As Latin Americans witness the return of dictatorship – with Honduras suffering political executions, widespread repression and condemnation from human rights organisations about curtailing of press freedoms – it seems a strange time for the media to repeat opposition allegations that Venezuela is becoming a tyranny.
Venezuela is far from the “dictatorship which has a facade of democracy” described by General Raúl Baduel, who has been accused of corruption. What kind of tyranny oversees a 70% increase of participation in presidential elections, as Chávez has, or the government holding 13 free and fair elections in 10 years?
Of course, Venezuelan society and democracy is imperfect. One example is that corruption remains a very real problem. Opponents have tried to use this issue to disparage the government, though it pre-dates the Chávez era. It is therefore ironic that when measures are taken to tackle it, as is the case in legal prosecutions, these are cited as examples of a clampdown on political freedoms. Many Chávez-supporting politicians are under investigation and it paints a distorted picture to focus only on prosecutions against those opposed to Chávez.
Taking the two most prominent cases of those aligned with the opposition. With Baduel, the military prosecutors investigating the disappearance of more than $18.6m in 2006 and 2007 while he was minister of defence have decided to prosecute. He has had all the rights to a defence lawyer and transparent trial, yet so far his defence has not produced any evidence to counter the charges of corruption.
Manuel Rosales, infamously a signatory to the decree backing the 2002 military coup against Chávez, is one of the most notorious cases. He has allegedly been unable to show the source of millions of dollars in assets both in Venezuela and abroad. He fled to Peru and requested political asylum, but being given asylum by Peru is not proof of innocence. Recently Bolivia nearly broke diplomatic relations with Peru for granting asylum to three ministers from a previous government charged with responsibility for the October 2003 massacre in which 67 people were killed by the Bolivian army.
What cannot be said of Venezuela is that the right to protest is threatened. This year alone, the opposition have staged dozens of marches free from state harassment. On numerous occasions opponents and marchers have been invited to address the nation from the National Assembly.
In contrast, it was only 20 years ago that protests were met by brutal repression in Venezuela, with the Caracazo massacre by state security forces leaving 276 dead according to official figures and up to 3,000, according to claims, once mass graves were uncovered.
The opposition’s hostile views of the Chávez government dominate the Venezuelan media. But that is not the reason why some radio stations were recently closed. These were operating illegally without proper licences and continued to refuse to comply with the law. More than 200 radio stations, most of which identify with the opposition, that were also operating irregularly but did renew their franchises continue to operate freely.
Respect for democracy is intrinsic to the particular model being followed by the Chávez government. It does not resort to violence – it wins elections. In contrast, it is noteworthy that the notable elements of the Venezuelan opposition have broadly sympathised with the illegal de facto government of Micheletti in Honduras. Maybe in Honduras we have a serious glimpse of what “democracy” would have been like in Venezuela had its violent attempts to overthrow Chávez been successful?
Francisco Domínguez, a senior lecturer at Middlesex University.