela, as well as the government’s efforts to undermine human rights protections, the other Mercosur member states have failed to uphold these commitments” – See previous and subsequent comments on Venezuela’s judiciary and treatment of “human rights” protections.
The following very important facts on Venezuela’s human rights record were completely omitted from the report. Such omissions are as serious as lying.
1. HRW conveniently doesn’t mention that the 15 “health centres” that were “vandalised” (ie they were set on fire on medical equipment was destroyed) were CDIs- Cuban-Venezuelan run free health centres that have come to be a symbol of the Bolivarian revolution. HRW doesn’t mention that opposition supporters attacked them, it lets readers believe that the government supported such violence.
2. HRW doesn’t criticise the extremely undemocratic move by Capriles to not recognise the president whom the majority of voters chose in the April presidential elections. Their omission to do so amounts to tacit support of Capriles. That sort of context is also necessary when HRW criticises the fact that there were arrests following the elections: it’s possible that some arrests were not justified, but given that the Bolivarian revolution has already suffered one (failed) coup, and the continent has suffered many successful and bloody ones, it is reasonable to arrest participants in that. Any other country would do the same.
3. HRW focuses on the post election violence, and blames the national government for it, rather than recognising the opposition’s role. It purposefully omits to mention that while Capriles called for a “venting of rage”, Maduro called on supporters to play music and dance in the street.
4. HRW criticises the imprisonment of “government critic” judge Afiuni, but omits to mention that she was arrested for illegally releasing a bank president who stole US$27 million from state currency body, CADIVI. Does HRW advocate such judicial corruption? In June Afiuni was awarded conditional release.
5. There are, however, other cases of court inefficiency and bribery of judges, which HRW completely ignores, perhaps because the victims are mostly Bolivarian revolution supporters. Over the last year, many rural workers, commune members, trade unionists, and indigenous activists were murdered by hired killers, and though the killers are usually easy to identify, few have been arrested and prosecuted.
6. HRW criticises Venezuela for withdrawing from the IACHR, but omits to mention that that court is totally under the thumb of the US. It then hypocritically comments on Venezuela’s so called “lack of judicial independence”.
Freedom of Media
7. While in most countries, people who aren’t rich don’t have the right to run their own media, that right is being promoted in Venezuela, with the state materially and legally supporting over 500 community and alternative radios, television stations, and newspapers. That is an important development in media freedom, but HRW completely ignored it.
8. HRW states that, “In November 2013, the broadcasting authority opened an administrative investigation against eight Internet providers for allowing web sites that published information on unofficial exchange rates”. HRW intentionally omits to point out that those sites were illegally publishing those figures, and that those figures have contributed to the three and four fold price increase of basic products. At no point does HRW criticise the role of business of deliberately making basic food and goods unaffordable for Venezuelans.
9. HRW also doesn’t mention the almost one thousand free internet centres the government has set up, its promotion of freeware, and its distribution of laptops to school children: part of the government’s efforts to make the right to information a reality.
Human Rights Defenders
10. HRW criticises the government for supposedly “marginalising” “human rights defenders” by investigating their sources of funding, but fails to mention the fact that the US does use such groups as a front for funding the undemocratic wing of the opposition. It fails to criticise this affront to Venezuela’s right to sovereignty.
11. Likewise, it doesn’t mention the important role played by the real human rights defenders in Venezuela: gender and sexuality activists and movements, indigenous and afro-descendents organisations, the Cuban doctors defending the right to free and quality health care, community activists, environmental movements, volunteer teachers, social mission workers, activist analysts who are constructively critical of the situation in the country, and so on. Many of these movements and workers receive financial, institutional, and/or legal support from the state, though there are improvements to be made there as well, such as legalising gay marriage, abortion, and so on.
Abuses by Security Forces
12. Here it is telling that HRW simply doesn’t mention Venezuela’s creation of the UNES, a university training police in human rights and preventative policing. While it is legitimate that HRW points out ongoing problems within the police forces, it doesn’t mention that such corruption has significantly decreased, nor that police political repression has been almost completely eliminated.
