The Bolivarian Legacy

Hugo Chávez and his leftist allies will leave little behind other than failed economic policies, massive corruption, and shrinking political freedoms.


Last week, Bolivia’s leading opposition figure took the unusual step of seeking political asylum in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz, accusing Evo Morales’s government of political persecution and death threats. Just as surprisingly, in a stinging rebuke to the Morales government, the Brazilians granted his request, saying his fears were well-founded.

Last month, a prominent Supreme Court judge in Venezuela fled his country into the custody of the Drug Enforcement Administration, fearing that what he knows of narco corruption at the upper levels of Hugo Chávez’s government had placed his life in jeopardy. In Ecuador, judges who refuse to follow President Rafael Correa’s orders have been forced to resign and several now live in exile. A leading opposition figure is also being hounded by government lawsuits to silence him.

These recent incidents underscore the success of the most pernicious and effective legacy of the Chávez-led Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America — tightening the grip on power of increasingly corrupt governments while gutting the judiciaries, silencing independent media, and criminalizing all political opposition.

Of course, the judiciaries in most of Latin America have long been hobbled by corruption, cronyism, and antiquated legal structures. But the courts are now completely politicized with the express purpose of furthering authoritarian political projects.

Fidel Castro counseled both Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, by their own accounts in interviews in 2006, to eschew armed revolution in favor of using the electoral process to gain power and then changing the constitutions and legal structures of their countries to ensure they could govern in perpetuity.

It is an effective strategy followed in lockstep by Chávez and his allies Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, espousing what they call "21st Century Socialism." Take the case of Bolivian senator Roger Pinto, against whom the Morales government has lodged more than 20 criminal cases before he sought asylum.

Earlier this year, the Bolivian government filed charges of homicide against Pinto, but didn’t bother to present a body or any other evidence of the alleged crime. Yet he could be subject to arrest and indefinite detention without trial if arrested. There are multiple examples of such arrests, including that of Leopoldo Fernández, the prominent opposition governor of Pando province, who has been held illegally and without charges or trial for more than three years.

Pinto, who leads the opposition and was president of the Senate until 2008, has been outspoken in his denunciations of official corruption, the lack of transparency in the Morales government’s dealings with Iran, and the growing presence of Mexican drug cartels in Bolivia.

He publicly presented information from internal police intelligence reports, written by Morales loyalists who view the massive criminalization of the state as a betrayal of the revolution Morales promised.

The allegations of internal corruption centered on those officials connected to the case of Gen. René Sanabria, who served as the head of the elite anti-narcotics police and senior intelligence adviser to Morales. Sanabria was convicted last year in Miami for smuggling 144 kilos of cocaine. The information presented by Pinto detailed the involvement of other senior officials in the drug trade with official protection.

Senior police officials publicly acknowledged the reports were authentic. Sanabria confirmed many of the allegations from prison, and Pinto personally turned over copies of the papers at the presidential palace. Morales immediately filed charges of sedition, slander, and disrespect against Pinto, rather than investigating why reports naming senior officials such as "super minister" Juan Ramón Quintana as complicit in illicit trafficking were never acted upon.

When that did not silence Pinto, the homicide charges were filed, along with other spurious cases. The falsification of the evidence in one case was so blatant that the Morales-appointed judge refused to prosecute, according to lawyers in Bolivia. When the death threats started and it became clear the harassment was going to continue until he was silenced, Pinto sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy. It took the Brazilian government, usually reluctant to get involved in such cases, just 10 days to find there were "irregularities" in the cases against Pinto and grant his request.

In Venezuela, Eladio Aponte, the former Supreme Court justice, has detailed how senior Venezuelan officials from the presidential palace called him to order specific judicial opinions in drug trafficking cases. Knowing his fate if he spoke out at home, he traveled to Costa Rica, where he requested DEA protection to enter the United States and tell what he knows.

In Ecuador, the judge who was handling the criminal libel cases brought by Correa against journalists was forced to resign when he did not support the president with sufficient speed. The hand-picked judge named as a replacement handed down a guilty verdict in short order, supposedly having read through almost 1,000 pages of evidence and written a decision in that time. Another leading opposition figure, retired Col. Mario Pazmiño, has been hit with a criminal lawsuit for discussing the increasing drug trafficking and Ecuador’s lack of control of its air space.

In all three countries, the government has arbitrarily shut down independent media. Journalists have been threatened and attacked with impunity by government loyalists and publicly vilified by the presidents.

This destruction of the democratic freedoms is perhaps the biggest betrayal of the Bolivarian revolution. It had promised a new democratic beginning, and an end to decades of corruption, judicial incompetence and authoritarian abuses. In reality, the Bolivarians have subverted struggling, flawed, democratic processes by imposing legal structures designed to empower new authoritarian regimes, underpinned by state-sanctioned intimidation and organized crime.

Today, democracy is slowly but steadily being suffocated in parts of Latin America, particularly those allied with Chávez’s authoritarian government. The situation is deteriorating as Chávez’s health declines and jockeying for the leadership mantle of the revolution intensifies. It will likely get worse before it gets better.

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