Pushing it

Quico says: What would it take to get me really, seriously alarmed about the latest uptick in chavista autocracy? This is a question many of you have been asking, as I dismiss each of Chávez’s latest provocative moves in turn as “grave, but not serious.” As far as I could see, nothing in the latest legislative onslaught counted as a qualitatively new attack on the fundamental freedoms we have left, the ones that still keep me from labeling chavismo a proper dictatorship. But with this Telecommunications Bill now going through the National Assembly … well, now Chávez is playing with fire.

The bill would grant the president the authority to suspend all electronic communications, for as long as he wants, to preserve “public order” and “national security”. And when I say all, I mean all: not just TV and radio broadcasts, but also cable and satellite TV, the Internet, the phones, SMS text messaging and even – explicitly – any other comparable media that may be invented in the future.

The criteria are vague; the powers open-ended. The chances for meaningful judicial review are nil.

Now, it’s true that having bought CANTV, the government is already in a position to shut down 90% of the country’s telecommunications de facto, just by flicking a switch. But alternative, non-state telecom channels – the kind you’d want to turn to for independent information in case of trouble, everything from Movistar to Radio Fe y Alegría – do exist, and they’re exactly the ones threatened by these proposals.

Even for a government that has made an amateur sport of thumbing its nose at the Constitution, the sheer chutzpah of the constitutional violation involved is staggering. Article 337 unambiguously says the government may not suspend core human rights even in case of emergency and explicitly lists the right to information as one of those rights.

Now, I’m the first to argue that, when it comes down to it, some constitutional rights are more equal than others. With a Constitution littered with good intentions masquerading as rights, it’s clear that some rights are “hard” and some are “soft”. Nobody is going to call chavismo a dictatorship because it doesn’t really guarantee everyone’s right to decent housing (Art. 82), say, or vacation pay (Art. 90).

But negative rights are another matter altogether, lying much closer to the “hard constitution” than some pajeric positive right no court could really enforce. And no right is harder than free speech: a constitutive element of the dividing line that separates the kind of postmodern autocratic bananarepublicanism we’ve had so far from out-and-out dictatorship.

Until now, chavismo has made a routine out of violating the soft constitution but, in the grand scheme of things, has stayed on this side of the yellow line with regard to the hard stuff. But grant Chávez the legal power to shut down any broadcast (or, for that matter, any narrowcast) whenever he wants, for whatever reason he wants, for as long as he wants, and suddenly the case for resisting the D-word starts to wear desperately thin.

There’s no question about it, Chávez is really pushing it now. The decision to pick and choose which opponents are allowed to stand in November’s local elections. The 26 decree-laws, enacting many of the reforms voters rejected last December. The embrace of Russia’s occupation of Georgia. The theft – lets face it, “expropriation” is a euphemism – of Cemex. The closure of two opposition radio stations in Guarico. The crazy-ass kidnapping law. The changes to the Armed Forces Law. And now this openly dictatorial proposal. A drip, drip, drip of outrages and humiliations, each more willfully provocative than the last, each guaranteed to raise the temperature, and the latest of which is so dangerous it’ll tip even a die-hard moderate like me into a spasm of alarm.

There are people in Venezuela who have been trained to think it’s their responsibility to save the country from tyranny. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the guy was trying provoke an extreme response from them.