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Hugo Chavez's March to Dictatorship

Thursday, 08 March 2007 12:00 AM EST

When Venezuela's National Assembly voted to give President Hugo Chavez the power to make law by decree in January, they gave their leader the final legal OK for dictatorship.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, said: "We should all be concerned about the direction President Chavez is taking his country.

"Any leader who tries to tighten his grip on power by destroying the institutions of democracy, curtailing press freedom, and using his office to intimidate pro-democracy opponents is setting in motion a dangerous process with potentially ominous consequences."

Incoming Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told the Senate that Chavez's behavior "threatens democracy" in the region.

And in Venezuela, former Chavez ally Teodoro Petkoff, now an opposition politician and newspaper editor, wrote that the law "transforms Chavez into an emperor."

Chavez feels few constraints. Last September he came to the United Nations and called President Bush "the devil." He has been siding with U.S. enemies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. As Castro is ailing, Chavez has been moving diligently to grab his mantle as the great rebel against U.S. imperialism. But Chavez is different from Castro in one aspect - he has money.

Oil provides Venezuela with 80 percent of its exports and 50 percent of government revenue, even as Chavez has been giving away his nation's oil wealth. Venezuela is selling up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Cuba at discounts of as much as 40 percent, and has signed a deal to supply preferentially priced diesel fuel to Bolivia.

Defenders of Chavez claim that he was democratically elected, and has operated in the framework of Venezuela's constitution. But a careful analysis of Chavez's path to dictatorship finds he has flouted laws, democratic institutions, the judiciary, and even civil liberties on his way to absolute power.

The recently enacted Ley Habilitante, or Enabling Law, was simply the most recent of Chavez's steps to consolidate power. Here is a timeline of his path to dictatorship:

On Feb. 4, 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez led a military coup against democratically elected Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, which caused the death of more than 200 Venezuelans.

On March 26, 1994, President Rafael Caldera stopped the prosecution of Chavez for treason and set him free. He had been facing 30 years in prison.

Legislative and state governor elections were held in Venezuela on Nov. 6, 1998. Candidates endorsed by Hugo Chavez won eight governorships and 87 seats in Congress. Non-Chavez followers won 15 governorships and 168 seats in Congress, a clear majority.

On Dec. 6, 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected president.

At his Feb. 2, 1999 presidential inauguration ceremony, Chavez made a contrived response to the traditional oath of office. He said: "I swear before God and the fatherland, before my people and over this moribund constitution, that I will promote the transformations required for the new republic to have a new constitution adequate to the times." By not swearing to uphold the constitution, he violated its Articles 4, 52, and 117.

In his presidential inaugural address, Chavez claimed "this is not the time for legalistic mumbo jumbo but time for great political decisions." Immediately after his speech he issued a presidential decree to convene a Constituent Assembly that would not only draft a new constitution but also "transform the state and create a new judicial order based on a different model of government to the existing one." This decree violated Articles 3 and 4 of the existing constitution.

On March 10, 1999, Chavez issued another executive decree, approved by the Council of Ministers, containing the "basis" for convoking the Constituent Assembly. This basis violated the principles of representative democracy guaranteed in Articles 3, 4 and 113 of the constitution, which provided for the proportional representation of minorities, since it called for a uninominal, winner-take-all type of election. This change in the rules made it possible for Chavez to obtain 96 percent of the seats in the assembly with the support of only 30 percent of the registered voters. The new Assembly started to act in parallel with the Congress elected in November 1998.

In an April 1999 letter to the Supreme Court of Justice, Chavez claimed that "only the President had exclusive authority over the management of state affairs" and threatened the magistrates with popular retaliation if they did not rule in line with his wishes. He obtained from Congress an "Enabling Law" that allowed him to pass 51 decrees on financial and economic matters without legislative approval.

Congressman Jorge Olavarría, in a July 5, 1999 speech delivered in the Congress to commemorate Venezuela's independence, accused Chavez of violating Article 150 of the constitution by promoting 33 military officers, bypassing the Senate - which had the exclusive authority for those promotions - and asked for his impeachment.

In August-September 1999, The Constituent Assembly, under control of President Chavez, established its own bylaws including supra-constitutional powers. On Sept. 8, the Assembly designated an Emergency Commission for the Judicial Power that summarily dismissed all national judges, in violation of seven Articles of the existing constitution, and named provisional replacements, many of whom are still provisional eight years later.

