Is Venezuela a democracy?

After seeing the reality of life in Venezuela, even if only for a short period of time so far, it seems strange for the title of this article to be posed as a serious question.  Nevertheless, with Presidential elections just ten days, and with an avalanche of misinformation allocated by certain sections of the media, it seems like an important issue to address.  Just last week, former US President Jimmy Carter said that, out of the 92 elections the Carter Center had observed, ‘the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.’  He went on to say that his own country, the United States, had ‘one of the worst electoral processes in the world.’ Nevertheless, it would be short-sighted to accept the rhetoric of US Presidents, past or present, without critical questioning.

Firstly, there is the electoral system itself, being run by the CNE, the Consejo Nacional Electoral.  I know who the elections are being run by, because I have seen their tables and machines at most central Metro stations in Caracas.  Every day, they are there to encourage people to register to vote, to give them information and to explain how voting will take place on the day itself.  These CNE stands were already present when I last visited Caracas, in December of last year, so it is not a measure only for the period immediately preceding the elections.  All in all, in certainly amounts to more than a piece of card arriving through the post.

So, how will Venezuelans vote?  For the first time at these elections, an electronic system has been designed where you vote by using your thumb-print against touch screens, which then prints outs a reciept to confirm your vote.  Voting is not compulsory, the ballot is secret, and it seems like the thumb-print system will be a good way of combating fraudulent voting.  Without a doubt, corruption still exists in Venezuela, so it is a positive thing that new measures such as this are being developed to combat it.

Of course, voting only means something if you know the policies of the candidates you are voting for.  In another huge mobilisation last week, Hugo Chavez launched a mini-newspaper with his Propuesta, or his proposals for the next six years of government.  It contains pages of speciific, numbered objectives, labelled as historic objectives and national objectives, and is attractively laid out with cartoons and photographs to help the text flow.  Where achievements from the last period of government are emphasised, figures and graphs are employed to back-up the points.  Henrique Capriles, the main opposition candidate, has also been promoting his Plan Venezuela, although the release of leaked documents of team Capriles’ economic agenda, revealing a far more neo-liberal basis than suggested in public.  Considering the experience of Venezuelans in the Caracazo uprising in 1989, which erupted in the immediate aftermath of an IMF re-structuring plan and soaring bus prices, it seems that, unfortunately for the Capriles campaign, Venezuelans need little reminding of what neo-liberal economics would mean for their day-to-day lives.

Most of us will be particularly aware that is all too easy for politicians to make promises in the run-up to elections, but what if the candidate who wins does not subsequently deliver on those promises.  In that case, it is lucky that the option of a re-call referendum is in place, provided you gather the signatures of 20% of elligible voters for that candidate.  This was most famously applied in an attempt to remove Hugo Chavez as President in 2004 – after many allegations of fake signatures, extended deadlines and an eventual gathering of the required amount, Chavez eventually won, with 58% voting ‘No’ to re-calling the President – but the measure actually applies to any elected official.  You can’t help to wonder if Nicholas Clegg might be seeking alternative employment had this been in use in the UK.

But even if a candidate does deliver or partially deliver on their pre-election promises, surely it is important for everyone in that country, and not just supporters of that government, to know what laws are being passed or changed.  After all, government officials are elected not only to lead and represent the country, but to be led by and represent the people that voted them.  One solution to educating people about political changes in the country, as well as empowering the public with knowledge of their own political and social rights and how they can be applied, is by having the laws of the country, most of them neatly-printed in pocket-sized pamphlets of differing colours, for general sale on every street corner.  For the equivalent of £1.50, I purchased the law of social services, and the law of rights for people with disabilities.  Also on sale were the penal code, the work law, the law of organic electoral power, laws of rights for women and the civil code of Venezuela.  But perhaps the most important document on sale at the book stand, and that of smallest size in surface area, was the Bolivarian Constitution.  As written by an elected constitutional assembly, subject to suggestions and amendments from the public for several months, and voted into effect by popular referendum, the constitution enshrines the rights of every Venezuelan citizen.  Many basic social, political and human rights are covered, but it also goes further in several areas; not only is discrimination based ‘race, sex, creed or social standing’ outlawed, as is establishing foreign military bases on Venezuelan territory, but ‘Everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality.’  Once you begin to understand the importance of this document, not only in it’s content but in the manner in which it was conceived, you begin to understand that voting at elections is merely one part of a democratic, political culture that has transformed Venezuelan society.

It is a culture not of democracy necessarily in the sense that we may be familiar with, but of ‘participatory, protagonistic’ democracy.  Meaning, people both have active participation in the politics of their country, and that they are obliged to play a leading role.  In this way, for example, the Gran Mision Viviendo provides not only much-needed housing for the poorest sections of society, but the tools and the funding for people to build their own houses.  It is important to emphasise, however, that this article only skims the surface, and on a personal level I feel that I have a lot more to learn.  But in essence, this is what the Venezuelan model is about; putting resources into people’s hands, so that they can exercise their own power.  As the Bolivarian Constitution states, under the sub-heading of Fundamental Principles, ‘Sovereignty resides untransferable in the people, who exercise it directly…’

On October 7th, whoever wins the elections, it will be another opportunity for the Venezuelan people to exercise their sovereignty.  Sometimes, it makes me think that it would be a good thing for Hugo Chavez to come up against a serious opposition.  One that challenged Venezuelan society to go even further, to continue to serve as a model for how society can value it’s citizens, and encourage people to value themselves.

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