Venezuela's Still a Democracy
by Mark Weisbrot, New Statesman
www.zmag.org, November 26, 2007
On 2 December Venezuelans will vote on
a number of amendments to their constitution. Generally speaking
the proposals have been portrayed in the media as the next step
on the road to dictatorship.
That's because the mainstream media generally
abandons quaint notions of balance and objectivity when reporting
on Venezuela. Curiously, this often extends to left-of-centre
newspapers not known to slavishly follow the Bush administration's
lead when reporting on other oil states where regime change is
either sought, Iran, or in process, Iraq.
The biggest fuss this time seems to be
the amendment that would abolish term limits for the presidency.
Perhaps it is because I am from Chicago,
and had only one mayor from the time I was born until I graduated
college, that I am unable to see this as the making of a dictatorship.
Not to mention that if Hillary Clinton
is elected next year, we will have Bushes and Clintons as heads
of state for a full consecutive 24 years, and possibly 28.
President Lula da Silva of Brazil defended
Venezuela last week, asking why "people did not complain
when Margaret Thatcher spent so many years in power". He
added: "You can invent anything you want to criticise Chavez,
but not for lack of democracy." Lula has repeatedly defended
Venezuela's government as democratic, but these comments are never
reported in the English language media.
Chavez is also castigated for proposing
to get rid of the independence of the Central Bank, which is inscribed
in the 1999 constitution. This is portrayed as just another "power
grab." However, there are sound economic reasons for this
Central Banks that are not accountable
to their elected governments are not altogether "independent"
but tend to represent the interests of the financial sector. In
the trade-off between growth and employment versus inflation,
the financial sector will always opt for lower inflation, even
if it means stagnation and unemployment.
The increasing independence of central
banks, and the resultant overly-tight monetary policy is very
likely one of the main reasons for the unprecedented long-term
growth failure in Latin America over the last quarter-century.
There is also an amendment that would
provide Social Security pensions to workers in the informal sector,
which would be a major anti-poverty measure, given that this includes
about 41 percent of the labour force.
Another would reduce the working week
to 36 hours. This is being reported in the media as a 6-hour day,
but more likely it will be interpreted as four eight-hour days
plus four hours on Friday.
There are also amendments that would ban
discrimination based on sexual orientation or physical health;
provide for gender parity for political parties; guarantee free
university education; make it more difficult for homeowners to
lose their homes during bankruptcy. It is hard to argue that these
are punishing or repressive measures.
Another amendment would reverse the 1999
constitutional provision protecting intellectual property. This
would not abolish patents or copyrights but would allow more flexibility
for the government in addressing the enormous economic inefficiencies
caused by state-protected monopolies, e.g. in areas such as patented
pharmaceutical drugs. This is difficult to argue against on economic
There are other amendments that are more
controversial, most of them added not by Chavez but by the National
Assembly (Chavez cannot veto amendments added by the Assembly;
these have to go to the voters).
For example, one amendment would allow
the government to suspend the "right to information"
(but not due process, as reported in the international media)
during a state of national emergency. Another would allow the
President and the National Assembly to create new federal districts
Some of these provisions have drawn opposition
even among Chavez's supporters. If they are approved, it will
likely be because the majority of voters trust Chavez and the
government not to abuse their powers.
And there is some basis for this trust:
the National Assembly earlier this year gave Chavez the power,
for 18 months, to enact certain legislation by executive order.
The pundits screamed about Chavez "ruling by decree,"
but in fact this power has not been used much at all, except in
dealings with foreign corporations.
In any case, the voters will decide, with
a far stronger opposition media than exists in the United States
proselytising against the government. Venezuelans have not lost
civil liberties the way people in the U.S. (or even the UK) have
in recent years, and ordinary citizens continue to have more say
in their government, and share more in its oil wealth, than ever
before. It is doubtful that the referendum will reverse these
changes, regardless of the outcome.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center
for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He received
his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan and has
written numerous research papers on economic policy._Source: