As a Venezuelan, I am often asked what I think of my president, Hugo Chávez. What the questioner really means to ask is whether I think my president is a dictator or a democrat. It can be difficult to answer this question, given Chavez’s repeated legitimate electoral victories. Lately, however, it has become much easier. The recent indictment brought against Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales is a good example of why, despite his unrelenting popularity, El Comandante will ultimately be remembered as another addition to Latin America’s long list of bombastic dictators.
In the oil-rich state of Zulia, on October 20, 2008, President Chávez gave a speech in which he declared to the assembled business community that he was “determined to jail Manuel Rosales.” Rosales is a social democrat who managed to unite the opposition under the banner of his candidacy during the 2006 general elections, which Chávez won. In November, Rosales was elected to serve as mayor of Zulia’s capital, Maracaibo. President Chávez probably chose to deliver his harangue in Rosales’ home state in order to appear more intimidating. During his speech, Chávez predicted that Rosales would end up in prison. The audience responded to this declamation with joyous and fervent applause. During a party ceremony in December the president made his intentions even clearer, calling Rosales a wretch and assuring the multitude of adoring, red-clad followers that he would “erase [Rosales] from the Venezuelan political scene.” Both scenes, which I would not hesitate to call televised records of despotism, demonstrate how Chávez gives Venezuela’s public institutions orders.
Dutifully, on March 19, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, filed a perfectly phrased indictment against Rosales, whom her office accuses of embezzlement. The self-abasing way Díaz rushed to manufacture a legal justification for this thuggish attack is thoroughly shameful.
In Venezuela today, it is uncontroversial-even boring-to argue that our public institutions fulfill different responsibilities within the president’s party. A typical Chavista would probably not even contest this point, but would hasten to add that it’s a good thing; a sign that our “revolution” is progressing. Fearing his verdict had been decided in advance of his trial, Rosales fled the country on April 21. In doing so he abdicated his position as mayor of Maracaibo, but also avoided becoming the most recent victim of our partisan courts and the ideological justice they dispense. He is currently in Peru, where he was recently granted political asylum. Chávez responded by recalling the Venezuelan ambassador from Lima.
Another prominent dissident in whom the president has taken a special interest is Raúl Isaías Baduel, a retired general and ex-Minister of Defense under Chávez. Baduel played an instrumental role in returning Chávez to power after a muddle of a coup in April 2002 briefly ousted him from power. Baduel later won the epithet of “traitor to the revolution” in late 2007 when, having resigned as Defense Minister, he came out publicly against the Constitutional Reform Referendum and exhorted Venezuelans to vote against it.
The proposed reforms, which included abolishing presidential term limits and giving the president the authority to establish regional vice-presidents, were rejected by a slight margin (In February, the president submitted the presidential term limit question to the people once more, calling it an amendment referendum instead of a reform referendum, and won). On April 2, agents of the Dirección de Inteligencia Militar arrested Baduel near his home. He is currently being held at Ramo Verde prison, and Baduel’s lawyer has declared that he fears for his client’s life. Mayor General Ernesto Cedeño, the Military Attorney General, stated that he would be filing a complaint against Baduel in the next 30 days.
The Venezuelan courts are unlikely to rein in the president’s abuse of executive power, because it is simply not in their nature to strike down a decision made by the president. During the official ceremony marking the start of the Venezuelan judicial year in 2006, our venerable Tribunal Supremo de Justicia presided over the event in self-satisfaction while a chorus of new judges shamelessly repeated the familiar Chavista slogan: “¡Uh, Ah, Chávez no se va!” or “Chávez is not leaving.” The chief justice of the Tribunal Supremo, Omar Mora, did not think the partisan outburst was unethical. The episode was, in his words, merely the result of the atmosphere of joy that reigned during the ceremony.
It is obvious that Venezuelan public bodies operate, and will continue to operate, as the disciplinary arm of the president. These latest instances of swift judicial vengeance against Rosales and Baduel, two highly regarded opposition leaders, reveal the true nature of our dismembered republic and the manner in which the president will continue to suppress dissent and take care of potential challengers in the future. These indictments and arrests are as unsurprising as they are representative of the government’s style. El Comandante makes a sustained accusation against a political opponent, denouncing them as an accomplice of imperialism, and the courts and appropriate officials then turn the president’s demagogic bluster into punitive discipline. The same narrative was employed to shut down the independent television station RCTV, and it is recurrently used to threaten Globovisión, the only remaining non-Chavista channel, as well as the small group of opposition leaders and politicians-of whom Rosales is one.
These disgraceful episodes also foreshadow the legal basis upon which the legitimacy of an even harsher regime will likely come to rest. And you can be sure that that regime will also be a popularly elected one, which gives me the opportunity to end on an ironic note: When the onset of President Chávez’ dictatorship is finally complete and obvious to even the most disinterested observer, Venezuelans will have to take comfort in the fact that we have only gotten what we deserve.
Antonio Rumbos was born and raised in Caracas. He is currently a graduate student at The New School for General Studies. This column first appeared at Reason.com.