With all-powerful assembly, is Venezuela still a democracy?

With all-powerful assembly, is Venezuela still a democracy?

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuela has installed an all-powerful constituent assembly with the authority to rewrite the constitution, remove public officials and trump all branches of government, raising concerns about the health of democracy in the country.

Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro fear it will solidly entrench his socialist administration and create a one-party state, while supporters say it offers a the best chance for peace after months of deadly unrest.

Some analysts evaluate the state of democracy in Venezuela:


MICHAEL SHIFTER, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue: "It's not a dictatorship in the classic formulation. Maduro was elected. But I think he's lost any legitimacy. There has been a gradual erosion of democratic practice, and this is a significant line that has been crossed. To attach the term democracy to Venezuela with this new constituent assembly is on very weak ground. I think it can't be taken seriously."


JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO, Washington-based director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch: "Two basic principles need to be present to characterize a government as a democratic one. The first is free, fair and competitive elections. The second is the obligation to govern democratically — to exercise power in accordance to respecting the limits of the rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, free press, respecting civil society. And you are not supposed to engage in persecution of dissidents and political leaders. At this stage, I don't think Venezuela passes the test as an electoral democracy. And the Maduro administration should be treated as such. In plain language, as a dictatorship."


MARK WEISBROT, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington: "The media has kind of assumed that the assembly was a dictatorship of some sort, but they haven't done anything yet. They haven't abolished the National Assembly. So far, nothing has happened. ... Venezuela is still a very polarized country and there's a standoff between the two sides. Mediation failed last year because neither side was willing to concede anything. There is going to have to be a negotiated solution, with elections. And for those elections to settle the conflict there is going to have to be constitutional guarantees that the losing side is not going to be politically persecuted. That's the only way I can see to avoid a descent into violence and civil war."


LUISA ORTEGA DIAZ, Venezuela's chief prosecutor, during an interview with CNN en Espanol: "I couldn't say that we've absolutely lost democracy. There are still some glimmers of it. But unfortunately if we continue down this road, we will lose all traces of democracy. The trial of a civilian in a military tribunal — that is the act of a dictatorship. The detention of people with no formal proceeding, without a judicial order, mass raids, the lack of information on people detained ... especially those who are uncomfortable for the government. They (the Maduro administration) have used criminal law, the police, to disappear, to extinguish them."


FERNANDO BUEN ABAD, Mexican philosopher, in remarks to be the Venezuela-based network TeleSur: The election of the constituent assembly "solidifies the extraordinary strengths of a people who understand what a constitution is. Who understand what a powerful tool the constitution is in order to weave together a framework of collective relations. And who understand that this is a platform to advance and deepen, including to criticize, its own process. We saw a robust lesson in democracy, that in spite of everything, despite tensions from some circles and parts of the country, the gathering was incredibly rich and proposed, in quantity and quality, a reflection that in my mind is a moral lesson for the entire planet."


BENIGNO ALARCON, director of the Center for Political Studies at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas: "Democracy does not exist in Venezuela, but it has not existed for some time. What's being installed is an assembly that is not governed by the constitution and has no constitutional limits. It can do practically whatever it wants. But it does not have any political acceptance. People will not obey the decisions they make. The only way to implement its policies will be with repression."


DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ, Northwestern University law professor who is a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen: "By its very nature, the creation of a constituent assembly under Venezuelan law delegates most of the traditional functions of participatory democracy to the newly created body, which for the indefinite duration of its deliberations can override the conventional legislature, the presidency and even the pre-existing constitution. Such delegation, if always risky, need not be inherently undemocratic, provided that a majority of the people vote for this process to take place. In this case, however, there were no plebiscites and Maduro is at 20 percent approval rating, lacking any semblance of electoral viability let alone a powerful mandate for change. In a cynical ploy to stave off future elections he can't win, Maduro has hijacked what remained of Venezuela's democracy without popular permission."

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