13. HRW rightly points out the ongoing problems of overcrowding and organised prisoner violence in prisons, but simply omits to mention anything the government is doing to improve prisoner rights, including letting those who have committed minor offences out during the day time to work or study, internal prison education and productive work programs, assistance on leaving prison, cultural workshops such as video production in prisons, and government meetings with prisoners.
14. For HRW it seems labour rights are limited to the right of opposition supporters to work in governmental programs that they don’t agree with (a right they have). HRW omits to mention the Labour Law which came into effect in May last year, which beats most of the world in providing workers with rights to permanent work (contract labour is made illegal), to childcare in the workplace, to maternity leave and to paternity leave, shorter working hours, retirement pensions, and much much more.
15. HRW alleges that opposition workers were “threatened” with losing their jobs if they supported Capriles, but provides no evidence of that, nor mentions that of course voting is anonymous and such a threat could not be carried out, and neglects to mention that governor Capriles fired fire fighters in May last year for demanding pay they were owed, uniforms, and infrastructure improvements.
Merida – This afternoon president Maduro said the opposition’s call for a general strike today had “failed”. He also blamed the losing candidate in Sunday’s elections, Henrique Capriles, for the seven deaths last night.
Maduro said last night’s violence was part of a plan “to take Venezuela off the road of democracy”, and called on the people to be peaceful and not “fall for provocations”.
He also declared “the coup d’état defeated”, and inaugurated a health centre in Miranda state. However he said it seemed the “destabilisations will continue”. Though there has been no direct attempt to overthrow the government, some government authorities have referred to the opposition’s refusal to recognise the election results as a “coup” or part of an attempt to bring about a coup.
President of the National Electoral Council (CNE) Tibisay Lucena said yesterday that the electoral system functioned “perfectly” on Sunday. She urged Henrique Capriles, who has not recognised the results, to use legal methods to present his complaints. 54% of the votes were audited on Sunday in the presence of booth witnesses from both political parties, and no problems were found, but opposition protestors are demanding that 100% of the votes be recounted.
Telesur reports that according to CNE norms, the opposition have “twenty [working] days to contest the results, they can do it through the Supreme Court, or the CNE, but they should formalise it, and not do it through the media”.
“Majority is majority, and should be respected under a democracy, they shouldn’t seek ambushes and invent things in order to make popular sovereignty vulnerable… that has just one name, “coup-ism” [golpismo],” Maduro said yesterday.
Last night seven people were killed as a result of opposition violence; two in Caracas, three in Ojeda, Zulia, one in Cumana, and one person in San Cristobal.
The opposition set fire to 18 Central Diagnostic Centres (CDIs – part of the Barrio Adentro health mission), and 3 subsidised food markets (Mercals). They also attacked the director of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena’s house, and the Telesur and VTV offices.
There are also unconfirmed reports of four attacks on housing mission buildings in Miranda, with seven people killed and ten injured.
The governor of Carabobo state, Francisco Ameliach, reported that 8 CDIs were “besieged” and Cuban doctors were attacked in his state. He said 64 people were detained inside the CDI, and “should go to jail, because we’re not going to tolerate a coup d’état here”.
In Merida, around 700 mostly young opposition students protested outside the CNE, as well as in four other places in the city. Venezuelanalysis.com observed that police presence was light, and most police unarmed. Many of the students armed themselves with rocks and glass bottles however, as though hoping something would happen. There were similar such protests outside most of the country’s main CNE headquarters.
Many people have posted photos around social networks, claiming they are of the CNE disposing of Sunday’s ballot boxes, though they are in fact of the CNE disposing of 2010 voting boxes, as the law requires. Media like La Patilla and RCTV have also used the photos.
