Civil disobedience as an option for Venezuela

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In a referendum this past February 15th, Hugo Chavez managed to reverse the results of the previous December 2, 2007 vote by winning the constitutional right to be re-elected indefinitely. Chavez won after running a campaign of intimidation and blackmail. 

Chavez does not govern democratically. To the contrary, he has abused state power and resources. He has used the instruments of government to harass unions, human rights advocates and has violated free speech.   The state-owned oil-company, PDVSA and other state companies have been encourage to intimidate employees so they would vote in favor of the referendum.

In last November’s municipal and local elections the opposition made some important gains including in the state of Miranda and the City of Caracas. Chavez reacted by removing some key social services such as health care from the jurisdiction of Miranda to the federal government and placed mobs in Caracas city hall that undermined the work of the newly elected mayor of Caracas. Irregularities and other acts of electoral fraud were reported throughout Election Day. There were reports of people who were deceased being registered to vote as well as an illegal extension of voting time. Chavez also controls all the powers of the state including the electoral national council in charge of election supervision. This institution never bothers to read the rules and the regulations but only obeys the man who placed them in their jobs.

Even more de-moralizing is the fact that it only took minutes for the opposition to recognize the illegitimate victory of Chavez. If we only think that in Minnesota a certainly non fraudulent Senate seat election remains highly contentious months after the election, how is that the Venezuelan opposition rushed to recognize the victory of a thug like Chavez who behaved in a most illegal manor prior to the vote? The opposition obviously acted following the "do not rock the boat" philosophy, afraid of further punishment by Chavez. If anything, Chavez will be encouraged to punish the opposition even more because he is like a wild beast:  the more he perceives fear, the more he rushes to devour his prey. But, this is not the time for reprimands. To the contrary, it is time to consider other possible options.

One option discussed is to continue the electoral option, namely try to defeat Chavez in the next elections. This option is suggested by important leaders within the mainstream of the opposition parties. The fact that these opposition leaders Chavez’ victory makes them believe that Chavez will return the gesture and thus a peaceful way to change can be obtained in the next round of elections.

Indeed, there will be municipal elections in the second half of this year. Next year there will be parliamentary elections and candidates have already begun to prepare for that. However, what is the evidence that elections can take place in an orderly fashion when previously Chavez has systematically manipulated the results in all the forms mentioned above?

Did these opposition leaders forget that Chavez disqualified candidates before the last local elections? Moreover, did they forget that Chavez controls the national electoral council and all the corners of the electoral machine? What makes this opposition dream that a victory is possible?

The electoral option will be further undermined by the fact that Chavez will use the victory in the recent referendum, with the help of the Enabling Act of 2007 (that confers powers to Chavez to rule by decree in a number of areas including in those related to regulations for popular participation, and rules for governing state institutions) to deepen his revolution and strengthen his personal power.  The situation in Venezuela will get worse before it gets better. By the time of the next election, there will not be power from below capable of confronting the overwhelming Chavista machine. Chavez will move quickly using all the means already in his hands to strike a final blow on Venezuelan democracy.

Another option to bring about the end of Chavez’ regime was raised by former Secretary of Defense Raul Baduel in his book "Mi Solucion" (My Solution). There, General Baduel talks about using the spirit of the Constitution of 1999 to call for a new constituent assembly. A new constituent assembly may leave without effect many of Chavez’ decisions and laws and restore a new constitutional order based on democratic principles. To call for a new constitutional assembly a petition of more than 3 million signatures will be required. We know from the years 2003-2004 that Chavez made every effort to disqualify the signatures required to oppose the recall referendum, that would have allowed revoking the president’s mandate and calling for new elections. The recall referendum was systematically undermined until the President found mysterious ways to win the referendum in 2004.

My view is that a vote for a new constituent assembly will never take place. If there is no electoral exit from the Chavez inferno, the chances for a constitutional solution are even less likely. However, the very act of collecting petitions may well revitalize the struggle of civil society against the despotism of the Bolivarian regime. It might not be the best option but it should not be ruled out since it may start rolling the wheels for something bigger such as a general act of civil disobedience.

An important option, which I see as being more realistic, is the appeal to article 350 of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution. That article reads as follows:

The Venezuelan people, consistent with the country’s republican tradition, its struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that stands in contradiction to the country’s values, principles, and democratic guarantees. By the same token, the people shall not recognize any authority that undermines human rights.

