Wednesday, May 30, 2007

History Unfolding

For the past few years, I have become increasingly fascinated with news on Hugo Chavez. I have always been a little bit of a history buff. I suppose I get that from my father, who is even considering retiring after an impressive career as a doctor to go back to college and study history. As a philosopher and theologian, I suppose I have been most interested in Roman history, particularly the rise of the Roman Empire and the demise of the Roman Republic. Elizabeth and I were both quite disappointed when HBO-BBC cancelled its series, 'Rome'. I suppose part of my fascination comes from John's book of Revelation, which details the Christian experience of the early Roman Empire. One of my professors at Drew, Dr. Catherine Keller, has written extensively about the rise of the US Empire over the last 50 years and a number of other professors there have written about neo-colonialism and economic hegemony.

I think all of these have fostered my utter fascination with Hugo Chavez. One big reason is that I, myself, was once an avid supporter of Chavez. Here is a man who united a nation and won re-election in a huge landslide, taking over 70% of the vote. He united the people because he fought corruption in the Venezuelan government. Prior to Chavez's reforms, most of the Venezuelan oil revenues went to make a Venezuelan aristocracy increasingly rich, while most of the country suffered impoverishment. Chavez nationalized oil and used the funds to build schools, infrastructure, and create opportunities for everyone in the country. Undoubtedly, the 30% that did not vote for his re-election were mostly the wealthy who found themselves having to work for a living. Chavez also nationalized public services, such as communications, roads, and health-care, making these services a right instead of a privilege. He has freed Venezuela from dependence on foreign subsidies and foreign aid and is helping to liberate neighboring states from these neo-colonial dependencies.

Because of his remarkable success and overwhelming popularity, the legislature decreed emergency powers to him on Jan. 31, 2007 so that he could continue to nationalize services and stamp out corruption. That was the moment when my support for him began to waver and soon thereafter, falter completely. The Venezuelan legislature basically renounced all of its power and gave it to President Chavez. He no longer needs congressional approval to negotiate trade deals, nationalize services, or even reshape the government. For all intents and purposes, the legislature brought an end to the Venezuelan republic and created a dictatorship. Unlike Julius Caesar, Chavez did not need to march across the Rubicon with the Praetorian Guard.

Yesterday, Chavez forced the closure of Venezuela's most popular TV channel, RCTV, denouncing the 53-year-old station as a "permanent attack on public morals." During his announcement of the closure, he said, "Sound the alarm in the hills, neighborhoods and towns to defend our revolution from this new fascist attack." Which attack would that be, exactly? Who, precisely, is the fascist?

A 'republic' requires checks-and-balances. The primary check comes from a balance of power shared by the legislature and executive. When the Venezuelan legislature renounced its power, they renounced that check-and-balance. A second major check is the freedom of the media. Whenever the president (any president) makes a statement, the media has the responsibility of investigating and telling us whether that statement is true, false, or (more typically) some mixture of the two. This is not the first media outlet that Chavez has closed, and if we read between the lines of his statement, it is not likely to be the last. He referred to Globovision, another Venezuelan TV station, as "enemies of the homeland," indicating his intention of closing that station, too. But what can be done? The legislature no longer has any power to stop him – they renounced that power!

We are watching history unfolding. We have seen a noble, well-intentioned (apparently, at least) liberator of the people and opponent of corruption turn a republic into a dictatorship – not by the force of arms, but by the force of popular support. But now that he has all of this power, public support is no longer necessary. There is no legal solution, even if the people of Venezuela decide that they need one. Venezuela is far from an Empire, but I think a case could be made that Chavez's efforts to 'liberate' neighboring states from US/World Bank dependence could easily turn into a dependence on Venezuela. It is not an end to neo-colonialism, it is merely a shift from one empire to another!

Over the last 30 years, and primarily during the Reagan administration, the US Congress has slowly passed more and more power to the Presidency. The leaders of both parties have consistently done this. Clinton secured fast-track trade powers and even a line-item veto (fortunately, that power expired). GW Bush has invented an entirely new Presidential power with his so-called 'signing statements', not to mention the Congressionally approved Patriot Act. The tenth amendment (states' rights) has slowly been sapped of all of its power, mostly through the use of Eisenhower's Highway funds act. Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution says "Congress shall have the power to... declare War," but Congress has not actually declared war since June 5, 1942. This Constitutional provision has basically lost all of its power as a check-and-balance of Presidential power. Why is it that Congress is not pursuing its investigation of the federal prosecutor appointments in anything other than a political/superficial way? Isn't it because the Democrats fully intend to repeat the practice when they enter the executive?

Where is all of this leading? What are the logical conclusions that must come from this? Perhaps most importantly, what, if anything, can be done about it? Do most US Americans (or most Venezuelan Americans, for that matter) actually understand the difference between a "Republic", a "Democracy", and an "Empire"? Can we see any parallel at all between Blackwater USA, and the Praetorian Guard? If the degradation of congressional and judicial powers continues, would there even be a need to "cross the Potomac"? Can we see any parallel between Julius Ceasar's cry to 'free the slaves' and the current push for immigration reform? If there is no appreciable difference between the two parties, then does the alternation of the executive make any difference at all? In his state-of-the-union speech, Bush declared the state of our union to be stronger than ever. That may be, but what of the state of our freedom and liberty? What of the state of our republic?

Sorry, I know I said my next post would be more casual. I guess I've been working too hard lately. J


E(Liz)a(Beth) said...

I think that's the problem with any sort of philosophy. When it's merely an idea, it can be tempting and attractive. Yet, the application of the idea almost always means the systemization of it. And as most philosophies are meant to break out of a system, they become inherently flawed when they turn from ideals into practice.

Brad said...

Interesting update...

RCTV has started broadcasting their news program over YouTube. Elizabeth and I are constantly discussing how the internet is going to revolutionalize things over the next 20-30 years. It at least has the potential to level the hegemonic playing field.
Here's the story: