Transitions

An ironic anniversary in Venezuela

Ten years ago this week, Venezuela was convulsed by a spasm of violence and instability that still colors public life today. In an extraordinary 72-hour period, the nation witnessed the largest protest in its history, which ended in a massacre just steps away from the presidential palace. It saw the military chain of command crumble and key officers openly rebel against orders that would have set off an even larger massacre. It saw President Chávez hand himself over as a prisoner. He was then replaced by a reactionary cabal of business leaders and hard-right military officers, flown off to a remote Caribbean Island and then, shortly thereafter,  brought back to power by a group of loyalist officers who never agreed with the decision to depose him in the first place.

Once all that dust had settled, there was little doubt who the hero of the hour was: General Raúl Baduel, who was instrumental in the collapse of the coup. As commander of the army's elite 42nd Paratrooper Brigade in the nearby city of Maracay, Baduel led one of the few genuinely battle-ready bits of Venezuela's creaking military establishment. A die-hard Chávez loyalist, he sprang into action when the coup plotters made their move. Rallying the entire 4th Division, of which his brigade was a part, he sent his troops to pick up the deposed president from the tropical island that the plotters had chosen as a jail.

The paratroopers' show of force was enough to forestall any actual outbreak of violence. Within a few hours Chávez was on his way back to the presidential palace. The bullet casings from the massacre of two days before were still lying on the street; there hadn't even been time to clean them up.  (The photo above shows Chávez shortly after his restoration to power, with Baduel at far right.)

And so General Raúl Baduel is, without doubt, the man who saved the chavista revolution. Chávez, indeed, subsequently rewarded him for his good works by promoting him to Minister of Defense. So you would expect that he'd be celebrating the tenth anniversary of his exploits at a palace gala this week. But you would be wrong.

Instead, the general greeted the occasion with a forlorn video smuggled out of the jail cell he has called home for the last two years:

 

Convicted by a military court on corruption charges that are widely viewed as spurious, Baduel meekly pleads for his rights under the law. As punishment for making the video, prison authorities raided his cell, withdrew all personal comforts, and imposed a far harsher regime of prison isolation. How far Raúl Baduel has fallen.

In truth, he should have seen it coming. He should have realized how dangerous it is to be known as the man who saved the revolution.

President Chávez, he must have realized, can't abide to play second fiddle, to be seen to owe his position to anyone. Soon after the coup attempt, the government began spinning a yarn about how the revolutionary masses had risen up throughout the country to demand the president's return. It was a narrative that reduced Baduel to the role of courier, the man who merely arranged transportation back to the palace. As all but the most rabid chavistas realize, the reality was exactly the opposite: the crowds only came out in force once it was clear the coup attempt had unraveled.

Baduel's real offense, however, was his misplaced sense of duty. The key moment came in December 2007, as the nation voted on a key referendum to end presidential term limits, vastly expand the power of the presidency, and officially commit the country to socialism. The reform, meant to pave the way to the realization of a chavista utopia, was rejected by the voters by the narrowest of margins. As results trickled in to the pliant electoral authorities, President Chávez threw the mother of all presidential tantrums, indicating his readiness to overturn the results and plough ahead with his reforms.

At that key moment, General Baduel  -- by then retired, after having climbed to the very top of the military chain of command -- balked. He was in a key position to mobilize military opposition to Chávez's power-grab. Having once defied the entire military to preserve the constitution and save Chávez's presidency, he thought he was entitled now to defy Chávez to preserve the constitution and save the military's prestige. Outfoxed, a furious Chávez had no choice but to relent, allowing the news of this humiliating defeat to be broadcast to the nation and acknowledging what he called the opposition's "victory made of shit."

Baduel had won the night, but had clearly sealed his fate in the process. Within months he'd lost his job; within years, his freedom.

Sentenced to eight years, he's now reduced to pleading with international human rights bodies to review his case. It won't do any good: Upstaging the president to save the revolution was bad enough, but contradicting him to save the constitution was just going too far.

Oscar Sabetta/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Aung San Suu Kyi's strategy for change

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy never fail to surprise the pundits. When the NLD (whose symbol is shown in the photo above) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in the April 1 by-elections, the result caught most observers off guard. Most of them had expected the party to fall short of overwhelming victory. As I noted in my previous post, this victory demonstrated that people of Burma were prepared to practice "sincere voting" in the by-elections, defying various forms of government pressure to vote for the woman many of them call "Mother."

What happens next is much harder to predict. The NLD and its parliamentary group now face the challenge of actually trying to effect change in a system defined by the authoritarian constitution of 2008. The constitution guarantees the military political supremacy and ensures the domination of parliament by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military's proxy party, by giving it 80 percent of the seats. In short, the recent "flickers of progress" in Burma have not substantially contributed to solving the country's two most intractable political problems: the lack of democratic governance and the failure to provide autonomy for its many ethnic minorities.

But this doesn't mean that the recent changes ushered in by President Thein Sein, a former army general who is also the leader of USDP, are insignificant. Burma now finds itself at a crossroads, confronting a fundamental choice between democracy and a new version of authoritarianism. While the euphoric headlines suggest that the country is heading down the former path, the current institutional arrangement actually points toward the latter one.

In his inauguration speech on March 31, 2011, Thein Sein urged all parties to "work together in the national interest" rather than engaging in opposition to the government. The leaders of parliament also discourage members of the smaller parties represented in the body from using the word "opposition" in parliamentary debates. Meanwhile, local media tend to use the phrase "national interest" quite broadly without really explaining what they mean by it.

So how will Aung San Suu Kyi deal with this rather daunting situation? She appears to have adopted a dual-track strategy, one that places equal emphasis on participation and contestation. The first part of this approach, to be pursued by the NLD members in parliament, focuses on working within the existing legislature, bureaucracy, and judiciary, despite their obvious democratic deficits. The idea here is that you won't be able to effect constructive change in these institutions without building their capacity to implement policy, and you can only do that by giving them incentives to behave as if they were in a real democracy. This strategy operates under the assumption that the present transitional stage is very fragile, and that an all-too-adversarial approach could provoke undesirable side effects. If the opposition pushes too hard for far-reaching change (such as amending the 2008 constitution or establishing a genuine federalist system), it could prompt hardliners within the military and the USDP to bring the reforms to a screeching halt.

This does not mean that Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage will have to subordinate themselves completely to the current corrupt system. Even as the NLD parliamentary delegation works within the tight constraints of the non-democratic parliament, the party can still use its presence in civil society and the media to challenge the poor governance of the regime. To name but one example, they could confront the endemic corruption of the regime as a way of supporting the true rule of law.

If the NLD manages to strike this delicate balance between participation and contestation, it could succeed in gradually steering Burma away from Thein Sein's updated version of authoritarianism (what he calls "disciplined democracy") toward genuine democratization.

The international community can also play a positive role in Burma by encouraging the regime's reformists with selective incentives for any steps toward democratization. If the balance of power within the regime tips in favor of the moderates, that bodes well for progress toward democracy.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images