“Dictatorship” and “regime” have become a familiar part of the western lexicon when describing the Venezuelan government. At a press conference ahead of the Special Summit of the Americas in Mexico in January 2009, Condoleezza Rica declared that “The best thing President Chavez could do at this point is to demonstrate that he believes in a democratic future for Venezuela by carrying out the wishes of his people in this regard”. She told the crowds that there was “an assault on democracy” in Venezuela.
Of course, democracy itself is a contested term. There are a number of different understandings about what constitutes a democracy, Andreas Schedler even argues that there are at least 550 different types of it. However, its essential characteristics are widely accepted and commonly held. How many of these characteristics does Venezuela embody? Let us examine each one.
Free and Fair Elections
Eleven internationally observed national elections in the last eight years. The Government consistently promotes voter registration and the Independent National Electoral Council oversees elections. Venezuela has the most automated electoral system in the world, Jimmy Carter called it “the best election process in the world”. As a response to the culture of fraud that characterised the former system, each vote now a digital and paper footprint. Opposition claims of fraud are exhaustively investigated and the Constitution provides for recall of any elected official. For more information on the advanced Venezuelan electoral system, I recommend this short video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuCixiJujzw&feature=player_embedded)
75% of registered voters participated in the December 2006 election. More than 80% of the population participated in the recent Presidential elections. Moreover, 15,000 Communal Councils were formed in 2006 that give neighbourhoods power to make local decisions. The Socialist Plan launched for 2013 – 2019 has overseen the creation of mass citizen assemblies which meet on a regular basis to discuss ideas and proposals to put forward to Chavez government’s development plan for the coming six years. People are actively engage in politics — whether rich or poor
Freedom of Press
There are hundreds of new independent community media outlets and the state owns only 5% of media shares. The private media are strongly critical of Chávez and even supported the coup in 2002 and the oil lockout in 2002-2003. The head of Telesur TV, Andreas Izaara finds claims of media censorship laughable “They [the opposition] speak out constantly against the government, every day”. Historian Margarita Lopez Maya says “Anybody that comes to Venezuela and spends two days watching the TV knows that there’s no censorship in Venezuela. You just have to sit down and see those opinion programs between 6 and 8 in the morning”.
Varied Political Parties
77 parties participated in the December 2006 election.
Freedom of Assembly, Expression, Speech
Freedom to demonstrate is highly respected and even encouraged in Venezuela. It was the mass demonstrations in Caracas that brought Chavez back to power after he had been kidnapped and detained briefly in 2002. Citizens are encouraged to read, and evaluate the Venezuelan constitution, which was adopted in 1999. The constitution itself is sold on all corners of the street and is even printed on the back of food products in the supermarkets. Chavez has expressed that “One of the most pressing duties of our time for us as a community and for us as individuals is first of all to strengthen our conscience, to clarify further each day our vision and understanding, through discussion, debate and the reading of ideas”.
The 2001 Land Law called for unused state land and large, unproductive latifundio holdings to be redistributed to campesinos (the poor). The government promises to compensate at market rate for land.
The Constitution covers gender, rights for the poor, campesinos, and the indigenous. The Constitution is also one of the only in the world to refer to men and women, naming all positions in both male and female versions. Venezuela is one of the only countries in the world to pay housewives as workers (as stated in Article 88). There have been tremendous improvements for the poor and Chavez has lifted extreme poverty from 23% in 1999, to 8% in 2011.
Checks and Balances
There are five independent and autonomous branches of government. Citizen and moral power was introduced in the 1999 Constitution through new institutions, such as the Supreme Judicial Court, Moral Republican Council, Fiscal General and Controller General. Citizen power derives from the National Electoral Commission and the People’s Branch — all brought through under Chavez.
The 1999 Constitution (or the “little blue book”) was written with massive popular participation; passed with 72% support in referendum. It protects human rights, democracy and promotes social justice. Chávez has explicitly followed the Constitution. Constitutional Reform can start in National Assembly or at request of 15% of registered voters.
Economic Human Rights
Poverty and unemployment are down while minimum wage and social spending is up. Chavez raised minimum wage by 32.5% this year; this increase benefited more than 4 million public sector workers as well as 2.5 million pensioners. He also reduced working hours from 44 to 40. Venezuela has a 95% literacy rate, free universal education, including university, free universal health care and drug rehabilitation.
Community and Workplace Democracy
Chávez requires communities to organise to receive government aid. Co-ops, community councils, and co-managed factories are promoted with state incentives. The government encourages endogenous development based on democracy and collective production.
..And if you’re wondering how happy Venezuelan’s are under this “dictatorship”, Washington DC based public opinion pollster just found Venezuela to be the fourth happiest country in the world.