By Dariela Sosa
“Now that the president is back, there can be no doubt about the democratic institutions working in Venezuela,” said communication and information minister Ernesto Villegas on the return to Caracas of the Venezuelan President. Hugo Chavez announced his arrival at the Military Hospital in Caracas on 2:30am through his Twitter account.
Chavez should have attended his swearing-in ceremony last month following his October reelection. Article 231 of the Venezuelan constitution states, “The elected candidate will be sworn in as the President of the Republic on the 10th of January…” Yet since Chavez went to Cuba on December 11, 2012 for medical treatment, the Venezuelan people have received no official medical report on him, and he has not made any media appearances. Meanwhile, no key institution such as the National Assembly or the Supreme Court seems to be bothered by what can best be described as a constitutional crisis. Chavez’s return to Venezuela changes nothing as to the dysfunction of Venezuelan democracy.
If Chavez lacks the strength to take his own oath of office, it is difficult to see how he could be capable of leading the nation. According to the Constitution, if the president dies, his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, must take office, calling a new election within 30 days. If Chávez survives but cannot attend the inauguration, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, must take his place temporarily. If the president-elect is temporarily absent, Cabello is able to govern for a maximum of 180 days; and if the president-elect is permanently absent, Cabello must call a new election within 30 days.
Why has Venezuela ignored these constitutional procedures? First, the government is not providing accurate medical information about Chavez’s health. In a first proof of life since December 11, last week the Ministry of Communication showed four pictures supposedly brought by his son-in-law. Consequently Venezuelans are unable to know just how serious, or permanent, his illness will be. Second, due to an effective absence of checks and balances, the judicial and legislative branches are shamefully subordinated to the Executive Power. In January, the Chavista-dominated legislature voted to give the president as much time as he needed to recuperate. Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales asserted that it would be “absurd” to consider Chavez’s treatment in Cuba an unauthorized absence. Constitutionally, the Supreme Court is supposed to convene a medical board to assess the President’s health, but the Court has stated that the case has yet to meet the requirements for such an evaluation. One might wonder how a president missing for two months does not qualify for some scrutiny. To top it off, the Chief Justice pointed out that because Chavez is being reelected the swearing-in ceremony is “incidental”.
Fundamentally, however, the Constitution is just window dressing to hide the ruling party’s authoritarianism. And life in Venezuela goes on. Believe it or not, the government’s solution to the country’s most serious challenges, such as crime and inflation, is to call for a religious faith in El Comandante: the vice president repeats everyday that Chavez is taking care of everything that happens. Even though you cannot see him, you must trust that he is with us.
What is most distressing, though, is the opposition’s silence. They act as if attacking the government’s loose interpretation of the law is not a winning political strategy for them. So even the most outspoken activists have not made much of a noise about it! Even understanding the sense of hopelessness regarding Venezuelan political checks and balances, whose role is it to denounce the government when it commits legal irregularities, if not the opposition’s? Having worked and being a supporter of the Democratic Unity Roundtable – the main opposition coalition–I demand more from them. Until now, only some Venezuelan students (mostly independent from political parties) are protesting outside the Cuban Embassy in Caracas since last Thursday, condemning the Caribbean nation’s influence in Venezuela.
This is merely a chapter of our historical political soap opera. In Venezuela the law is ‘creatively interpreted’ to maximize political advantage. Of course, this happens in every country, but in Venezuela, making a mockery of the law is even promoted as a kind of “native cunning,” and this is true for both sides of the political spectrum. In the disturbing absence of checks and balances that we unfortunately have reached in the Chavez era, this feature has grown even more grotesque.
A constitution defines what we are; it is a set of principles and rules on which we collectivelly agree. But if we don’t respect the rules, how can we give order to our society? If we cannot take ourselves seriously, then who will?
Cultural changes are complex, but destiny is not set in stone. Countries are able to learn and evolve. The first step is to talk openly about harmful common features that ill our social fabric. Hopefully sooner than later, this will lead us to have a functional constitution, and —consequently — a visible president.