Further, pundit Nelson Bocaranda tweeted that the “CDI in La Paz, Gallo Verde, Maracaibo is hiding some electoral boxes and the Cubans there won’t allow them to be removed”. Opposition television station Globovision has been arguing that “if they don’t want to count the votes, they must have something to hide”.
Capriles called for marches around the country to each state’s head CNE office for today, and for a large march lead by him tomorrow to the headquarters of the CNE in Caracas.
President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, reported through Twitter that he will propose an investigation to the assembly against Capriles for the acts of violence. Luisa Ortega said the public prosecutor’s office will investigate the seven confirmed deaths.
Further, the suspension of the right to carry arms in place during the election, as is the custom, has been extended to this Saturday 6.00pm, following last night’s violence.
State, municipal, and national police are also confined to barracks until Saturday. Police need permission from the National Bolivarian Armed Forces strategic operational command to intervene or act on any of the violence taking place.
- Maduro Wins Venezuelan Presidential Election with 50.66 Percent of the Vote (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Opposition Intensifies Campaign against Venezuelan Electoral System (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Capriles Attacks Venezuelan Electoral Council, Refuses to Sign Document (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Punto Fijo – In a heated debate before the National Assembly on Tuesday, several politicians from opposition political party Primero Justicia were accused of corruption, and one opposition legislator broke ranks with the opposition coalition.
President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello had warned earlier in the week that he would be presenting evidence of corruption on the part of the right-wing party Primero Justicia (Justice First) before the Assembly.
On Tuesday, he offered various pieces of evidence that showed that Primero Justicia had received more than BsF. 491 million (US$ 114 million) in undeclared funding from private sources between 2009 and 2011.
The evidence consisted of checks from various private Venezuelan firms made out to Richard Mardo, opposition legislator and candidate for governor of Aragua in last December’s state elections, as well as a recorded telephone call of Miranda Governor Henrique Caprlies’s father discussing campaign financing.
Evidence was also given against opposition legislator Gustavo Marcano for presumably transferring funds to members of Primero Justicia during his term as mayor of the eastern city of Lecheria.
All of the accusations were against members of Primero Justicia, the party of opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
The party has a history of corruption allegations, famously accused of receiving funds from Venezuela’s oil company before Chavez took power, and recently being accused of illegal campaign financing during last year’s presidential campaign when hidden cameras caught a meeting between a party official and a private businessman.
“This party is a mafia organization that uses politics as a way of doing business. This is what they really are, but they want to present another image to the public,” said Cabello.
Pro-Chavez legislators said they would be presenting formal charges against both Richard Mardo and Gustavo Marcano of Primero Justicia, and requested that they be placed under house arrest until the investigations are carried out. Officials later added Henrique Capriles, Julio Borges and Carlos Ocariz to the list of those to be investigated.
The accusations created an uproar on the floor of the assembly, with both opposition and pro-government legislators shouting insults and accusations, and leading one legislator to break away from the opposition and join the pro-Chavez coalition.
Opposition legislator Hernán Núñez criticized the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition of parties and called for the corruption charges to be investigated.
“I’m breaking ties with a coalition that isn’t united or democratic. It’s a coalition of four parties that get together and rob the hope of the Venezuelan people,” said Núñez amidst the cheers of the pro-Chavez legislators.
Opposition leaders assured that the accusations were simply a “show” put on by the government to try to weaken the opposition, and that the politicians who have recently broken ranks with the opposition were “bought off” by the government.
At a press conference on Wednesday morning, Mardo used newspaper clippings to show the various activities to which the funds had gone, claiming they were used for charitable activities like food purchases for poor families, and the repairing of a sports facility.
However, pro-Chavez commentators pointed out that newspaper clippings were not sufficient proof for how the funds were spent, nor could they justify the fact that the funds were not declared for tax or campaign purposes.
But opposition leaders and analysts insist that the government accusations against Primero Justicia are part of a larger plan to demoralize and weaken the opposition before an imminent election later this year if Hugo Chavez is unable to return to the presidency.
