Thoughts on the Eve of the Fifth Anniversary of 1M

Now also on Huffo.

Quico says: Some events are so momentous, so history shaking, all you need to refer to them is a date. 911 is, I suppose, the grand-daddy of them all, not to mention the main reference point American readers will have for the whole idea of the History Changing Date.

In Venezuela, we have a bunch of them. Our convention, though, is to name them by the day of the month, followed by its initial letter.

So say “27F” and everyone knows you’re talking about February 27th, 1989, the day violent rioting swept through the country in response to a fuel price hike. “4F” is February 4th, 1992, the day Chávez attempted to violently overthrow the elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, while “11A” is its mirror image: the date of the coup attempt against Chávez 10 years later, on April 11th.

A number and a letter is all you need to conjure up these events because they’re the turning points of our national narrative, key junctures when Venezuela’s historical trajectory shifted in ways that are still hotly disputed today.

But not every turning point gets the number-and-a-letter treatment. A date like “1M”, for instance, means nothing at all to Venezuelans. Which is ironic, because it was on May 1st, 2004 that Venezuelan democracy died, only to be replaced by one of the new breed of “Competitive Authoritarianisms” – regimes where electoral competition coexists with the openly autocratic use of state power.

On Friday, it will be five years since Venezuela’s National Assembly voted narrowly to approve a new Framework Law of the Supreme Tribunal. The law expanded the number of sitting magistrates from 20 to 32 and, in direct contravention of the constitution, enabled the National Assembly to both appoint and remove magistrates by a simple majority vote, effectively ensuring a permanent chavista majority.

The twist is that, in Venezuela, the Supreme Tribunal is more than a court of final appeal: it’s also the ruling body over the entire court system. The procedures for appointing all first instance and appeal court judges are defined and implemented by a Supreme Tribunal committee – the so-called Dirección Ejecutiva de la Magistratura – which also controls the process for removing judges. Which means that, in Venezuela, controlling the Supreme Tribunal means controlling not just the highest court in the land, but all lower ranking courts as well.

Thing is, 1M wasn’t much of a media event. Just a bunch of parliamentarians parliamentating. It didn’t yield an image, never produced the kind of footage TV stations could show again and again. It never made it onto the front pages of foreign newspapers…hell, it barely made it onto the front pages back home!

Within days, it was overshadowed by flashier news that seemed more alarming at the time but would soon fade. The whole episode got filed away under the category of “outrageous things chavismo does that we can’t do anything about” and forgotten; but its importance would not fade. On the contrary.

Now more than ever, we live under the shadow of 1M. It was then that chavismo put an end to the pretense that any part of the state could curb the president’s power. The move heralded the era of the robed magistrate chanting pro-Chávez slogans inside the Tribunal chamber and of Supreme Tribunal chairmen openly declaring that the justice they were there to implement was “revolutionary justice” – openly partisan justice unabashedly dedicated to furthering the political needs of the leader.

The 2004 Supreme Tribunal Law did away, at a single stroke, with society’s most important means for protecting itself from the authoritarian inclinations of its rulers, ensuring a subservient justice system that would never again dare to act as a check on the power of the powerful.

1M was the day when all the credibility drained out of our judicial system, the day any possibility that citizens could again use the law to seek redress against the abuses of the powerful was closed for good.

So as we approach its 5th anniversary, lets take a moment to reflect on the grim legacy of the day democracy died.