Venezuela: still a democracy

Planned Venezuelan constitutional reforms are portrayed as 'another Chavez power grab', a notion ch

On 2 December Venezuelans will vote on a number of amendments to their constitution. Generally speaking the proposals have been portrayed in the media as the next step on the road to dictatorship.

That's because the mainstream media generally abandons quaint notions of balance and objectivity when reporting on Venezuela. Curiously, this often extends to left-of-centre newspapers not known to slavishly follow the Bush administration's lead when reporting on other oil states where regime change is either sought, Iran, or in process, Iraq.

The biggest fuss this time seems to be the amendment that would abolish term limits for the presidency.

Perhaps it is because I am from Chicago, and had only one mayor from the time I was born until I graduated college, that I am unable to see this as the making of a dictatorship.

Not to mention that if Hillary Clinton is elected next year, we will have Bushes and Clintons as heads of state for a full consecutive 24 years, and possibly 28.

President Lula da Silva of Brazil defended Venezuela last week, asking why "people did not complain when Margaret Thatcher spent so many years in power". He added: "You can invent anything you want to criticise Chavez, but not for lack of democracy." Lula has repeatedly defended Venezuela's government as democratic, but these comments are never reported in the English language media.

Chavez is also castigated for proposing to get rid of the independence of the Central Bank, which is inscribed in the 1999 constitution. This is portrayed as just another "power grab." However, there are sound economic reasons for this amendment.

Central Banks that are not accountable to their elected governments are not altogether "independent" but tend to represent the interests of the financial sector. In the trade-off between growth and employment versus inflation, the financial sector will always opt for lower inflation, even if it means stagnation and unemployment.

The increasing independence of central banks, and the resultant overly-tight monetary policy is very likely one of the main reasons for the unprecedented long-term growth failure in Latin America over the last quarter-century.

There is also an amendment that would provide Social Security pensions to workers in the informal sector, which would be a major anti-poverty measure, given that this includes about 41 percent of the labour force.

Another would reduce the working week to 36 hours. This is being reported in the media as a 6-hour day, but more likely it will be interpreted as four eight-hour days plus four hours on Friday.

There are also amendments that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or physical health; provide for gender parity for political parties; guarantee free university education; make it more difficult for homeowners to lose their homes during bankruptcy. It is hard to argue that these are punishing or repressive measures.

Another amendment would reverse the 1999 constitutional provision protecting intellectual property. This would not abolish patents or copyrights but would allow more flexibility for the government in addressing the enormous economic inefficiencies caused by state-protected monopolies, e.g. in areas such as patented pharmaceutical drugs. This is difficult to argue against on economic grounds.

There are other amendments that are more controversial, most of them added not by Chavez but by the National Assembly (Chavez cannot veto amendments added by the Assembly; these have to go to the voters).

For example, one amendment would allow the government to suspend the "right to information" (but not due process, as reported in the international media) during a state of national emergency. Another would allow the President and the National Assembly to create new federal districts and provinces.

Some of these provisions have drawn opposition even among Chavez's supporters. If they are approved, it will likely be because the majority of voters trust Chavez and the government not to abuse their powers.

And there is some basis for this trust: the National Assembly earlier this year gave Chavez the power, for 18 months, to enact certain legislation by executive order. The pundits screamed about Chavez "ruling by decree," but in fact this power has not been used much at all, except in dealings with foreign corporations.

In any case, the voters will decide, with a far stronger opposition media than exists in the United States proselytising against the government. Venezuelans have not lost civil liberties the way people in the U.S. (or even the UK) have in recent years, and ordinary citizens continue to have more say in their government, and share more in its oil wealth, than ever before. It is doubtful that the referendum will reverse these changes, regardless of the outcome.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan and has written numerous research papers on economic policy.
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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State