Henrique Capriles, who would most likely be the opposition candidate in any presidential election, insisted the charges were actually aimed at him.
“Don’t anyone be mistaken…Here what they want is to come after me, and to demoralize you all. But we won’t kneel before anyone!” said Capriles.
Opposition analyst Luis Vicente León argued that the accusations are a way for the government to make up for a growing “power vacuum”.
“The government is trying to terrorize its adversaries in order to minimize them and send a strong message that there is no power vacuum, and that they can be even stronger and harder than before,” said León.
However, pro-Chavez analysts claim the events have more to do with ruptures within the opposition coalition as the opposition parties attempt to remain united behind Henrique Capriles.
“The events in the National Assembly show that there exists a conflictive situation inside the opposition,” said pro-Chavez analyst Farith Faija, claiming that some parties in the coalition were critical of Capriles’ “abandonment of the state governor candidates in December, the raw corruption in the core of the opposition coalition, and the fact that it isn’t unified or democratic.”
Hernán Núñez gave similar reasons for his rupture with the opposition coalition, accusing Capriles of abandoning the rest of the opposition’s state governor candidates, and not being “sincere” with the Venezuelan people.
Authorities said a legislative committee will investigate the corruption charges and present a report in less than a month. No announcement was made on whether the legislators would be placed under house arrest during this time.
Over the last few weeks the private English media has stepped up its campaign against the Venezuelan revolution, spreading a number of lies and misconceptions around President Hugo Chavez’s health, the politics and legalities involved in his swearing-in for his new term, and the Venezuelan government’s handling of the situation. [...]
Here, Venezuelanalysis.com debunks the top five lies currently being spread by private media.
1) The Venezuelan government is being secretive about Chavez’s health
This charge has been made by international media since Chavez first announced he had cancer in June 2011. Criticisms by the private media of government “secrecy” around his condition have intensified as the swearing-in date approaches, in part reflecting an increasingly fractious Venezuelan opposition anxious for details they could use to their advantage.
Mass media sources describe Chavez’s medical condition as “a mystery”, with outlets such as the Los Angeles Times referring to government information on Chavez’s post-operatory recovery as “sporadic and thinly detailed medical updates”. Outlets such as the British BBC and the Australian have picked up the opposition’s call for the Venezuelan government to tell the “truth” on Chavez’s health, implying that the government is withholding information, or outright lying.
The argument that the Venezuelan government is keeping secrets feeds into the discourse most mainstream media use in relation to the Bolivarian revolution, recently describing the government as “despots” (Chicago Tribune) and “autocratic populists” (Washington Post).
Other media has put out its own versions of Chavez’s state of health, with the Spanish ABC going to great lengths to describe even his bowel movements, and reporting that he is in a coma, and the multinational Terra mistaking its desires for reality, reporting that Chavez is already dead. These media outlets have just one “anonymous” source for their reports; they somehow, apparently, have an infiltrator (or an “intelligence source” as they call it) among Chavez’s Cuban medical team.
The government has in fact released 28 statements updating the public on Chavez’s condition since his operation on 11 December, an average of around 1 per day. These statements are available in full text on the internet, and are also being read out by communication minister Ernesto Villegas on all Venezuelan public television and radio.
In the latest statement, released yesterday, Villegas said that Chavez’s condition remains “stationary” compared to the last report, where the public was informed that he has a respiratory “deficiency” due to a pulmonary infection.
It is true however, that beyond mentioning the general cancer site; the pelvic region, the government hasn’t revealed the exact type of cancer that Chavez has, nor the exact nature of the operation that he underwent on 11 December. This is possibly due to privacy reasons.
