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  Number 430 | Mayo 2017
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Latin America

There’s no rule of law here

By reprinting this editorial, envío expresses its solidarity with the Venezuelan people in their struggle for freedom, democracy, justice and fullness of life.

Editorial de la Revista SIC

There is no rule of law in Venezuela because there isn’t even a “State.” Not only is this true with respect to the administrative bodies of public affairs, but in the most elementary sense denoted by the verb to be, estar in Spanish, from which the noun estado, state, is formed. The State doesn’t exist because there are no fixed rules, nothing is predictable, and no one ever knows what’s going to happen.

Nothing is stable, routine...

In today’s Venezuela you never know if a police officer will protect you or assault you, or is an assailant’s accomplice. You don’t know what today’s price will be for the same thing you purchased only last week. You don’t know if a government official will help you or defraud you. You have no idea if the person sitting next to you on the bus is just another passenger like you or an assailant. You don’t know if medicines or medical supplies will be available, if they’ll cost all your savings if they are, or if you won’t even be able to afford them going into debt. You don’t know if your workplace will continue functioning or if they’re secretly planning to close it or to drastically cut the workforce. Even more critical is that you don’t know if food will be available. Nor do you know if you’re going to be kidnapped, or killed in an assault or by a wayward bullet. You don’t know if your children will continue living in the country or you’ll face the future alone.

...or predictable

While everything written above is possible, it’s equally possible that you’ll get enough money for your expenses, nothing will happen to you, there’s relative harmony in your neighborhood and you’ll be treated well in a government office. Similarly, you may have a happy family gathering, the hospital may provide satisfactory services, a government employee may save your life and everything may turn out well. Normally, however, unpleasant and painful events prevail and while such situations could be solved if everything were normal, the unpredictability is so overpowering that normalcy seems abnormal.

The absence of a State

If the notion of “state” is non-existent at the most personal level, it’s even less tangible with respect to the function of the branches and institutions of government. The fact that the State isn’t functioning is one of the reasons—the main one in fact—that most basic services have ceased to exist.

It is exceedingly grim that the government is seeking nothing more than to preserve its power and, consequently, isn’t even a totalitarian one anymore, because it’s no longer seriously making the effort to impose upon its citizens institutional structures or even some vital directives; it’s just a dictatorship. But things are even worse than that, since being concerned only with hanging on to power has meant it has abandoned its functions as a government. It is, in effect, a non-government (a failed state) in which what little still functions is thanks to the resiliency of a few honest servants who are struggling to make things work because they honor their responsibility and respect themselves and those they serve. But it’s not easy for them to do because the changes in the upper echelons of government agencies are so frequent and sudden that even the ministers have too little time to take charge of their ministry before they are rotated out of it. This inefficiency is because the government is only governing using those closest and most loyal, rather than with those best suited for each position.

This was endorsed—let’s say officially—by Chavez when, in response to criticism leveled at the president of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil and natural gas company, he told its employees that to work there the most important qualification was to be “red, the darkest red.” He applied that principle to all areas of the national government. The consequence for PDVSA, just as one example, was the huge drop in productivity and the fact that when his government took over, it cost US$5 to produce a barrel of oil while today the cost exceeds US$20 a barrel. They’ve killed the hen that laid the golden egg, leading to a catastrophic increase in the national debt even back when oil prices were high. And, if that weren’t enough, there’s now a total lack of transparency, a refusal to reveal facts and figures and absolute impunity regarding the failure to fulfill one’s professional responsibilities, and even systematic and open theft in proportions never seen in our country before.

Even with all that, however, the lack of a State isn’t the only cause of instability and unpredictability in Venezuela. The other equally major cause, although obviously one not independent of the prevailing impunity, is that so many Venezuelans have given up their dignity in order to take personal advantage of the situation and the chaos.

The dismantling of the State

There can obviously be no rule of law if there’s no State, since in democratic societies the Constitution guarantees freedom, fundamental rights, the separation of powers and the principle of legality and judicial protection from the arbitrary exercise of power. The dictatorships we had in Venezuela in the 20th century used force to hold on to their power, but they also understood that one way to buy their legitimacy, or at least the acquiescence of many citizens, was to establish order to guarantee protection and safe circulation to them and their private property. By so doing businesses could prosper and long-term investments would be attracted, thus contributing to progress. Repression was selective, aimed solely at those opposing the regime, particularly if they were armed.

With that in mind, the State began to take shape via its ministries from the second half of the 1920s on. This process accelerated following the death of Juan Vicente Gómez and continued to grow in the 1940s and even during the dictatorship of Marco Pérez Jiménez. In this current regime, in contrast, the selective repression of the opposition is continuing but now with none of the order seen in the traditional dictatorships.

We’re witnessing the dismantling of the State. The government has taken over the judicial branch, leaving people no protection from the arbitrary use of power. Citizens are similarly defenseless against abuses by both other citizens and by the government itself because many judges—who are mere government appendages—are easily bribed. This is also seen with respect to the executive branch’s abuses of the other government branches, currently the legislative one in particular. The same can be said about the electoral branch, which is now an appendage of the executive, and operates at its discretion with systematic disregard for the Constitution.

The executive branch operates arbitrarily as if it were the entire State, with no regard for either the spirit or the letter of the Constitution. It is thus patently obvious that we don’t live in a democratic State; all actions are so discretionary that we no longer know what’s legal and what is not. In fact, everything the State does is legal on principle in its own eyes, as it sees itself as the equivalent of an absolute monarch, and everything its opponents do is illegal.

Where it is most clearly seen that there is no rule of law in Venezuela today is the lack of respect for people’s fundamental rights, and the lack of any sanction against this systematic disrespect. This is the most egregious abuse of all. It is what leads to characterizing the government as inhumane and vile, as it is completely absorbed in conserving its power with total disregard for all else. It even would appear to be trying to derive its power from the misery and prostration of its citizens. What happened to the grandiose words against the abandonment of the people by what Chávez called the Fourth Republic?

From the March 2017 issue of SIC, a sister magazine published by the Gumilla Jesuit Center of Venezuela.

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