Since Chavez has violated all the principles above without exception, non-recognition of the current government is definitely legitimate. In other words, Venezuelans need to understand that the fact that Chavez won these highly problematic elections plus the fact that he has ruled Venezuela by illegal methods makes the Chavez regime illegitimate.  Thus, invoking the thoughts of American philosopher John Rawls, we will say that acts of non-violent protests appeal to "the sense of justice of the majority of the community". [1] Civil disobedience is indeed an illegal act. However, it is disobedience against an illegitimate government.

The argument that holds that the electoral path is the one to defeat Chavez is delusional. As nobody today in countries such as Egypt would pretend that a referendum could defeat the person who holds power, in Venezuela, such expectation is as futile as in Egypt since it is clearly manipulated by a dictatorship.

Following the words of scholars Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, we will say that the "aim of civil disobedience is to persuade public opinion that a particular law, or policy (and I would add "a regime") is illegitimate and a change is warranted". [2] Therefore, I would say that since civil disobedience is appealing to social common sense, namely, a reality that everyone understands, there is no reason for such acts to be violent in order to achieve its goals.

The model that best fits the Venezuelan case is probably the Ukrainian model of the Orange Revolution. The Ukrainian state, like the Venezuelan state was strong and authoritarian in its practices. In Post-Soviet Ukraine, the use of political violence, especially during the Leonid Kuchma regime, was characterized by electoral fraud and manipulation. Political violence also included the murder of a dissident and intimidation of journalists.  Such abuses generated a strong reaction and nation-wide protests that although unsuccessful in the beginning, it initiated a movement. This movement increased when the regime stole the parliamentary elections in 2002.  It became effective when in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential elections, amid the scale of fraud conducted by the Kuchma regime; Ukrainians realized that a free election was impossible in the country after having experienced several fraudulent elections. The Kuchma regime had abused state administrative resources; it used television and media campaigns against the candidate of the opposition, Victor Yushchenko; it used a transit server located in the presidential administration to massage the vote, and other measures aimed at perpetuating the regime in power. Thus, when the authorities committed fraud in the second round of the elections, it unleashed unrest. [3]

Such unrest was led by the group Pora, a student organization that became the pillar of the Orange revolution. The group remained independent of any political party. However, there were elements in the movement that had ties to political parties of the opposition. These elements were crucial in moderating the younger students and in avoiding the radicalization of the movement and most importantly they were able to achieve cooperation between the different groups who agreed that the Kuchma regime had to go.  In the case of the Ukraine, the coalition partners worked extremely well in coordinating and organizing the activities as well as in mobilizing people. The movement appealed to domestic and foreign elements and particularly to world public opinion. The unity and coordination displayed by the coalition was definitely crucial, despite important ideological differences between coalition members.4]

Similarly, in Venezuela the successive referendums and votes generated opposition from students, intellectuals and other non-political elements in society. A movement has been mobilized in Venezuela at least since early 2003 with the "oil strike", later with the recall referendum (2003-2004) and in the constitutional referendums of December 2007 and February 2009.

The movement is there, there is no need to invent it.

The conditions are ripe to move in the direction of the Ukraine. Venezuelan political leaders who still believe in the electoral solution should reconsider their stand in view of the specific situation in Venezuela. Chavez, like the Ukrainian Kuchma, will not leave office via elections.  In its violent, ruthless, fraudulent and authoritarian ways, the Chavez regime is no different than that of Kuchma.  It is important to remember that Hugo Chavez’s attempt at a coup d’etat in 1992 claimed hundred of victims. It did not bother Chavez’ conscience at all. Chavez will turn Venezuela into a full totalitarian regime in a matter of a few months.  There must be a huge movement in Venezuela coordinated with the political elements within the opposition to abort Chavez’ despotic project. The time is now.


Dr. Luis Fleischman is a senior advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC


[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971, p. 364

[2] J.L Cohen and A. Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992, pp 587

[3] Laverty, Nicklaus, "Problem of Lasting Change: Civil Society and the Colored Revolutions in Georgia and the Ukraine", Spring 2008, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Volume 16, Number 4, Fall 2008, 398-400

[4] Laverty, Ibid

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