The Constituent Assembly on Dec. 22, 1999 decreed the elimination of all existing public powers: the National Congress, the Supreme Court of Justice, the National Electoral Council, the attorney general, and the general comptroller. A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., concluded that this measure "weakened the validity of the constitution and prevented the proper constitutional designation of the proper authorities."

On Dec. 30, 1999, new Venezuelan constitution was approved by the Constituent Assembly.

The National Assembly on June 1, 2000, which had replaced the Constituent Assembly, passed a telecommunications law that gave the executive branch authority over what could be broadcast on radio and television.

On November 2000 a new "Enabling Law" was approved by the National Assembly allowing Hugo Chavez to rule by decree. About 50 decrees were passed on land reform, finance and other issues. Most of the decrees were unsuccessfully challenged by the opposition as unconstitutional.

On Feb. 25, 2001, The Inter-American Press Society and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists denounced Chavez as the main culprit behind the lack of freedom of expression in Venezuela.

The Military High Command on Nov. 8, 2001 made public its support of the revolution, in violation of the constitution, which did not allow political pronouncements by the military.

On Nov. 21, 2001, The Supreme Tribunal of Justice established that non-government organizations, NGOs, would not be able to receive foreign financing.

On April 11-12, 2002, after a massive popular protest in Caracas against Chavez, General Lucas Rincon, speaking for the Military High Command, asked and obtained Chavez's resignation - after refusing his orders to use tanks and weapons against the people. One day later Chavez was put back in power by the military.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Dec. 12, 2002, urgently requested the Organization of American States to act against the deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuela.

On a Dec. 15, 2002, broadcast of his TV program "Alo Presidente," Chavez instructed the military, governors and all public employees to ignore judicial rulings that would contravene his presidential decrees.

In February-March 2003, President Chavez went on television to fire about 18,000 managers and technicians of the state-owned petroleum company, who had gone on strike to protest the politicization of the company's management.

On June 5, 2003, Petroleos de Venezuela, the state-owned petroleum company, prohibited foreign oil companies working in the country to employ its former employees dismissed as political dissidents.

On May 14, 2004, The National Assembly, by a simple majority, revised the structure of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, expanding it from 20 to 32 members - all Chavez followers. Human Rights Watch defined this move as "degrading to Venezuelan democracy."

On Aug. 15, 2004, according to official results, voters overwhelmingly defeated a recall referendum that sought to oust Chavez from power, voting in favor of Chavez by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. But exit polls conducted by the New York-based firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates and a Venezuelan group showed Chavez losing by 18 percent.

Chavez insisted on using voting machines supplied by two U.S. companies with ties to Chavez, and Penn Associates charged that his government committed massive fraud.

The European Union would not confirm the vote. In fact, the EU refused even to play an observer's role in the polling, charging that observers were not allowed to independently audit the entire vote, and their freedom of movement was restricted.

Human Rights Watch on Nov. 24, 2004, denounced a new Venezuelan law restraining freedom of expression and giving the executive branch authority to close down the media.

On Dec. 2004, board members of SUMATE, a Venezuelan NGO, were put on trial for treason for receiving a $53,000 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy to improve Venezuelan electoral systems.

In June 2005, The National Assembly changed the rules of the Central Bank, allowing Chavez to use up to $5 billion of the country's international reserves for current government expenditures.

In December 2005, European observers of the legislative elections in Venezuela reported a lack of guarantees and transparency. The opposition refused to participate. As a result, all members of the newly elected Assembly were Chavez followers.

On Jan. 14, 2006, Venezuelan Cardinal Lucas Castillo Lara denounced the government for "having lost its democratic path and for resembling a dictatorship, with all power concentrated in the hands of a despot."

On Jan. 9, 2007, on Reuters reported that "Chavez is setting a Cuba-inspired radical course for his new term in office. He is nationalizing telecommunications, power utilities, taking over foreign oil company activities and ending the autonomy of the Central Bank," as well as disbanding all government political parties to form one single party.

In his Jan. 10, 2007, re-election inaugural speech, Chavez asked for "deep and integral" changes in the 1999 Constitution, including the possibility of unlimited re-elections.

On Jan. 31, 2007, The National Assembly passed Ley Habilitante, or the Enabling Law, granting Hugo Chavez power to rule by decree for the next 18 months.

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When Venezuela's National Assembly voted to give President Hugo Chavez the power to make law by decree in January, they gave their leader the final legal OK for dictatorship. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations...
Thursday, 08 March 2007 12:00 AM
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