The Darkest Hour Of Venezuelan Democracy

The Chavez-Maduro regime has corrupted democracy and impoverished the nation in a perfect storm of political strong-arming, cheap oil, and public apathy. The time is now to react.

Feb. 16, 2014 protest in Venezuela's capital Caracas
Feb. 16, 2014 protest in Venezuela's capital Caracas
Darío Acevedo Carmona

If you must lie, you lie — any dictator will tell you that. The socialist regime forged by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has now held power for 16 years, apparently using the procedures and rules of the democratic system.

It was defeated just once, in 2007 when voters rejected its proposed constitutional reforms, though it had no qualms then in threatening the victors. The late president called expand=1] the results of the referendum a "shitty victory" for his opponents. Indeed months later, backed by the exceptional powers that parliament had given him — an Enabling Act — he instituted everything Venezuelans had rejected in their vote.

Is the popular uprising now spreading in Caracas the end of this reign? It is still too early to say. Chávez, his followers and the whole Chavista movement, have played with democracy in the most cavalier, shameless manner. They have falsified elections to the point of turning them into harmless, useless formalities. They have resorted to the praetorian methods characteristic of fascist regimes, using paramilitaries to shoot and kill and spread fear among opponents; or like comunists, conquering power and perpetuating themselves as they dismantle institutions of state.

In the process of humiliating and destroying democracy, the Chavistas have enjoyed formidable tools and circumstances. Firstly they redefined the ideas of their 19th century idol Simón Bolívar, who apparently is but a step away from becoming a socialist or Marxist. The Bolivarian discourse has become an umbrella to justify the "feats" meant to attract the unwary inside and abroad.

The oil on which the country is literally afloat has become an instrument of diplomatic blackmail: Back me if you want your free oil! Given away at the cost of domestic impoverishment, it has helped make the "Bolivarian ideal" and its pseudo-socialist experimentation dominant in regional bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS), and in such proliferating bureaucratic institutions as the Bolivarian Alliance ALBA, the Community of Latin American States and the trading union UNASUR.

Talk is cheap

The evident results: The OAS has confirmed all elections, and no country speaks out against the blatant and considerable strikes against liberties and democracy in Venezuela. They have repositioned Cuba as a champion of democracy and freedom, revived the Cuban dictatorship and handed Venezuelan sovereignty to the Castros who now give instructions on what is to be done in Venezuela.

Allies further afield include Russia, China and Iran — the anti-American crowd — and support is given to terrorist groups and fanatics roaming the region. The country has become a shelter for terrorist chieftains of the FARC and ELN.

The Chavista discourse — from Chávez to his handpicked successor President Nicolás Maduro — is punctuated, even embodied, by the kind of cheap talk that would silence critics by bombarding them with insults and calumny.

The regime has flexed its crass muscles by sweeping away private enterprise; Venezuela is practically a country without businessmen now. Likewise with the media, the order of the day is to shut down, revoke licences and close channels. The papers have nothing to print on. One broadcaster was squashed financially during the last presidential elections while the latest attack has targeted another dissenting medium, the broadcaster NTN24.

While there may be shortages in the supermarkets, there is none when it comes to using violence against "enemies," through counter-demonstrations, shootings and beatings meted out by the regime's plain-clothes agents. The message is clear: They will do all that's necessary to retain power. If they are expand=1] prepared to beat legislators inside parliament, what else would they do in the future? The masks, it seems, are slowly coming off.

And we finally have the accusations against actors abroad — presidents in Washington and Bogota and the Colombian paramilitaries said to be fomenting street protests, just like the Castro regime that likes to blame the United States for the failure of its supposedly superior economic system.

Removing a dictatorship is no easy task, and the opposition coalition must make choices: continue with protests to force a presidential resignation, urge the world to pay attention or wait for more support from a public kept quiet by gifts and subsidies. Whatever path they choose, opponents must understand that nothing can succeed without unity among them.

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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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