Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Hugo Chavez persecutes SUMATE

Originally written for Petroleumworld.com and reposted here

By Gustavo Coronel

Pettiness and ignorance in the Chavez regime have reached their highest point in the manner they are handling the case of SUMATE, a Venezuelan non-governmental organization that has as its main objective the promotion of electoral transparency and education. In doing its job very well, SUMATE has become a pebble in Chavez left shoes (he has no right shoe) and, therefore, has to be eliminated. What started as insults and threats in Chavez’s national TV hookups has become an official accusation against SUMATE representatives for “treason”. In this case “treason” means having received $53000 from the National Endowment For Democracy, NED, a U.S. non-governmental foundation supported by both political parties and financed by the U.S. Congress. This foundation, in turn, has been accused by the Venezuelan government of financing SUMATE and other Venezuelan organizations in their efforts to overthrow the government of Hugo Chavez. The scandal generated by the accusations made against SUMATE is the product of great ignorance on the part of the Venezuelan regime, combined with the efforts of mercenaries who have supplied the “evidence” of SUMATE’s treason. The basis for the accusation against SUMATE is very shaky indeed, since receiving funds from international organizations to conduct legitimate activities in a country cannot be defined as treason. SUMATE utilized the money received from NED in activities connected with the improvement of electoral mechanisms in Venezuela. They helped Venezuelans to organize a signature collection for a referendum that is a process allowed by the Venezuelan Constitution.

In monitoring the referendum, they disclosed the numerous irregularities committed by the Chavez-controlled National Electoral Council and, as such, they became a prime target for the retaliation of the regime. In all of its activities SUMATE was helping the cause of real democracy. In the accusation against SUMATE the regime has included NED, the U.S. organization granting the money. The Attorney General, who only seems to come alive when he acts against the adversaries of the regime, has enthusiastically denounced NED for trying to overthrow Hugo Chavez. He has been joined by Information Minister Izarra and, even, by Vice-president Rangel. There is no doubt that their accusations represent the official position of the current regime. In doing so, they have relied almost entirely on “secret information” collected by a Mrs. Eva Golinger, who has admitted receiving payment for her services. This information led Izarra to say that SUMATE had received $23 million from NED, a slightly different figure from the $ 53000 actually granted to that organization. What is important in this case is that, while the regime acts in this way, public opinion, both in Venezuela and abroad seems to believe that (1) that SUMATE is not involved in illegal activities related to the overthrow of Chavez and that (2) NED is a respectable organization and not an arm of the CIA.

A recent letter signed by more than 70 personalities from all around the world claims the opposite of what Chavez, Rangel, Rodriguez and Izarra are saying. From Vaclav Havel to Sergio Aguayo, from Madeleine Allbright to Jorge Dominguez, from Peter Eigen to Francis Fukuyama, the list reads like a who is who of the intellectual and humanistic world. They claim that persecuting nongovernmental organizations “for receiving democratic assistance is both a violation of the Inter-American Charter and the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies”. They add that NED is “a highly reputable and established nongovernmental foundation that promotes democracy in over 80 countries around the world”. So, who is to be believed? Knowing most of the persons on both sides of the controversy I believe that the Chavez regime has made a tragic mistake in this clumsy attempt at persecuting SUMATE and at labeling NED as a promoter of political unrest in Venezuela. The facts do not support these accusations. In doing so the regime has adopted a fascist, totalitarian stance.

The persecution of SUMATE is the most notorious but not the only one this regime is guilty of. The imprisonment of General Alfonzo Martinez, of the Tachira dissidents, of Capriles Radonsky and others are clear examples of the increasingly undemocratic nature of this regime. The idea behind these actions is to harass the adversary because, sooner or later, they let the people go, with the exception of the Army officer condemned to five years in prison by a military court for “insulting” the armed forces, another case which should be repudiated by international public opinion.

In the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez the witch-hunt is on. I have compared it elsewhere with a still mild version of the “terror” during the French revolution. There is a “revolution” going on within the “revolution” and the radicals in power are claiming for the blood of the enemies. Soon, not only the opposition but the Dantons and the Robespierres of this ‘revolution” will be facing political beheading for being moderate. While all this misery, ignorance and fascist attitudes unfold, millions of Venezuelans are going hungry, the streets of our cities are getting filthier, thousands are being murdered all over the country by common criminals and unemployment increases.

