The war of nerves between Venezuela's ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country's Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April's presidential election.
The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro's triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela's National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.
Daniel Duquenal, a dissident blogger who monitors the macabre twists and turns of Venezuelan politics, believes that the TSJ decision is a stark sign of Maduro's determination to dispense with the niceties of the electoral process. Notice has been served to the opposition, Duquenal wrote this week, that "the days of 'dissent' are over, and that we are moving toward a more classical form of dictatorship."
In that light, one might ask why Capriles bothered to go to the TSJ in the first place. The court lost any semblance of independence as long ago as 2004, when Chavez packed the court with his supporters after pushing through a law expanding the number of justices from 20 to 32. The notion that the TSJ might rule against Maduro on something as critical as a presidential election is, quite frankly, beyond fanciful.
That, however, was precisely the point which Capriles wanted to make. None of the opposition's allegations received a respectful hearing, even when the evidence of fraud–images of red-shirted chavistas shepherding voters into polling booths, records of votes cast by individuals long deceased, and so forth–was embarrassingly transparent. The fact that the court ended its deliberations by fining Capriles $1,500 for "offensive and disrespectful allegations" merely underlined the reality that the Venezuelan judiciary has been comprehensively conquered by the chavistas.
By exposing this institutionalized bias in all its glory, Capriles is betting that disillusioned Venezuelans will flock to the opposition's ranks. Once critical mass is achieved, the theory goes, the chavistas will find it harder and harder to use the country's judicial institutions as an instrument to defeat the opposition. Not everyone agrees, however: Diego Arria, a former diplomat and prominent opposition figure, is pressing Capriles to recognize that "the doors have been closed by our current institutional arrangements." Rather than focusing on bodies like the TSJ, Arria argues, the opposition should instead direct its energies on holding a referendum that would allow the formation of a new, genuinely representative, constituent assembly.
There is also a larger problem. It isn't clear whether the opposition can sustain its strategy of patiently exposing Maduro's corruption, given the ruling Socialist Party's dedication to shutting down any challenge to its authority as rapidly as possible. On the same day that the TSJ threw out the opposition's electoral complaint, military intelligence officers descended on the home of Oscar Lopez, the chief of staff to Capriles in the state of Miranda, where the opposition leader serves as governor. According to Lopez's lawyer, no reason was given for the raid, which resulted in the confiscation of computers, cell phones, and personal documents. MUD officials believe it was instigated by chavista members of parliament, who are hellbent on proving that the opposition coalition is illegally receiving funds from foreign sources.
This latest wave of repression extends to the media as well. Yesterday, Venezuela's leading anti-chavista newspaper, El Nacional, was heavily fined for publishing a picture of unattended bodies piled up in a morgue, thereby demonstrating that Maduro has failed to tackle the violent criminality which has turned his country into the murder capital of the world.
The importance of such media outlets cannot be overstated. Without newspapers like El Nacional and El Universal, Venezuelans would have no record of the ruling regime's daily failings, which this week include a hefty 30 percent decline in the National Bank's reserves of foreign currency, along with a refusal to cut spending on low-impact, high-visibility social programs, despite soaring inflation. Meanwhile, Maduro can count on the vast state-owned media sector to do exactly as he asks; when the opposition rallied against government corruption last weekend, Maduro ensured that all television channels carried his speech accusing the MUD of being the real agents of corruption in Venezuela.
For some members of the ruling party, such measures aren't enough. Nicmer Evans, an orthodox chavista university professor, recently criticized the government for encouraging a nostalgic longing for Hugo Chavez, at the expense of the "construction of Bolivarian and pro-Chavez socialism." The events of this week provide generous insight into what this slogan means.