Venezuela – Entering Authoritarianism or 21st Century Socialism ?

27 Nov

Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez is on friendly terms with authoritarian Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In fact the relationship is so cosy between the two that the latter has called Mr Chavez a “brother and trenchmate”. According to BBC, Chavez also praised Iran’s Islamic form of government and said it was “high time Islam was no longer demonised in the world as a religion.” Both countries have also started construction of a 700 million joint petrochemical plant in Iran; with a second one in the pipeline in Venezuela; and that is in addition to agreements in joint production in other areas including manufacture of cars and tractors.

The uneasy alliance between Chavez, touted by socialists as an emerging force against US imperialism; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a dictator; has drawn criticisms from observers.

The Iranian Revolutionary Socialists’ League, a left wing- worker’s group in Iran published online statements and even wrote a letter to Hugo Chavez, urging the latter to raise worker’s issues to the their government. They explained how the Iranian regime has suppressed worker’s rights including their right to form independent unions and right to strike; and that the authorities, despite professing an anti-US stance, is in fact, working towards normalization of ties.

Sydney-based freelance journalist, Antony Loewenstein, also “noted the unhealthy relationship between the Latin American left and the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” In one of his blog postings, he wrote that while he is in favour of the “rapid democratisation that has occurred under Chavez”, he is having doubts on the President’s increasingly authoritarian ways and “love affair with a dictator like Ahmadinejad“.

Chavez’s proposed referendum to changes in the constitution has attracted worldwide attention recently due to the street unrest and opposition. University students have publicly protested against the constitutional changes and the upcoming referendum to vote for these changes. The Opposition feels that changing the constitution will give Chavez too much power as it will allow the incumbent President to be voted for unlimited terms, and that the terms will be extended from six to seven years, while giving him the power to appoint regional vice presidents.

The business sector has also expressed worries over the proposed constitutional amendments. Nelson Maldonado, president of Consecomercio, one of Venezuela’s main business group, was quoted, “It seems the government intends to make private business progressively disappear,” He also argued that people cannot practice democracy without private property. Another business association, Fedecamaras, is concerned about a newly worded and ambiguous anti-monopoly clause which could be used to punish “the most successful and efficient businesses”.

In addition, the President can also declare a state of emergency in which he would have the power, not only to close down Venezuelan media but also detain citizens without trial. Fears of Venezuela becoming an autocratic state is not unfounded, if the constitution is being amended and approved through a majority yes vote from the referendum.

On the other hand, Chavez supporters have claimed that these constitutional changes are necessary to bring Venezuela forward into a new century of socialism. Steve Lendman argued that these changes include new provisions which would extend “existing constitutional law that guarantees human rights and recognizes the country’s social and cultural diversity”. They include: building a “social economy” to replace the failed neo-liberal Washington Consensus model; officially prohibiting monopolies and unjust consolidation of economic resources; lowering the eligible voting age from 18 to 16; guaranteeing free university education to the highest level; reducing the work week to 36 hours to promote more employment; prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination and enacting gender parity rights for political candidates amongst other changes. Mark Weisbrot writing for New Statesman argued that the international media is inherently biased against the Venezuelan President. He cited support from Brazil’s President, Lula da Silva, who defended Venezuela by saying, “You can invent anything you want to criticise Chavez, but not for lack of democracy.”

Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela Ambassador to the United States also argued that citizens were consulted on the changes. He said that within a 47-day period spanning from August 16 to October 7, 9,020 public events were held along with 80,000 phone calls made to a special hotline, which allowed people to feedback. More than 10 million copies of the reforms were also distributed to the public.

Chavez cannot be termed a dictator simply by guilt for his association with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After all, many elected leaders of democracies have extensive trade and economic relations with other authoritarian regimes. Yet, his praise for the Iranian regime, to the extent of choosing to neglect the voice of the Iranian socialists, makes his call for a new socialism and international anti-US imperialism stance sound empty, if not hypocritical. Moreover, the proposed changes to the Constitution, which will see greater changes including increasing worker’s rights is offset by a greater concentration of powers on the executive.

What remains more disturbing about Chavez, is the way he rallies support for his brand of socialism – one that like Bush, is full of absolutes and isms, to the extent of demonising his critics. For example, he recently lauded Venezuelans for their obsession with consumerism – cars and alcohol. In a recent pro-yes rally for the referendum, he was reported to have said, “He who says he supports Chavez but votes ‘no’ is a traitor, a true traitor.”

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References

1. Iran and Venezuela heads in talks, BBC, Friday, September 28, 2007

2. Venezuela deepens ties with Iran, BBC, Monday, July 2, 2007

3. Iran and Venezuela bolster ties, BBC, Sunday, September 17, 2006

4. Open letter to President Hugo Chavez from Iranian Revolutionary Socialists’ League, Iranian Revolutionary Socialists’ League, July 28, 2006

5. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s trip to Venezuela, Iranian Revolutionary Socialists’ League, September 17, 2006

6. For and against Chavez, Antony Loewenstein, 19 November 2007

7. Chavez: No risk to private property, Associated Press, Jorge Rueda, November 24, 2007

8. Chavez: Only a ‘traitor’ will vote no, Associated Press, Dan Keane, Friday, November 23, 2007

9. Coup D’Etat Rumblings in Venezuela, Steve Lendman, Monday, November 19, 2007

10. Reforming Venezuela’s Constitution, Venezuela Analysis, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera

11. Venezuela: still a democracy, New Statesman, Mark Weisbrot, November 21, 2007

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