Eroding Democracy

Miami Herald, by Christopher Walker and Sanja Tatic

Hugo Chavez's febrile brand of politics has sent ripples throughout Latin America, causing concerns both inside and outside the region about a possible contagion of authoritarian populism. With much of President Chavez's energies seemingly devoted to issues beyond Venezuela's borders -- railing against the United States in particular -- what often gets lost is the impact that Chavez-style governance is having at home on Venezuela's crucial institutions.

A study being released today by Freedom House reveals the extent of the erosion of democratic institutions. The findings on Venezuela in Countries at the Crossroads suggest that chavismo may be exerting irrevocable harm upon indispensable institutions, including the judiciary and the news media.

The study covers events in 2004 and 2005 and examines key areas of governance in 30 strategically important countries. It shows that Venezuela's scores have dropped across the board, in all four indicators of good governance addressed in the study: accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anti-corruption and transparency. In fact, only Nepal, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria have experienced a greater net change for the worse.

More corruption

Particularly disturbing is Venezuela's sharp decline in governmental transparency and the general environment against corruption. In this category, Venezuela has dropped from the top to the bottom third of the countries examined, since the last review in 2004. During this time, the government has increased significantly its command over the economy, providing state officials with mounting opportunities for personal enrichment.

Since 2004, Venezuela has also seen a number of legislative acts and court decisions that are at odds with a system that respects press freedom. Among these restrictive measures is a July 2004 act that allows the government to monitor the work of journalists. The law provides for compulsory registration with the national journalism association and punishes reporters' "illegal" conduct with prison sentences.

Moreover, the Law on the Social Responsibility of Radio and TV, which took effect in December 2004, gives the government control over the content of radio and television programs. The president has at the same time undertaken a vigorous campaign to marginalize the opposition and curb dissenting voices. In a move to inhibit public criticism, in March 2005 the government amended Venezuela's criminal code to expand laws that punish "disrespect for government authorities."

A 'blacklist of political opponents' has been created, which effectively has denied access to state jobs and services to many thousands of Venezuelans deemed Chavez-unfriendly. Very alarming is the proposed Law of International Cooperation, which will severely damage the ability of Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations to work independently by creating excessive obstacles for both registration and access to funds.

High oil prices have so far offered a cushion for the inefficiency and corruption that are burgeoning in Venezuela, but this oil wealth cannot mask the flaws of Chavez's governance indefinitely. The more that democratic institutions and accountability are abused, the more capricious and corrupt the Venezuelan system will become.

Voters abstaining

There is evidence to suggest Venezuelans already may be growing tired of Chavez's act. The country's shrinking accountability has brought with it rising corruption and mismanagement. A significant number of voters apparently voted with their feet in last December's elections for the National Assembly -- by not moving them and staying at home. Only 25 percent of the electorate participated in the election.

However, given the opposition's disengagement and weak level of support and with less than five months until December's elections, it is very likely that Chavez will win another six-year term.

Venezuela sorely needs a normalization of its politics and a change in the trajectory of its governance. But such a normalization is becoming an ever taller order with all of the country's critical power institutions now in the hands of Chavez supporters, no meaningful challenge to decision making from the government's legislative branch, and a judiciary ever more dependent on the executive.

Christopher Walker and Sanja Tatic are co-editors of Freedom House's survey of governance, Countries at the Crossroads, whose findings are due for release today.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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