Brazil and Venezuela
Opinion Piece

Troubled democracies

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Across the globe, almost every country claims to be a democracy, but this doesn't mean that all nations are run in the best interests of their citizens. Moreover, especially in Latin America, it is rare that an elected head of state garners public approval that rises above a simple majority through the course of a stay in office. Democracy, then, is an imperfect system in which a swath of a population will always be discontent.

But a flourishing, liberal democracy does not merely entail the right to vote – it also means the right to expression, equality before the law, assurance of basic human rights, and access to reliable information through transparent institutions such as a free and open press.

In Venezuela – where an economic crisis has risen to such heights that millions no longer have enough food to eat and medical supplies to care for the sick – the above democratic ideals are fast disappearing.

Opposition leaders are being thrown in jail, and the press is being bullied. Leopoldo López, the founder of the Popular Will opposition party, has been in jail since 2014 on a 14-year sentence, and last week several members of his party were arrested in the lead-up to the September 1 'Taking of Caracas' rally. Also in the days leading up to the march – in which protestors demanded the right to a recall vote to remove President Nicolás Maduro – reporters from Al Jazeera, Le Monde, NPR and the Miami Herald were detained at immigration and put on planes out of the country. A few days later, Chilean-born Braulio Jatar, director of the Venezuelan website Reporte Confidencial, was arrested by Venezuelan intelligence police after publishing news of a protest against Maduro on Margarita island. At the time of writing, he remains in custody.

Observers say hundreds of thousands of people marched the streets of Caracas on September 1. The government, which banned the use of drones to prevent a bird's eye view of the crowds, said that only 30,000 people participated. Maduro called the march a "failure" and part of a foreign-back coup attempt.

Many say the government is simply trying to stall the recall referendum process in any way it can. If the vote is held next year, a recall would leave the presidency in the hands of Maduro's vice president, Aristóbulo Istúriz, leaving the prevailing system in place.

Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the worsening conditions in the country. "Leading opposition politicians have been arbitrarily arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and barred from running for office," Human Rights Watch says. "Police abuse, poor prison conditions, and impunity for security forces when they commit such abuses as arbitrary arrests, beatings, and denial of basic due process remain serious problems."

Some are trying to draw parallels between what is occurring in Venezuela, and Brazil – where last week president Dilma Rouseff was impeached. While it can be argued that Rousseff did not commit any impeachable crime, and that her misdeeds were paltry compared to what others still in power have committed, the impeachment process was not illegal, nor was it a coup. What is similar about the two cases is the complete collapse in trust in government. Polls showed over 60% of Brazilians were in favor of impeachment proceedings leading up to the initial vote in April, while in a recent poll in Venezuela, 70% of the population were in favor of the recall process.

But while in Brazil there is at least hope that a new government can renew faith in a ravaged economy and corrupt political class, that same hope in Venezuela seems very far away.

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