Venezuela, A State of Emergency

By Boris Munoz

This op-ed first appeared in America Economia

The violent attacks launched on press freedom by Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro have been condemned both on the American continent and around the world.

The Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público registered 158 attacks in Venezuela on the freedom of speech between January and October 2013, from verbal and physical assaults on journalists to legal action and censorship against media. Threatening the press is clearly a matter of grave concern, though no novelty per se in our country. For more than a decade Venezuela's late president, Hugo Chávez, made skirmishes with the media his personal signature, often making good on his threats by cancelling radio and television channels' operating licences.

Chávez was able to do such things with impunity because he had managed to create an institutional and political framework he firmly controlled. That same framework today permits Maduro to thunder against the press, as he did on Oct. 10 when he accused the 2001 newspaper of "sabotaging" the economy with an article on gasoline shortages. He called its editors and chiefs "bandits and criminals," and threatened them with "serious" penalties.

But as we keep hearing in Venezuela, "Maduro is not Chávez." The so-called Bolivarian revolution lost not only its general, but also the singular figure who managed to centralize all government decision-making, while mitigating the internal disputes that marked his diverse and contradictory political clan.

Likewise, Venezuela in 2013 is not the country Chávez governed for 14 years. The endemic problems of the Chávez era - like spiralling crime rates that have placed the country among the 10 most dangerous in the world, and high levels of corruption encrusted in the upper echelons of the state apparatus - have grown worse and will not be resolved by handing out flat-screen televisions. To this we may add a dramatic deterioration of economic conditions seen in the shortages of food and other basic goods, inflation at almost 50%, and an unfettered black market where American dollars can cost up to nine times the official rate.

Patriot Act, revisited

These precedents are important for understanding the recent creation of the CESPPA, or Strategic Center for Security and the Protection of the Fatherland. This is the agency tasked with gathering and evaluating strategic information for the Government, so it can "foresee and neutralize potential threats to its vital interests."

CESPPA's reach however goes far beyond this rather vague objective. CESPPA "will be able to declare restricted, classified or for limited divulgence any information, fact or circumstance of which it is informed while performing its duties." It could in other words not only ask for information in any public or private instance deemed relevant, but also decide to censor and repress news and information - or indeed, "incriminating" circumstances.

The first version of the decree creating CESPPA linked these functions with the need to oversee "the activity of internal and external enemies." But faced with loud domestic and international criticisms, a new version of the decree came out without that phrase. Yet even that version stinks of the Police State, and with good reason. Analysts and government critics qualified the new text as a miniature, Caribbean version of the Patriot Act implemented in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

The winds blowing in Venezuela herald the sharp deterioration of social and economic conditions. While many of the decisions Maduro has taken are intended as safety valves to avoid a social explosion, the inability to govern persists. CESPPA's very existence points to an imminent scenario wherein national security, the public good and the nation's sovereignty will become pretexts to impose a state of emergency and thus neutralize dissent and opposition.

The president says he will avoid using it against "the people," but as seen before, he will direct it toward those he designates as enemies of the Revolution. The mechanism allowing this already exists; putting it to use is deplorable now, and could end up putting the nation on the road to bloodshed.

Republished with permission from Worldcrunch.

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