Venezuela’s Bicentennial: Should Chávez Re-Examine Bolívar – and His Revolution?

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Supporters of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hold a flag of him as they celebrate his return from Cuba in Caracas on July 4, 2011. (Photo: Leo Ramirez - AFP - Getty Images)

George Washington and Simón Bolívar are rightly remembered as the New World’s greatest independence heroes, but the anti-democratic flaws each possessed are too often forgotten. Washington was a slave-owner, a fact most Americans disregard during commemorations like this week’s July 4 fete. Likewise, the Caracas-born Bolívar declared himself dictator of the South American proto-nation of Gran Colombia – a fact most Venezuelans, whose oil-rich country was part of Gran Colombia, would rather brush aside on their own independence day, which was July 5.

Because this week also marked Venezuela’s 200th anniversary, President Hugo Chávez, who idolizes Bolívar, made sure he returned to Caracas from Cuba (as we predicted he would), where he’d spent the past three weeks recovering from cancer surgery. (He hasn’t revealed what kind of cancer.) As anyone would, I wish him a full recovery, and since he’s Venezuela’s democratically elected President, it’s good that he was there to kick off the bicentennial parade. But here’s another way Chávez could have observed the 5th of July: by acknowledging Bolívar’s authoritarian alter ego and resolving from here on out to stop emulating it in his own presidency.

(Read: Why Hugo Chávez’s Dramatic Reappearance May Not Be Enough)

If Chávez’s recent absence reminded the western hemisphere of anything, it was that his socialist, anti-U.S. Bolivarian Revolution relies too much on Venezuela’s comandante and not enough on its Constitution. That was evident from the moment Chávez was rolled into a Havana operating room the night of June 10: For the next two weeks if not longer, Vice President Elías Jaua as well as the Chavista-dominated National Assembly and Supreme Court seemed paralyzed, reluctant to make a move or utter a word without Chávez’s approval, especially when it came to the question of whether the Constitution directed Jaua to assume temporary presidential powers while Chávez was twice under the knife. (Jaua refused to do so.)

And the one move Chávez’s government did make during that absence only served to remind people how vulnerable Venezuela’s Constitution is to Chavista fiat. As a prison riot erupted outside Caracas, officials announced they were putting the television network Globovisión under investigation for the amorphous crime of “generating panic, uncertainty and disquiet” in its coverage. I’m not a fan of Globovisión: its hyper-partisan anti-Chávez agenda is so vociferous and gratuitous it makes Rush Limbaugh seem balanced. But I’m also not a fan of Chávez’s vague “media responsibility” and anti-defamation laws, which his government can use to fine or even criminally prosecute news outlets and journalists if it arbitrarily deems they’ve insulted the President or public officials, or if they’ve spread “false information” that “causes public panic.”

Most independent political observers in Venezuela agree that the Globovisión probe – which could result in the network being fined 10% of its earnings – is meant mainly to deflect attention away from the government’s responsibility in the prison riot and its controversial actions in putting it down. But the larger issue is Chávez’s criminalization of speech: Chávez may not be the dictator his critics say he is, but just about every democracy in the world today has moved libel, slander and similar legal issues to civil courts precisely because hauling them into criminal courts wrongfully intimidates free speech.

(Read: Is Chávez Quelling Dissent With Anti-Defamation Law?)

Even in Ecuador, where President and leftist Chávez ally Rafael Correa has been on a crusade in recent years to curb the freedoms of what he calls “corrupt and irresponsible” news outlets, the National Assembly may be backing off the more draconian provisions of a new communications bill that would essentially make the government the country’s media censor. “The law seeks to establish media responsibility parameters,” Mauro Andino, the Assembly’s Communications Committee chairman, tells me, “but it’s not going to make the government the decider of what can be said or published. We’re still debating the bill, but it’s not going to criminalize opinion.”

That’s the hope. Either way, as Chávez was returning to Venezuela over the weekend he got another reminder that even his fans outside Venezuela aren’t all that enamored of his authoritarian tendencies. Noam Chomsky, a celebrated left-wing U.S. scholar whose work Chávez often praises, last week criticized Chávez’s “concentration of executive power.” In an open letter published on Sunday, Chomsky called on Chávez to release a Venezuelan judge, María Lourdes Afiuni, whom Chávez had imprisoned in December 2009 after she released a prominent banker facing corruption charges because his pre-trial detention had exceeded Venezuela’s legal limits.

Afiuni, who herself has cancer, was let out of prison earlier this year after human rights groups reported the assaults she’d suffered from other inmates, but she remains under house arrest. Chomsky suggests her case is a stain on Chávez’s revolution, not least because it presents the image of a petulant caudillo arbitrarily locking up a woman who was simply following due process of law.

Chávez, who took office in 1999, points to the fact that he’s been democratically elected three times, and that he even subjected himself to a 2004 recall referendum, as proof that he’s no autocrat. He’s right to an extent. But democracy is also what happens after elections. In a 2007 referendum, Venezuelans rejected a proposal to eliminate presidential term limits. The 1999 Constitution Chávez helped write said the question could not be revisited; but he did an end run and raised it again in a 2009 plebiscite, which he won – and which is why he plans to run for re-election next year. The question is whether he’ll be as healthy to make that journey as he was to make the trip back to Caracas this week.