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Latin America's Democracy Test

Jaime Daremblum

In the summer of 2009, Latin America went into full-blown crisis mode when the democratic institutions of Honduras removed an aspiring autocrat, Manuel Zelaya, from the presidency. Honduran officials were charged with orchestrating a military coup, and several had their diplomatic visas revoked by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, their country was suspended from the Organization of American States. And yet, a U.S. Law Library of Congress study concluded that “the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system“ (my emphasis).

Three years later, a similar crisis occurred when Paraguayan lawmakers voted nearly unanimously to impeach and convict President Fernando Lugo for “poor performance of his duties.” The lower-house vote to impeach Lugo was 76 to 1; the upper-house vote to convict him was 39 to 4. While Lugo should have been given more time to prepare and mount his defense, he was not entitled to more time under the law, and Paraguay’s independent supreme court gave the whole process a constitutional imprimatur. Still, that didn’t prevent Hugo Chávez and his acolytes from labeling it a coup. Paraguay was quickly suspended from the Mercosur trade group, and officials throughout the region expressed great concern at Lugo’s removal. They were much less concerned with evidence that Venezuela and Ecuador had tried to provoke a military revolt against the lawfully appointed post-Lugo government.

I recount this history because Latin America is now facing a real constitutional crisis, in Venezuela, and the region’s most influential countries have responded with a collective shrug.

We know that Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who won reelection on October 7, is incapacitated with cancer. We know that he has undergone multiple surgeries in Cuba. And we know that he was too ill to attend his inauguration ceremony, which was scheduled for January 10. But we don’t know just how sick Chávez actually is, and we don’t know whether he will ever be able to resume his duties as president. The Venezuelan regime and its Cuban allies have stubbornly refused to allow independent doctors to confirm the precise nature of Chávez’s condition. Officially, he remains president, even though he was not sworn in before the Venezuelan national assembly or the Venezuelan supreme court.

In other words, Chávez loyalists have decided to make a mockery of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution the same constitution that Chávez and his cronies were responsible for drafting which stipulates that the president must take his oath before the lawmakers or the justices by January 10. IHS Global Insight analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos, who previously served as chief secretary to the Venezuelan attorney general’s office, has called their actions “a breach of the constitutional order and an institutional coup where state institutions are used to undermine the democratic order.”

Chávez’s designated successor is Nicolás Maduro, who serves as both vice president and foreign minister. With his mentor confined to a Cuban hospital bed, Maduro has emerged as Venezuela’s de facto leader. Last week, for example, he delivered a state-of-the-union address. But Maduro continues to insist that the cancer-stricken Chávez will eventually return from his current incapacity. As the weeks go by, fewer and fewer Venezuelans believe him.

Under the Bolivarian constitution, a president’s temporary absence requires the vice president to assume Venezuela’s highest office, whereas a permanent absence requires the speaker of the national assembly to fill the post until a new president is elected. Thus, if the government were actually obeying the law, either Maduro or Diosdado Cabello would formally have taken power. Instead, both men are adamant that Chávez is still in charge, and both have brushed aside the legitimate constitutional arguments put forward by the democratic opposition.

If Venezuelan democrats were hoping to receive significant support from elsewhere in Latin America, they have been disappointed. Nobody seems particularly bothered that the Chávez regime has blatantly violated the constitution and effectively launched an “institutional coup.” Sadly, the region’s quiet acquiescence does not come as a big surprise.

For many years now, Latin America has followed a risible double standard. When a pro-Chávez thug such as Manuel Zelaya or a leftist such as Fernando Lugo is legally andconstitutionally removed from office, Venezuela and its partners (Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua) scream bloody murder and bully other countries into following suit. However, when a member of the Chávez gang launches a genuine attack on democracy, the region is mostly silent.

This double standard has emboldened Daniel Ortega to steal elections in Nicaragua. It has emboldened Rafael Correa to persecute journalists in Ecuador. It has emboldened Evo Morales to brutalize his critics in Bolivia. It has emboldened Cristina Kirchner to lie about economic data and wage war on opposition media outlets in Argentina. And it has emboldened Chávez and his followers to systematically destroy democracy in Venezuela.

Make no mistake: The ongoing constitutional crisis in Caracas is not merely a dilemma for Venezuela. It is also a test of Latin America’s willingness to stand up for democracy. Right now, the region is failing that test.

(This article also available in Spanish here.)

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