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Referendum in Venezuela Hardens Chavez's 'Authoritarian Regime'

Interviewee: Allan Brewer Carias, Adjunct Professor, Columbia University Law School
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 17, 2009

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Allan Brewer-Carias, a former Venezuelan legislator and an opponent of President Hugo Chavez, says the referendum held on Sunday that overturned term limits on Chavez and other public officials will strengthen the country's authoritarian strain. But the result, he said, also showed nearly half the country disapproves of Chavez's government. He says even though Chavez controlled the media and used pressure on officials and recipients of public support to vote "yes" in the referendum, there still were 5 million people voting "no."

Venezuela had a referendum on Sunday, and the results of 54.4 percent for the amendment to the constitution and 45.6 percent against seemed to be a strong victory for President Hugo Chavez, who wants to change the constitution so that he can run for as many terms as he wants. What was your general impression of this referendum?

First of all, I don't consider it a 'strong victory.' The referendum was approved by six million votes, and the 'no vote' obtained five million votes, so it was not a strong victory. It was a very close victory. The closest difference in percentage in Venezuelan elections in ten years---except for the last referendum, which was an exception. This is a very important fact, because that means that the opposition has been growing, and these supporters of Chavez have been diminishing.

But of course, Chavez lost in 2007 in another referendum. Why did he win this time?

First, it was not the same question. In the referendum of 2007, the proposals were clearly directed to establish a socialist, militaristic, centralist state, and eliminating the rule of law. So, the opposition was more clear eighteen months ago. Now, there was only one question, and that one question was formulated in a very confusing way. He didn't ask the people, 'Do you want all elected officials to be elected in a continuous, indefinite, and permanent way?' That's the result. No, the question was, 'Do you want to expand the political right of the citizens as a whole.' So, in fact, it was very difficult to find from the question submitted to the voters the real intention. So that factor also contributed to the change of votes in one year and a half.

Some critics have pointed out that Chavez controlled the media and this was a major factor.

There was a †massive and incredible amount of public money used by the government in promoting this referendum in these last months. The use of the public media in favor of Chavez and the limited access of the opposition to those media of course helped produce this result. But, in the end, it's not really a very strong result. It is a very weak triumph by the Chavez supporters. And this is important because you have a country in which six million people vote in favor and five million vote against. So it is a divided country, and this is something that the president must bear in mind in order to continue with his government.

"Chavez is used to acting in order to obtain his goals. And in order to maintain his leadership in the country he needs to have an enemy, even though that enemy is a fiction. He will continue to act in that same way."

Will this referendum result send the country towards a dictatorship?

We are already in a authoritarian* government. So we are adding one aspect, one new aspect to a framework that the country and the government has been constructing, during the past 10 years. We have a country where there is no check and balance, no separation of powers at all. The executive controls the assembly, and through the assembly it controls the Supreme Tribunal, the attorney general, the prosecutor general, the defender of the people, the comptroller general. So all the branches of government are completely controlled, and the power concentrated in the executive. So in this sense we are already in a authoritarian* regime.

But democracy is not only elections. Democracy is a lot more than elections. It is check and balance, it is pluralism, it is the respect of human rights, freedom of expression, and a lot more aspects that are in, for instance, the Inter-American Democratic Charter. So we are already in a authoritarian* regime, and this is one step more that will allow the people who are governing to continue in government, to be reelected, using without limit the resources of the government in order to obtain reelection. And this is then one step more in this process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime.

So in a way, you're implying that it's rather remarkable that so many people voted against Chavez.

That's it. It's really very important that so many people voted against this proposal.

Well who are his supporters?

During the campaign, Chavez said very clearly, in a sort of blackmail, 'we have more or less 2.5 million public officials.' And he said, 'All these people have to vote for me,' and he has the mechanisms in order to control how they vote. And on the other hand, he showed the list of another 2.5 million people who benefit themselves from direct subsidies from the state. In a very oil-rich state, the poor has benefited from direct subsidies. He said, 'All the people who are benefitting from subsidies must also vote for me.' So in a sort of blackmail, he in that way, you can say, could have the support of five million people.

Is the drop in the world oil price going to affect Venezuela?

Of course it will affect us because everything has been nationalized and everything depends on the state and on the oil prices and all the imports are made by the state, and the state is the main employer and the state is the only one that can import, for instance, food. So the decline of oil prices will be unfortunately very hard for the country, and of course it will affect the government. But unfortunately it will affect the country as a whole in a very hard way.

In 2002, when there was an attempted military coup against Chavez, he had been president three years at that time. Were people unhappy with him then?

People were unhappy. Democracy was more or less violated in all the main aspects, and the pressure of the people produced his resignation during the coup, and he resigned. The problem is that then the military who provoked his resignation then put him again in power.

"In the end, itís not really a very strong result. It is a very weak triumph by the Chavez supporters."

Do you know Chavez personally?

I met [him] once, when I was president of the National Academy of Political and Social Sciences in1998. And I invited all the presidential candidates in 1998 to the Academy in order for them to explain their programs regarding the state and the political institutions. He was at the time the candidate with the least experience in government and with the least experience in democracy, because the only experience he had in politics was a coup d'etat that he led in 1992. I have been in the opposition ever since. I was elected to the National Constitutional Assembly as an opposition member, one of the four opposition members of an assembly that had more or less 140 people. And since then I have been in the opposition. And I voted no against the constitution which was approved in 1999. I was convinced of the authoritarian contents of that 1999 constitution. The seeds of this authoritarian regime were already established in the Constitution. [Brewer Carias left Venezuela in 2005**, after the abortive coup in 2002 against Chavez.]

What advice would you give the United State and President Obama, in dealing with Venezuela now?

Venezuela is a very important country to the United States. It is a leading oil exporter to the United States. So the relations of the United States must continue with Venezuela. And the United States should do what it can to divert the country towards a democracy. Democracy, as I mentioned, is not only to have elections. Democracy is a lot more. It is a way of life, in which checks and balances and pluralism and freedom of expression and respect of human rights must prevail. So all the efforts that this country can make in order to ensure that democracy remains as the political system of Venezuela, I'm sure will be welcomed in the country.

Chavez made President Bush into a big enemy of Venezuela.

Yes, and I'm sure that he will continue more or less with that policy. He now says he wants to talk with President† Obama. But he's a person used to obtaining what he wants. He's a lieutenant-general by training. Chavez is used to acting in order to obtain his goals. And in order to maintain his leadership in the country he needs to have an enemy, even though that enemy is a fiction. He will continue to act in that same way.

Will he continue to support Cuba as strongly as he has, do you think?

[Former Cuban leader] Fidel Castro said last week that the triumph of this referendum was essential for Cuba. Cuba is now dependent completely on Venezuelan support. Venezuela has substituted for the old Soviet Union and Cuba is depending on Venezuela.

* Editor's Note: In the original version of this interview, the word "authoritarian" was incorrectly transcribed as "totalitarian."

** Correction: The original version of this interview incorrectly stated that Carias left Venezuela in 2002.

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