What kind of a revolution is this? Can you answer this, Mr. Chavez? When are you going to tell us how the nation is really doing? You have to be accountable to the people of Venezuela. You cannot hope to stay in power indefinitely without reporting to the nation. Only dictators do this. But you claim you are not one. If you are not a dictator, you have to report to the people, both to those who voted for and against you. So far, you have not done it. We need to know what you are doing with all the millions of dollars received by your regime.

Accountability and transparency are the essential components of democracy. Why don’t you abide by these rules?

Answer. Say something with substance for a change!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Harrassment of Sumate noticed by The Economist

Originally published The Economist,Nov 4th 2004

Having consolidated a near-total grip on power, Hugo Chávez is preparing a set of laws to repress many forms of dissent. JUST last August, after months of unrest and an attempted coup, 4m Venezuelans voted against Hugo Chávez in a recall referendum, more than had voted him in as president in 2000. Yet he won the referendum, and has now completed a stunning turnaround. Local elections on October 31st left his allies controlling 20 of the country's 23 states, plus Caracas, the capital, and they looked likely to bag the state of Carabobo too after the completion of a disputed recount.

No elected leader of the country has ever wielded such power. With a majority in parliament, a tightening grip on the judiciary, the unquestioning loyalty of the military high command and a seemingly endless flow of revenues thanks to high oil prices, the “red tide” that the self-styled revolutionary predicted, referring to his own party colours, is now lapping around the necks of his opponents.

After their referendum defeat, the two dozen anti-Chávez parties could not agree on a common electoral strategy. In some regions they competed against each other, virtually guaranteeing a chavista victory. A commission of experts set up to analyse their allegations of fraud called for voter abstention, compounding the damage. Virtually the only survivors of stature are Manuel Rosales, governor of the far-western state of Zulia, and a couple of young mayors from the fledgling Justice First party, whose base is Caracas and the adjoining state of Miranda.

What will Mr Chávez do with all this power? Part of the answer lies in a set of repressive laws, currently in the legislative pipeline, which critics say will outlaw most forms of dissent and severely restrict freedom of expression. First in line is a radio and TV bill ostensibly aimed at protecting children by curbing violent and sexually explicit content. But its vague wording will, for example, allow the government to suspend transmission or, ultimately, withdraw a licence, for content which is “contrary to the security of the nation”. Already, private TV stations which have been fierce critics of Mr Chávez are showing signs of self-censorship.

Then there is the partial reform of the penal code, which would outlaw virtually every form of protest the opposition has attempted over the past three years. “Intimidating” a senior public official (for example, by banging pots and pans outside his or her house, a popular form of protest) would carry a sentence of three to eight years in jail. Causing panic by spreading “false information”: two to five years. Promoting “disobedience”, even in private: up to six years behind bars.
Article 350 of the 1999 constitution, drafted by the chavistas themselves, enshrines the right to disobey a government that undermines human rights. But a proposed terrorism law would turn many forms of civil disobedience, such as blocking streets, into terrorist acts, with correspondingly severe penalties. And a national police bill would put control of all local police forces, in effect, into the hands of the interior ministry.

The government has already begun to harass dissidents. Leading members of Súmate, an NGO which amounts to an opposition elections unit, face jail terms of up to 16 years. Their alleged crime is to have conspired with a foreign power—the United States—to overthrow the government. Súmate accepted a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by America's Congress and which, prosecutors allege, is a front for the CIA. A neutral judge might well throw the case out. Unfortunately, judges who defy the government tend to lose their jobs; most have only provisional positions. And the supreme court, already largely pro-Chávez, is to be expanded from 20 to 32 justices, who will be appointed by the pro-Chávez majority in parliament.

An even clearer case of distortion of justice is that of General Francisco Usón, a former finance minister in Mr Chávez's government, who was jailed last month for five-and-a-half years by a military tribunal for allegedly slandering the armed forces. The general had offered a technical opinion on television, as a combat engineer, on the workings of a flame-thrower, in the context of press allegations that one had been used on soldiers in a punishment cell. Two of the soldiers died, but seven months later no one has been charged, much less sentenced, for their deaths; the only person in jail is General Usón. The defence minister, General Jorge Luis García Carneiro, minces no words when asked about the case. Anyone, he says, civilian or military, who insults the armed forces can expect similar treatment. Viva la revolución.