When asked directly about this issue in a recent interview, Jorge Rodriguez, a doctor and key figure in Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), said “I’d give the example of Mrs. Hilary Clinton, who had a cerebral vascular accident. There are three factors which influence these cases: the part of the brain where it happens, the size of the affected zone, and if it produces a hemorrhage or obstruction. Well fine, I’ve not seen any serious and decent doctor ask in which zone she had the lesion. And I think it’s fine that they don’t ask because that lady has the right to privacy. I’ve not seen Ramon Guillermo Aveledo (the executive secretary of the opposition’s MUD coalition) asking to know if her accident affected her in the frontal lobe, in which case, of course, she couldn’t continue giving the instructions she normally gives”.
Of course, when the international media report on the Venezuelan opposition’s stance towards Chavez’s health situation, they invariably fail to mention that the opposition’s approach has a lot less to do with a crusade for truth, and more to do with its hopes of creating a political and constitutional crisis over the issue. They make out that the Venezuelan government is being deliberately misleading and manipulative with information, but would never point the finger at Western leaders such as George Bush or Barack Obama for not announcing the exact locations of their frequent, long, and luxurious vacations, for example.
2) It is unconstitutional if Chavez doesn’t take the oath of office on 10 January
This is another lie that takes a leaf straight from the opposition’s book. Most opposition leaders, and even the Venezuelan Catholic Church, are arguing that if Chavez cannot be officially sworn-in as president on 10 January then he will lose his status as president of Venezuela. They say that in that case, Chavez should be declared “permanently absent”, and the head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, would have to take over as president and call fresh elections. The opposition also claim that the swearing-in ceremony cannot be postponed, and that if Chavez continues on as president after 10 January it would be a “flagrant violation of the constitution”. Their strategy is to use their own interpretation of the constitution in order to try and depose Chavez on a technicality while the president-elect lies in Cuba struggling in post-surgery recovery.
Private media outlets have latched onto this argument, and misinformed about the Venezuelan constitution. In a highly misleading article, the Washington Post claimed that a delay in Chavez’s inauguration ceremony would be “a stretch of the constitution’s ambiguous wording”. Similar comments were made in other U.S. outlets, with Time arguing that Venezuela’s constitution is “a murky map that could send the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation into precarious governmental limbo this year”. Reuters argued that the Venezuelan government is “violating the constitution” and the country will be “left in a power vacuum”, and the BBC, which maintained a more reserved tone, still portrayed interpretations of the constitution as muddied debate between government and opposition.
However, Venezuela’s constitution is clear on the situation. The conditions under which a president can be declared permanently absent and new elections called are covered by article 233, and are, “death, resignation, destitution decreed by the Supreme Court, mental or physical incapacity certified by a medical council designated by the Supreme Court with the approval of the National Assembly, abandonment of the post, [or] a popular recall of the mandate”.
Currently Chavez’s status is that of “absence from the national territory”, a status which is granted by the national assembly. This could eventually be declared a “temporary absence” from the presidency, which is granted by the national assembly for a period of ninety days, and can be extended for 90 further days, as outlined by articles 234 and 235 of the constitution.
What the opposition are trying to do is use article 231 of the constitution, which describes the presidential inauguration, to argue for Chavez’s deposal. The article states that the president elect “will assume their mandate on the 10th of January of the first year of their constitutional period, through a swearing-in ceremony in front of the National Assembly”. The opposition claim that Chavez’s inability to attend that ceremony means that he has not assumed his term and his “permanent absence” should be declared. However, as noted above, not being able to attend the inauguration ceremony is not considered a reason for “permanent absence” in the Venezuelan constitution, leaving the Venezuelan opposition without a constitutional leg to stand on.
Rather, this situation is dealt with by the second half of article 231, which states, “If for any supervening reason the president cannot take office in front of the National Assembly, s/he will do so before the Supreme Court”. No date is specified.
Venezuelan constitutional lawyer Harman Escarra, an opposition supporter who helped draft the 1999 constitution, explained in an interview with Venezuelan daily Ciudad CCS that constitutionally, even if the president can’t attend the 10 January ceremony, the new presidential term still begins, including the constitutional mandate of the president’s council of state, the vice-president, and government ministers. As such, he affirmed that in Venezuela “there isn’t a power vacuum”.
