States of Emergency, then and now

As a lawyer, what strikes me is how much we've forgotten so much since 1989. Like, for example, what a state of emergency is. And what it is for.

A state of emergency decree is like one of those red shiny emergency cabinets that read “In case of emergency break glass”. It’s meant to be issued only when the Executive Branch is unable to face an emergency with its ordinary powers – which are pretty huge. #CaracazoWeek provides an excellent chance to look at the ser and the deber ser of states of emergency. In these days of permanent rule-via-emergency, it’s easy to forget an emergency decree is meant to address precisely that: an emergency.

Let’s recall: the Caracazo witnessed a landmark such state of emergency declaration. Faced with serious disorder and looting, president Carlos Andrés Pérez issued Presidential Decree No. 49 for a “suspension of guarantees” —which was the term used in the 1961 Constitution— published in Gaceta Oficial No. 34.168, 28 Feb, 1989.

The first two recitals of the decree are revealing,

Whereas over the last several hours Caracas and other cities have witnessed a series of events that constitute grave violations to public order and have caused consternation among the population.

Whereas the social tension generated by the crisis the country has been facing has given rise to an explosion of violence, acts of vandalism, and attacks on Venezuelans’ personal and family property, in the loss of life and many goods, which further worsens the country’s economic situation

Que en el curso de las últimas horas se han producido en Caracas y en otras ciudades del país una serie de hechos que configuran graves alteraciones del orden público y han ocasionado zozobra en la colectividad.

Que la tensión social generada por la crisis que viene confrontando el país ha servido para propiciar estallidos de violencia, actos de vandalismo y atentados contra la seguridad personal y familiar de los venezolanos, en la pérdida de vidas y de cuantiosos bienes que agravan aún más la situación económica del país.

The abuses in the application of the Decree of State of exception on the occasion of “El Caracazo” are enshrined in our collective memory. A full account of such abuses —and crimes— can be seen in the judgement handed down by the Inter-American Court of human rights of 11 November 1999. The Court found a number of military and civilian officials carried out executions in shantytowns, and added there is no certainty about the number of victims.

Twenty seven years later the government has once again resorted to a state of emergency. The current one, set out in Gaceta Oficial N ° 6.227 extraordinaria, May 13th, 2016, is the second of 2016, was issued supposedly to prevent alterations of the public order.

Yet the current one appears aimed more at extending the government’s regular powers than at restoring order. Couched in terms of the discourse of foreign threats and people’s power, it’s not hard to see who it’s really aimed at.

For example, one of its recitals reads

Whereas certain economic agents active in our country, backed by foreign interests, hinder Venezuelans’ timely access to goods and services that are indispensible to a dignified family, deliberately generating discontent in the population through distortionary phenomena such as “bachaqueo”, induced queues and a climate of consternation and incitement to fraternal violence.

Que ciertos agentes económicos que hacen vida en el país, auspiciados por intereses extranjeros, obstaculizan el acceso oportuno de las venezolanas y los venezolanos a bienes y servicios indispensables para la vida digna de la familia venezolana, generando de manera deliberada malestar en la población a través de fenómenos distorsivos como el “bachaqueo”, las colas inducidas y un clima de desasosiego e incitación a la violencia entre hermanos.

Paragraph 9 of article 2 is particularly significant, because through it the President decides to,

Attribute the role of oversight and organization to the Local Committees for Supply and Distribution (CLAP), to Communal Councils and other grassroots organizations of the people’s power, together with the Armed Forces, the National Bolivarian Police and State and Municipal police, to maintain public order and guarantee the country’s security and sovereignty.

Atribuir funciones de vigilancia y organización a los Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Distribución (CLAP), a los Consejos Comunales y demás organizaciones de base del Poder Popular, conjuntamente con la Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, Policía Nacional Bolivariana, Cuerpos de Policía Estadal y Municipal, para mantener el orden público y garantizar la seguridad y soberanía en el país.

Or, for example, paragraph 10 of the same article 2 grants,

Authorization to relevant ministers to dictate measures that guarantee the sale of price-controlled products according to opportunity timetables that respond to the given characteristics of a region or area, giving priority to the interest of guaranteeing access to goods with due controls and oversight, with the goal of ensuring that first necessity goods reach the entire population, through a just distribution of products that destimulates their hoarding and resale.

La autorización a los Ministros o Ministras competentes para dictar medidas que garanticen la venta de productos regulados según cronogramas de oportunidad que respondan a las particulares características de la zona o región, prevaleciendo el interés en el acceso a los bienes con el debido control y supervisión, y con el fin de lograr que los artículos de primera necesidad lleguen a toda la población, mediante una justa distribución de productos que desestimule el acaparamiento y reventa de éstos.

In the ongoing economic emergency decree, the Government disavows all responsibility for the current crisis and hands off responsibility for solving it to other entities. Of course, the root of the problem is the a clear misunderstanding of the real causes of the current crisis.

The 1989 state of emergency was an extraordinary response to an extraordinary situation, although —as the Venezuelan State itself acknowledged at the hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights— civil servants and military committed unjustifiable and cruel abuses, which caused the death of an undetermined number of Venezuelans.

Moreover, it was an exceptional regime for a short period of time.

By contrast, the current Executive Branch has completely distorted the state of emergency by turning it into a routine measure for administration, one already in place for several months now. In fact, the Executive has fraudulently extended the economic emergency decree on three occasions, by approving two supposedly different decrees and extending both. Article 337 of the Constitution allows only a single extension. This has given the Executive Branch extraordinary powers for much longer than the Constitution allows.

And not only has the current economic emergency decree has been unjustified, but it has also been incredibly useless to because the current crisis -the one it was meant to solve- has worsened.

The social disorder and abuses of the Venezuelan State occurred during and after El Caracazo should be a permanent reminder of where we can get as a society.

But, above all, of the way unchecked power can easily get out of control.