Venezuela: devolution proving problematic


Richard Moore

Government says ”revolutionary” decentralization redistributes power to the people

Miami Herald: Venezuela’s President is leading an effort to centralize power held by regional leaders … and a new law would further strengthen his ability to intervene in state affairs.

Antonio Ledezma was elected Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas on an opposition ticket last November. But if Chavez has his way, Ledezma could soon find himself reporting to a specially created vice president for the capital city, appointed by Chavez himself.  The apparent front-runner for the job is none other than the man Ledezma defeated four months ago — Aristobulo Isturiz of the ruling United Socialist Party.

The move forms part of a concerted effort by Chavez to claw back power devolved to Venezuela’s regions — an effort that has accelerated since the opposition won control of some important states and cities in November. Earlier this week, navy ships and national guard troops were sent to seize ports and airports from opposition governors, who denounced the regional vice president move as unconstitutional.

”On November 23, the voters elected their Mayor. You can’t have, on top of that, an official who’s not legitimate because he wasn’t elected by the people,” Maximo Sanchez, chair of the Caracas city council, told the opposition TV channel Globovision.

Government spokesmen defend the policy, saying their model of ”revolutionary” decentralization redistributes power to the people, rather than to what Chavez has called ”little republics” led by regional strongmen.  Venezuela’s legislative body, meanwhile, is giving priority to a series of bills that seek to roll back the powers devolved to the regions two decades ago when, for the first time, governors were popularly elected. Chavez holds an overwhelming majority of seats in the national assembly, as a result of an opposition boycott of the 2005 legislative elections.  Many aspects of the legislative package bear a close resemblance to elements of a major constitutional reform package narrowly rejected by the electorate in December 2007.

Under a proposed new ”territorial organization” law, the president would acquire sweeping new powers to intervene in state affairs. He could create special territories, ruled directly from the presidential palace, and ”regional vice presidents” such as the one proposed for Caracas. If approved, the law would create a third tier of local government in the capital, which already has municipal and metropolitan authorities. The model of regional vice presidents formed part of the so-called ”new geometry of power” proposed — and rejected — in 2007.

Historically a highly centralized state, Venezuela in the late 1980s began to give more power to the regions.  ”This had very positive effects in terms of generating more competition in local politics,” said Pavel Gomez, a specialist in public policy at the IESA business school in Caracas. “It created regional leaders, who could eventually aspire to national power — and this is probably one reason Chavez doesn’t like it.”  Government officials say that the fundamental unit of local government will now be the commune, a neighborhood-based organization that is not mentioned in the constitution. The communes are ”guided and coordinated” by the federal government.

In a communique, pro-Chavez state governors asserted that the previous model, conceived in the 1980s, was the result of a policy promoted by Washington aimed at ”dismembering” the region’s nation-states by “removing their constitutional and legal faculties [and] breaking them up territorially.” The communique does not attempt to explain how US agents apparently infiltrated the 1999 assembly, dominated by Chavez supporters, which drafted the current constitution and maintained decentralization as a key concept. Among other things, Article 164 of the 1999 constitution states that the administration of ports, highways and airports is the ”exclusive responsibility” of the states, ”in coordination with” the national government. State governors who cited this provision, calling Chavez’s move unconstitutional, were threatened with arrest by the president.

”This is the law of the land — no Venezuelan can declare himself to be above the law,” Chavez said Sunday on his weekly TV and radio show,Alo Presidente. Poking fun at the governors, he said he even had names for the operations to arrest them. ”Operation Chicken,” he said. “Arrest the chicken for me.” The reference was aimed at Henrique Salas Feo, the governor of Carabobo state, west of the capital, whose nickname is “the chicken.”

The governors have said they will resist the takeover of ports and airports, but it is not clear what they can do. Salas Feo has appealed to the Supreme Xourt, which has a record of siding with the national government.  Pablo Perez, the governor of the western border state of Zulia, called a news conference in which he declared himself ready to go to jail if necessary, to defend the rights of the state’s inhabitants.  ”If they want to jail me for defending Zulia, let them come and get me,” Perez said.

However, pro-Chavez legislator Carlos Escarra, a constitutional lawyer, said the legal reform that restored federal control over ports and airports was irreversible.  ”We can’t have ports and airports in the hands of governors who have given concessions to the private sector,” he told viewers of the government TV channel, VTV. Moreover, “from the geopolitical point of view, these are the points of entry and exit between Venezuela and the [outside world].”

Some opposition representatives argue that a vice president for Caracas would in practice eliminate the role of the Metropolitan Mayor, currently Ledezma … National Assembly chair Cilia Flores calls that claim part of “a terrorist campaign by the opposition to spread fear.”  However, the Metropolitan Mayor’s Office has already been stripped of many of its powers. It no longer has a police force, and assets including hospitals and a TV station have been reassigned to central government.  Several buildings, among them city hall, have been occupied by Chavez supporters, backed by armed police sent by the Interior Ministry, and the Mayor has to operate from a provisional office.

The government has claimed it is aiming for a utopian world in which ”the people” exercise direct power. ”In reality, it is the government bureaucracy that ends up in charge of everything,” said Gomez, the public policy expert. “The issue here is one of political control.”

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