The constitutional lawyer further explained that under both the letter and spirit of article 231 of the constitution, “The President, from the point of view of sovereignty, is the President. There’s no other, and the mandate of the popular majority cannot not be overturned because of the issue of a date at a specific moment, because that would be to violate a sacred principle that is in article five of the constitution, which says that power resides in the sovereignty of the people”.
Therefore, it is erroneous for international media to report that Venezuela is entering a constitutionally ambiguous situation in which either the status of the president or the next constitutional step is not clear. Further, it is not only misleading, but dangerous to wrongly paint Chavez allies as looking to subvert the constitution to stay in power, when the opposition is trying to question the government’s constitutional legitimacy in order to provoke a political crisis and depose Chavez as president. The opposition is not the “critical” and “unbiased” democratic voice that the private media represent them as. Such reporting also displays a certain level of hypocrisy, as one can be sure that if the U.S. president or British prime minister were unable to assume a particular inauguration ceremony for health reasons, such outlets would not start casting doubt on their legitimacy, as they are currently doing with Chavez.
3) Should elections have to be called, they may not be “fair”, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles has a good chance of winning
This third myth adds to the previous two to create the impression that the Bolivarian revolution is undemocratic. It is spouted by most private media, but especially media from the US, which rarely points out the utterly unfair conditions in which elections are held in its own country.
The Washington Post claimed that if Chavez were to die and new elections had to be called, “Chavez’s inner circle…may consider postponing the election or even calling it off”.
“That’s why the first responsibility of the United States and Venezuelan neighbors such as Brazil should be to insist that the presidential election be held and that it be free and fair,” the WP said, and even suggested that “Mr Chavez’s followers or military leaders” might “attempt a coup”.
The US State Department has also called for any elections that Venezuela has to be “free and transparent” and the Chicago Tribune in an article today said, “In October, Chavez vanquished his first serious challenger, Henrique Capriles, despite being too sick to campaign… Too sick to give speeches, he bought votes through political stunts like awarding a free government-built home to his 3 millionth Twitter follower.”
The Chicago Tribune’s statement is a lie; Chavez attended one to two huge rallies around the country in the month before the presidential elections, including one in Merida the authors of this article attended, as well as fulfilling his duties as president. And, of course there is no basis or need for these calls for “fair” elections. None of the private media will remind its readers of the 16 elections held over the last 14 years, that 81% of Venezuelans voluntarily turned out to vote in the October presidential elections, that Venezuela is building up participatory democracy through its communal councils, and that Venezuelans have access to completely free and widely available health care, education, and even to subsidised housing—basic conditions necessary for democracy to be practiced.
The Washington Post argued that the Venezuelan government “fears” free elections because “a fair vote would be won by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the October presidential ballot but is more popular than Mr. Maduro.” This is wishful thinking, another example of the media mistaking its desire for reality. The opposition did not receive more votes than the governing PSUV in the recent 16 December regional elections, despite Chavez’s absence. The opposition is weak, divided, disillusioned after 14 years of losing election after election (except the 2007 constitutional referendum), has no street presence what so ever, and has no program or cause to unite around, beyond wanting power.
4) A split within the Chavista leadership between Maduro and Cabello is coming
This is another idea bandied about by the Venezuelan opposition and propagated by the international media. The notion, or hope, is that if the worst were to happen and Chavez were to die, Chavismo would immediately become divided among itself and fall apart. In particular, it is argued that national assembly president Diosdado Cabello would try to seize the presidential candidacy of the PSUV from Vice-president Nicolas Maduro. Some opposition figures appear to be actively encouraging this, with opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado demanding that Diosdado Cabello take power on 10 January and that “distrust” and “fear” exist between Cabello and Maduro.
