Did you hear that President Chavez is going to Rule by Decree for the next 18 months? The very idea evokes a picture of a not-too-distant South American past, one in which all-powerful executives live out their capricious whims and mete out brutal retribution against political enemies. It's all so dramatic and perverse and larger than life. Somewhere Andrew Lloyd Webber is already mapping out the musical score.
But it this case, it's just not true. Of course, if you've been reading the newspapers lately, you'd have a hard time figuring that out. The Miami Herald headline blares: "Chavez Granted Power to Rule by Decree." Time Magazine asks "Is Chavez Becoming Castro?" And those are the restrained ones. The right-wing rags have headlines like "A Dictatorship Rises," and "Hugo Chavez Kills Democracy." So you'd be forgiven for not getting the nuances in this storyline.
Here's what's actually happening: The Venezuelan assembly is poised to pass a law that will give the executive branch greater leeway to establish norms on a certain range of issues. Most of these involve guidelines for the president's own cabinet-level agencies. In other words, the Venezuelan version of the IRS will map out the country's tax structure; the Transportation department will devise its own strategic plan for public transit nationwide, etc. This represents a shift of certain powers from the legislative branch to the executive, to be sure, but on paper they don't seem to stray too far from the powers that the executive branch in the United States already has. Venezuelanaysis.com has a full listing of the ten issue areas that are affected.
It is important to note that this type of power-transfer is allowed under the Venezuelan constitution of 1999, which expressly permits the President to issue executive orders specifically within these issue areas. Of course, the constitution continues to guide the country's overall legal framework, which is to say that no "decree" can supercede constitutional law.
What's more, this "enabling law" is not new to the current constitution. Venezuela's previous constitution allowed for similar powers shifts to the executive, and you can be sure that past presidents took advantage of this authority on multiple occasions throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's. Here are a few examples:
In 1974, Congress gave President Carlos Andres Perez the right to "rule by decree" on a number of economic matters, which he used to pass a slew of new regulations-instituting a minimum wage increase, freezing the market price of "necessary" goods, instating tax relief on agricultural activities, increasing government pensions, and even establishing new state institutions, including the National Institute of Housing and an Industrial Development Fund.
But Perez was a close ally of the US government, so there was little controversy from Washington.
Ten years later, in May 1984, Congress again gave authority to the President, this time Jaime Lusinchi, to deal with the country's financial crisis by decree. He enacted a complicated exchange scheme, which was different for various sectors. For example, he extended a fixed exchange rate (4.3 bolivars to the dollar) for the payment of foreign debt and for Venezuelan students studying abroad; a second rate (6 bolivars to the dollar) for trade in the oil and iron industries; and a third (7.5 to 1) for the commercial and financial sectors. A fourth, "fluctuating dollar," constantly changing by market forces, was in use for everything else.
Nobody balked at all this, certainly not on the international scene. Lusinchi is remembered for hosting the first-ever visit of a Pope to Venezuela, and left office a few years later with what at the time was the highest approval ratings of an outgoing Venezuelan president.
In 1993, interim President Ramon Jose Velasquez used these special "decree" powers to retool the country's debt and reform the financial system. Once again, nobody-well, nobody remembers much about Velasquez at all. He was sort of a historical footnote, serving only 8 months in office.
So why all the finger-wagging, hand-wringing and label-slinging this time around? In short: because it's Chavez. The Bush administration has long been on a campaign to brand him a despot. His influence throughout Latin America is seen as a threat to U.S. power in the region, and after failed attempts to overthrow him by force, sabotage the nation's economy, and finance opposition parties, the label game is the last arrow they have in their increasingly feeble anti-Chavez quiver.
For their part, the international press is all too eager to go along for the ride. You'll be shocked (shocked!) to hear that they often take the Bush Administration's analyses at face value, with little of the digging that would provide balance or context to the story.
But more than that, the Caracas-based correspondents for the big newspapers are hampered by their lack of familiarity with Venezuelan history. How many of them would know offhand that Velazquez "ruled by decree" ten years ago, much less be familiar with similar instances in the 80s or the 70s? And the Venezuelan elites they go to for context are not about to highlight this. They've got a government to undermine.
So for those itching to see a musical Chavez biopic in the works, it's going to be a little less "Evita" and a little more "1776."
Eric Wingerter is a freelance writer with a special focus on Latin America. His blog, www.BoRev.net deals with Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution and its portrayal in the U.S. press.