CLARIN

Mussolini To Maduro, An Old Recipe For Killing Democracy

The Venezuelan president's calls for a constitutional overhaul suggest a possible first step toward the 'corporatist' policy forged by 20th century rulers like Castro in Cuba, Francisco Franco in Spain and Italy's Benito Mussolini.

Protest in Caracas on May 4
Protest in Caracas on May 4
Loris Zanatta

-Analysis-

At first glance, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro"s proposals for a new assembly to rewrite the Constitution may seem unworthy of even being taken seriously. To begin with, it is evidently another ploy to perpetuate Venezuela's Bolivarian or socialist regime by overriding the most basic democratic of principles. Perhaps also because inside the country, and privately even among the most fanatical of Chavistas or government supporters, Maduro is a veritable disgrace and a comical figure history has so cruelly selected for this tragedy.

It would all be laughable if it were not so distressing. After invoking the soul of his mentor, the late president and regime founder Hugo Chávez, saying he had "heard" him speak to him in the form of a bird, Maduro has now decided to ask some cows their opinion of his new constitutional project. Perhaps he was hoping to revive the spirit of Ubre Blanca, the cow to which Fidel Castro raised a statue even as his grandiose food production plans were falling flat and leaving Cubans hungry. It's curious how tragedy inevitably returns as farce.

Yet the Venezuelan regime's announced reform, intended to extricate the country from its dire political state, should actually be taken quite seriously. This is not so much because the proposed new body might save the regime from sinking — which is unlikely — but for revealing its ideology, values and conception of political order, and for putting its family album on display.

It helps us remember that the Chávez regime, like all populist regimes, has a corporatist view of the social order and of political organization. If it has so far hidden behind institutional and representative forms of liberal democracy, it was because it could exploit them to its benefit.

President Maduro in Caracas on May 3 — Photo: Anebert Rivera/Xinhua/ZUMA

Now that these no longer assure its electoral majority and even condemn the regime to its certain demise, the hour has come to toss these institutions overboard. That begins first and foremost with such principles as "one person one vote," equal political rights for all and the right to free expression regardless of one's profession, ethnic origin, religion or ideology.

The Chavista idea of representation opposes these entirely: It believes every citizen should be part of a corporate grouping, be it professional or territorial, on which his or her rights depend. The individual must submit to the "body" or "organ."

A single party that claims to embody the nation's spirit.

I am a worker? I vote for a worker. A soldier? I vote for a soldier. Do I live in the district of Barinas? My representative will be someone from Barinas, and so on. This is the regime's proposed criterion for choosing the new constituent assembly, with due care to ensure overrepresentation for those sectors where it retains a good base of support. The idea is, each body must fulfill its duties inside the organism that is the nation, and all bodies must cooperate organically inside the assembly they will form. And watching over them will be the only source of national unity, the revolutionary party headed by its great leader — a de facto monarch taking the form of a president for life.

For some time it has been evident where this conception will lead: to a single party that claims to embody the nation's spirit, the sacrifice of individual rights supposedly for the collective good, and the death of pluralism in the name of "popular" unanimity. It constitutes the end of democracy.

There is nothing new in any of this. It is one of the oldest tricks in political history, and the habitual approach of the enemies of liberalism on both sides of the Atlantic. The corporatist model may even be said to resemble, in spite of its differing and distant historical context, the social vision of the Catholic monarchs of the colonial period. The regime's devotees might like to reflect on this, since they insist on describing themselves as "post-colonial."

The same conception, replacing the society of individuals and political parties with one of corporations and bodies, and liberal with corporatist representation, is seen in the totalitarian (fascist or communist) regimes that succeeded or almost succeeded in eliminating their enemies. And on this side, were the Argentine General Juan Perón's political dreams, or those of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for over 70 years, really any different?

The corporatist tradition's varied ancestry also includes such landmark legislation as General Francisco Franco's labor laws, and Benito Mussolini's Work Charter in Italy, which inspired the creation of the Chamber of Corporations.

Still, the example that has inspired Maduro is closer in time and space: It is Cuba, where thousands of officials continue to hold together a shaky regime. Representation works in the same way there: The individual is encased in one or more "mass organizations' pertaining to the regime, mostly of a professional type like workers, artists or soldiers, but also territorial, as in the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

Who controls them? The Big Brother ready to crush anyone who breaks the choral unison of community and people. Chavistas like to call their opponents "fascists," against whom they supposedly mobilize to defend democracy. There may be something even worse than this so-called fascism: utter ignorance and dishonesty.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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