On cue, always backed by vague “analysts” or “observers”, the international media has informed the public of, “A potential rift inside Chavismo between Maduro’s more socialist faction and that of the more pragmatic Cabello” (TIME), or, “Mr Cabello wields considerable power and is thought to harbour his own political ambitions” (BBC), and that, “Chavez’s death or resignation could set off a power struggle within the party among Maduro, Cabello, Chavez’s brother Adan and state governors” (LA Times).
Such commentary has been slammed by Maduro, Cabello and other leaders within Chavismo, who all stress the unity of different currents within the Bolivarian movement in the current difficult situation. Indeed, the scenario of a direct power grab by Cabello or any other figure within Chavismo of Maduro’s role as successor if Chavez cannot assume his presidential term is very unlikely. Just before Chavez flew off to Cuba for surgery in December, he told the nation that, “If such a scenario were to occur, I ask you from my heart that you elect Nicolas Maduro as constitutional president of the republic”. Chavez has such strong support and respect from among his followers that it would be almost unthinkable for another leader within Chavismo to publicly go against Chavez’s express wish that Maduro be his successor. Any attempt to usurp Maduro’s leadership and candidacy in fresh presidential elections would be seen as political suicide.
5) That the revolution is over without Chavez
Most private media have also subtly cast doubt that the revolution will continue without Chavez, suggesting that the leadership will collapse, that Venezuela is already in “economic chaos” and “disaster”, that Venezuela is living a political “crisis” right now, and that the revolutionary process can’t survive without Chavez. The Chicago Tribune said that, “Whoever ends up running Venezuela will preside over the mess Chavez made of a prosperous and promising nation” and there is now “high unemployment, record inflation and rampant crime”. This is despite Venezuela ending 2012 with 19.9% inflation, the lowest in years, and unemployment lower than the US.
The media is ignoring the fact that the country has been doing fine this last month without Chavez, that the PSUV leadership won 20 out of 23 states in the regional elections in December, without Chavez’s presence, that there is no crisis here; schools started again as normal today, the barrio adentro clinics are open, people are working, shopping, returning from Christmas season vacations, as normal. There is no panic buying, no looting, no political unrest.
Most importantly, the media is ignoring, is invisibilising the biggest factor there is; the people of Venezuela. Chavez isn’t just a person, or a leader, he represents a political project; of economic and cultural sovereignty, of Latin American unity, of freedom from US intervention, of all basic rights satisfied, and of participatory democracy. The majority of Venezuelans have shown their support for that project by turning out to vote en masse time and time again, including in elections in which Chavez wasn’t running, with voting rates generally increasing each year. In most other countries people would be tired and would have gotten over so many elections by now. Venezuelans have marched in the thousands and millions around the country again and again, not just to support electoral candidates, but to march for workers’ rights on May Day, as well as for other causes such as gay rights, defending journalists against violent attacks by the opposition, in support of various laws, and more. It was Venezuelans, en masse, who helped overturn the coup against Chavez in 2002.
The list of gains over the last 14 years is a long one. To mention just a few: complete literacy, broadly available and free university education, free healthcare centres in most communities, free laptops to primary school children, free meals for primary school children, subsidised food, subsidised books, increased street culture and street art, a range of new public infrastructure such as train lines and cable cars, laws supporting the rights of disabled people, women, and so on, government assisted urban agriculture, legalised community and worker organising, nearly a 1000 free internet centres, music programs, pensions for the elderly, and much more. These huge changes can’t be quickly reversed, and the Venezuelan people have every reason not to let them be.
Further, over the last 14 years, Venezuelans have woken up. They read and know their laws, everyone, even opposition supporters, spends hours each day debating and discussing politics and economics. Apathy still exists, but is way down. There is a political consciousness and depth that can’t be turned off overnight.
While it is true that after Chavez there will probably be bureaucracy, corruption, reformism, and some internal disagreements, these issues existed with him as a leader as well. Any change in political circumstances is an opportunity to bring these problems to the surface and to confront them.
The people of the Bolivarian movement are fighters, and are here to stay.