It is tempting to describe the most recent attack on democracy by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a sneaky, underhanded move by a tyrant insistent upon concentrating power in his hands. But that would not be accurate. Chavez is nothing if not forthcoming and transparent. When he used his sweeping decree powers this week to quietly enact a set of laws that further his socialist agenda, he was merely following through on a promise.
Last year, Venezuelans narrowly rejected the 69 constitutional amendments the president had sought, including one that would have ended presidential term limits. At that time, Chavez vowed to pursue his agenda through other channels. “Here there will be no steps back, no retreats,” he said. “At this point, I’m thinking of presenting a new formula, to expand and launch a new perspective, to raise the speed of the process.”
Apparently, this is the new formula. Among the new decrees are punishments, including prison terms, for business owners who balk at selling food and other items at Chavez-determined prices. Another allows the president to select regional political leaders, who will also receive Chavez-funded budgets, a move that could help him battle opposition candidates in state and municipal elections in November. A decree barring the candidacy of anyone being investigated for corruption by the controller general already has been upheld by the Chavez-friendly Supreme Court, and it will effectively keep some of the president’s opponents from seeking office.
These latest decrees come just two months after Chavez issued one that would have forced citizens to cooperate with government investigations by informing on one another. Public opposition was swift, and after a storm of criticism, he withdrew it. Venezuelans are continuing to beat back Chavez’s efforts to strip away their constitutional and civil rights -- they took to the streets again this week. Maybe they will teach their president the true meaning of democracy. In his mistaken understanding of the concept, Chavez said Wednesday: “They call me a tyrant -- tyrants govern without laws. We’re making laws, and all those laws are for the benefit of the country.”
What he has yet to learn is that democracy is never the work of just one man.