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Chávez in his labyrinth
Andrés Cañizález
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A new balance of power in the judiciary and legislature has undermined the president.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is facing a judicial and political labyrinth that is largely of his own making. And there is no end in sight for the country’s ongoing political crisis.

The Aug. 14 decision by the Supreme Court to drop a case against four top-level military officers involved in a failed coup in April (LP, April 22, 2002) was a serious blow to Chávez’s "Bolivarian Revolution" and underscored a new balance of power in the nation’s high court, which until recently was controlled by the government.

The justices voted 11-8 that there was insufficient evidence to try four officers — Army chief Gen. Efraín Vásquez, Gen. Pedro Pereira, Vice Adm. Héctor Ramírez and Rear Adm. Daniel Comisso — for rebellion.

The court issued its ruling in a pre-trial assessment of the merits of the case, a process in which the judges determine if there is enough evidence to try top officials. The military officers benefited from the Bolivarian Constitution, backed by Chávez and approved in 1999 (LP, Dec. 27, 1999), which extended the process to military leaders. Under the old constitution, the pre-trial procedure only applied to the president, Cabinet members and legislators.

While the court did not rule on the underlying issue of whether a coup actually occurred, the decision virtually closed all legal avenues for determining responsibility for the April events, which removed Chávez from office for less than 48 hours.

"More than a tactic of opposition to Chávez, [the court ruling] provides support for future coups," the non-governmental Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education and Action (PROVEA) said in a statement. "Impunity is a stimulus for crime."

Chávez and his Fifth Republic Party (MVR) have said they will take action against the Supreme Court magistrates and have revealed that some of the judges did not meet the legal requirements for holding their posts. The high court magistrates were appointed by the pro-Chávez congressional majority, which sidestepped a constitutional requirement for citizen participation in the process, arguing that the country was in "a state of transition."

Some analysts suspect that veteran political leader Luis Miquilena, who until late last year was considered the president’s mentor, had a hand in the Supreme Court decision. Some of the judges are known to have ties to Miquilena and one of his friends, businessman Tobías Carrero.

In mid-2000, the same court, by a large majority, ruled that there was insufficient evidence to try Miquilena, who was interior minister at the time, on corruption charges related to Carrero’s business dealings with the Chávez government.

Although officials have not admitted it, Miquilena’s new alignment with the opposition is also a blow to Chávez, who just a few months ago referred to the former communist leader as his "political father." According to Miquilena, the Bolivarian Revolution has gone off course with unnecessary "extremism and authoritarianism."

Constitutional law expert Jesús María Casal, head of the law school at Andrés Bello Catholic University, said the Supreme Court decision is likely to block any possibility of legal action against Chávez, which some opponents have sought.

In both the case against Miquilena and the one against the military leaders, the court set a precedent by ruling that before a top official can be tried, the Attorney General’s Office must present strong evidence of the defendant’s responsibility as part of the pre-trial assessment.

Seven cases have been filed against Chávez in the Supreme Court, but no dates have been set for rulings. Some experts consider the strongest charges those of misappropriation of funds, or allocation of money to an area other than the one for which it was budgeted. Chávez has admitted that late last year he reallocated US$2.4 billion from the Macroeconomic Stabilization Fund to pay regular government expenses.

Possibly sensing that the Supreme Court is now an adversary, the MVR has begun an investigation aimed at removing the judges, while Chávez has called for a reform of the constitution, which he once called "the best in the world."

But Teodoro Petkoff, director of the daily Tal Cual and former planning minister, said that such action would require a strong majority in the legislature, where Chávez has lost ground.

Until late last year, the government could count on the votes of 110 of the 165 lawmakers, thanks to a coalition of parties that supported his revolution and an alliance with one sector of the opposition.

That majority allowed Chávez to wield special legislative powers in 2000 and 2001 (LP, Nov. 27, 2000). As confrontations between Chávez and his opponents became more radical, however, the president fought publicly with leaders of parties that had been his allies and even with members of the MVR’s moderate wing. He can now count on only 85 votes, not enough to remove the judges or launch a constitutional reform.

"Chávez no longer has the power to reform anything, much less the constitution," Petkoff said. He added that the suggestion of some Chávez advisers that he call a new Constituent Assembly would be political suicide, because the president no longer has the broad public support that swept him to power in December 1998 and ratified his mandate in 1999 and 2000.

Meanwhile, opponents have taken to the streets regularly since January, demanding Chávez’s resignation.

—From Caracas, Andrés Cañizález


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