Rule by Decree Is Democratic

By Bernardo Alvarez

In your recent editorial, “Venezuela’s Theoretical Democracy,” you compare President Hugo Chavez to a dictator while simultaneously acknowledging that major democratic hallmarks have been implemented under his administration. As Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, I have spent much of my time attempting to translate the benchmarks of our democracy to Washington in the hopes that a thoughtful dialogue between our two nations could be established, and with time, even flourish. Editorials such as this one only serve to confuse the public by admitting, on the one hand, that Venezuela is a democracy, while, on the other hand, stating that our president, democratically elected with 63 percent of the popular vote, is comparable to Mussolini.

President Chavez, as you acknowledge, is not the only Venezuelan president to be granted the power to pass laws by decree, referred to in Venezuela as the “enabling law.” This constitutional power, granted in both the 1961 and 1999 constitutions, was also granted in 1974 to President Carlos Andres Perez, in 1984 to President Jaime Lusinchi, and to interim President Ramon Jose Velasquez in 1993. European constitutions also include clauses for ruling by decree in their constitutions. Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs even acknowledges that, “It’s something valid under the constitution.... At the end of the day, it’s not a question for the United States or for other countries, but for Venezuela.”

President Chavez has this power for only 18 months and can pass laws in key areas aimed at weeding out corruption, increasing government efficiency, and bringing more equality to our poorest citizens. These laws can be modified or rescinded by the National Assembly at any time and the population has the guaranteed right under our constitution to nullify any of these laws through a national referendum.

Unfortunately, your editorial reflects a misunderstanding that is common place in Washington today. Instead of viewing the dynamic social changes underway in Venezuela as authoritarian simply because they do not fit into the neoliberal model of development touted by the World Bank as the savior to all of our ills, I invite you to take a more realistic approach when analyzing Venezuela. The alternative economic and political model that we have embarked upon, and which is supported by the overwhelming majority of the population, is addressing for the first time in our history the disparity between the rich and the poor and articulating an alternative that creates a space for the social, economic, and political empowerment of those who have been historically excluded.

This is not the mark of dictatorial rule but rather a new way of envisioning popular participation and democracy. Rather than deciding the terms of development for the poor, we are working alongside them to jointly create public services, social programs, and public institutions that best serve our collective needs.

Far from democracy being a “faint pulse” in Venezuela, it is thriving and expanding to include not just a more vibrant political democracy but also the economic democracy that has so long eluded our people.

In a similar sense, we have long sought a good relationship with the American people. Venezuela remains the United States’ second most important trading partner in Latin America and has donated low cost heating oil to poor communities in the U.S. as part of our deep commitment to addressing economic disparity around the world. By misinforming your readers, you stand in the way of an honest and constructive dialog between our two nations.


Bernardo Alvarez is the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States.

—Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2007