The Devil Wears Cartier: Larry Birns and COHA’s Indecent Game Against Maria Corina Machado

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Normally, I stick to a policy of ignoring the tiresome propagandistic tirades that ooze out of Larry Birns’ fringy-lefty Council on Hemispheric Affairs, but his latest COHA-culo riled me just enough to respond. Birns trots out all the usual ruses – the hysterical anti-Americanism, the rank class-baiting, the tortured re-interpretations of Venezuelan law – to persuade us that locking up signature-gathering dissidents for over two-decades is a perfectly reasonable thing for a democratic government to do. While the usual stream of anti-Sumate invective is too tedious to take apart here, I want to dwell on one aspect that struck me as both new and particularly deceptive:

Birns affirms that, for all intents and purposes, Sumate is a political party and that, under article 25 of Venezuela’s Law of Political Parties, Public Meetings and Demonstrations, (LPPRPM) political parties are not allowed to receive funding from foreign sources. Sumate broke the law, ergo, they have to face the consequences.

There’s so much wrong with this argument it makes your head spin.

In ordinary language, a political party is an organization that seeks political power by nominating candidates for election. Sumate does not do that, has never done that, and has no intention to do that. By Birns’ definition, the League of Women Voters would be a political party, as well as the ACLU, and any other organization that participates in public life as it relates to the electoral process even when it does not seek election.

As a matter of Venezuelan law, political parties constitute themselves as such by formally registering with CNE. This procedure allows them to nominate candidates for elections, and binds them to a particular set of rules set out in LPPRPM. Sumate isn’t registered as a political party. Instead, Sumate is an “asociación civil”, a legally registered NGO. There is no legal ban on NGOs receiving foreign funding – they do that all the time.

But even if, by some bizarre re-interpretation of Venezuelan law, you decide that Sumate is a political party, Birns’ argument is absurd. Article 25 of the LPPRPM establishes an obligation not to accept foreign funding, but does not establish criminal penalties for breaking that obligation. This is significant, since the law does establish criminal penalties for other violation. For instance, placing campaign posters on public property is supposed to land you in jail for 1 to 15 days. (Oh, the irony!) Nowhere in LPPRPM will you find any justification to jail someone for 20+ years – the penalties typically include fines or jail sentences of no more than a month.

(It also bears noting that, unlike Sumate, MVR very certainly is a political party and has accepted over a million dollars in foreign campaign contributions, as shown by Spanish investigative magistrate Baltazar Garzón. If Birns thinks Maria Corina Machado should be jailed for 23 years on the basis of LPPRPM, it’s hard to fathom why he doesn’t think Chavez should receive similar punishment.)

Since, obviously, LPPRM is such a weak instrument to base a prosecution on, the Prosecutor General is basing his accusation on article 128 of the Venezuelan Penal Code which bars conspring with foreigners against “Venezuela’s republican institutions,” a charge that seems to imply Sumate wanted to impose a monarchy. The wording is, obviously, vague in the extreme…and weirdly unrelated to what Sumate actually did.

This whole hubbub, lest-we-forget, stems from Sumate’s campaign to help citizens exercise their right to seek the recall of elected officials as set out article 72 of the constitution, and I do mean the 1999 constitution, y’know, the one Chávez calls the best in the world, the one his supporters drafted and he campaigned for…that one.

MCM’s predicament is decidedly kafkaesque – threatened with decades in jail for undermining the republic by applying the constitution her persecutors wrote. It reminds me of Teodoro Petkoff’s quip that the 1999 constitution reads more and more like a subversive pamphlet, so distant is its word and its spirit from official practice.

So no, Larry, the devil doesn’t wear Prada…he wears Cartier.

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Known to friend and foe alike as Quico, Francisco Toro is Executive Editor at Caracas Chronicles.

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