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Venezuela: Democracy or Dictatorship?

Free elections; elections; transparency. How would you rate Venezuela?

Read this article in Spanish. Lea este artículo en español

Photo by Matt Pascarella. Hugo Chávez.
Hugo Chávez in front of a painting of Simon Bolivar.
Photo by Matt Pascarella.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said, “I believe there is an assault on democracy in Venezuela and I believe that there are significant human rights issues.” She did not, however, say what she meant by “democracy.” We've selected essential characteristics of democracy and supplied key facts about them from the Chávez era. Is Secretary Rice correct? You be the judge.

Participation
75% of registered voters participated in the December 2006 election. More than 15,000 Communal Councils formed in 2006 that give neighborhoods power to make local decisions. Massive community participation in government social missions.

Free and Fair Elections
Eleven internationally observed national elections in last eight years. Government promotes voter registration. Independent National Electoral Council oversees elections. Standardized voting machines nationwide produce paper trail. Opposition claims of fraud exhaustively investigated. Constitution provides for recall of any elected official.

Freedom of Press
Hundreds of new independent community media outlets. 2005 reform increased state control of airwaves. Media highly polarized. Private media strongly critical of Chávez, supported coup in 2002 and oil lockout in 2002-2003. Public media strongly supportive. Non-renewal of RCTV license widely criticized; decision is constitutional.

Varied Political Parties
77 parties participated in December 2006 election. Chávez wants to consolidate support in one “United Socialist Party,” says parties that don't join “can leave.”

Freedom of Assembly, Expression, Speech
No extralegal retaliation by Chávez after 2002 coup. Political repression much decreased. Freedom to demonstrate highly respected. PROVEA, Venezuelan NGO, reports 4.5% of 1300 demonstrations in 2006 were “repressed, blocked, or obstructed,” a 70% decrease from 1997–98.

Private Property
Constitutional requirement of payment for nationalization honored. Opposition fears of unpaid expropriation not borne out. 2001 Land Law calls for unused state land and large, unproductive latifundio holdings to be redistributed to campesinos. Government promises to compensate at market rate for land.

Equality
Constitution covers gender, rights for the poor, campesinos, and indigenous, but omits race. Tremendous improvements for poor. Society still machista, individualist, and discriminatory. Treatment of non-Chávez supporters questionable: some government institutions do not employ people who supported 2004 Recall Referendum.

Checks and Balances
Five independent, autonomous branches of government. Grant of temporary “rule by decree” power criticized by opposition and U.S., but is constitutional; used by at least three other presidents. Chávez criticized for reform of Supreme Court; critics claim court stacking.

Transparency
Chávez fairly transparent, but many government officials are not. Little progress curing government and police corruption inherited from past. One of highest crime rates in the world; no improvement under Chávez. Prison conditions still abusive.

Constitution
1999 Constitution written with massive popular participation; passed with 72% support in referendum. Protects human rights and democracy; promotes social justice. Chávez has explicitly followed the Constitution. Constitutional Reform can start in National Assembly or at request of 15% of registered voters.

Economic Human Rights
Poverty and unemployment down, minimum wage and social spending up. Venezuela declared itself free of illiteracy in October 2005. Free universal education, including university. Free universal health care and drug rehabilitation. More than 180,000 cooperatives registered since 1998.

Community and Workplace Democracy
Chávez requires communities to organize to receive government aid. Co-ops, community councils, and co-managed factories promoted with state incentives. Government encourages endogenous development based on democracy and collective production.

YES! Magazine Graphic showing Venezuelan satisfaction with democracy. Source: Latinobarometro 1995-2006.
Source: Latinobarometro 1995-2006. YES! Magazine Graphic 2007


Photo of Michael Fox
Michael Fox is a freelance journalist based in South America. In 2006, he was a staff writer with Venezuelanalysis (www.venezuelanalysis.com) and a correspondent with Free Speech Radio News.


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