Venezuela's Maduro Can Now Rule by Decree

Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro is, judging by most signs, a weak president. He faces growing discontent. Venezuelans stand in line for hours just to buy basic staples, and the government says they are happy to do so. Inflation is running at 50 percent and growing. Crime is rampant. Maduro, moreover, was elected by a razor-thin margin, and his main opponent has never conceded defeat.

Faced with this deepening crisis, what does Venezuela's legislature decide to do? Why, give him powers to rule by decree, of course. What to others may sound counter-intuitive... is just another day in Venezuelan politics.

The Venezuelan Constitution allows the president to rule by decree so long as three-fifths of the single-chamber National Assembly agrees to it -- in other words, 99 deputies out of a total of 165. Following the 2010 parliamentary election, the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) had 98 deputies. Maduro was short by one vote, but more critically, he was short on political capital. It took a healthy dose of chutzpah to ask for sweeping legislative powers.

Maduro was not to be deterred by simple electoral math. A few months ago, he and his allies began shopping around for a new vote. The president's courts -- which have never made any pretense of independence from the executive branch -- impeached two deputies. One of the parliament's alternate deputies -- who, by law, take the place of the impeached ones -- flipped over to the Revolution.

Maduro says he is going to use the Enabling Law to attack "corruption." He doesn't need a special law to do that. Venezuela has several anti-corruption laws in the book, the prosecutor's office and the courts all do the president's bidding, and he gets away with seemingly illegal acts anyway. Some critics say he will use the law to persecute the opposition, but he is already doing a fine job of that.

Maduro, in other words, already has total impunity. What, then, can we make of this move?

One read could be that, by asking for special powers, he is sending a message to Venezuelans, saying that whatever has already happened in the economy is not his fault. Asking for special powers suggests that he really doesn't have the economy under control, that he needs to "regulate" it some more because "greedy capitalists" are still running amok.

This, of course, is bunk, but a certain part of Maduro's base may believe it. This could help Maduro in upcoming mayoral elections.

Maduro is also sending a message of internal strength to the various factions inside his coalition. The Enabling Law was obtained thanks to the efforts of the president of the National Assembly and (some suggest) his main rival within chavismo, Diosdado Cabello. It seems to say to dissenting voices within chavismo: Maduro is boss, and everyone must toe the line.

As for the economy itself, it's clear the president's plan is to increase the government's role. Maduro has already forced businesses to lower their prices at gunpoint. He already regulates many prices in the economy, and the current laws allow him to set many more. He has already said he will publish a decree whereby the profit margins for all sectors in the economy will be set by fiat. This would spell disaster for the Venezuelan economy.

It's easy to be fooled into thinking this law is going to be used for actual legislation, but that would be the wrong analysis. Everything chavismo does is a function of its desire to maintain and increase its hold on power. Most of the time, there are no actual public policy goals involved.

Hugo Chávez used Enabling Laws to precipitate crises. He viewed a crisis as a useful tool to forward his agenda, identify his enemies, and dominate the news cycle.

By emulating his fallen idol, Maduro is looking to do the same. The last thing on his mind is actual legislating.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.



Arab Netizens Pay a Visit to Algeria's Police State

This past week, representatives from some 20 countries in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond got together, once again, to talk about Internet freedom in the region. The meeting was particularly interesting, convening as it did in a country where the government clearly doesn't know what to make of this whole "freedom" thing.

Welcome to the Algerian version of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a three-day annual conference whose second edition was organized from the first to the third of October in Algiers. At the conference, stakeholders from the governmental, private, and non-governmental sectors discussed questions of Internet use and management in the region. While the discussions and meetings were extremely interesting in their own right, it was even more entertaining to observe the way the Algerian state dealt with the conference.

Government representatives did their best to hide the police state mentality that permeates the country. At times, however, they failed, reverting to their standard modus operandi -- providing anyone who cared to observe with a fascinating example of what happens when a decades-old police state collides with Internet-era professionals. (In the photo above, the Algerian police partake in a "show of force ceremony" in July.)

Multiple conference organizers from within and outside Algeria told me that government officials did their best to shape the event in the weeks before it began, even going so far as to object to specific discussion topics and veto particular speakers. Most of the time, they got their way.

During the conference, the overbearing security presence made many people uncomfortable. Algerian officials attempted to control discussions by planting people in the audience who were tasked with making comments that followed conspicuously similar arguments. ("A state should monitor its citizens because it protects them the way that parents do their children.") This feeble strategy quickly became obvious and repetitive.

Participants were often chaperoned, and, in some cases, explicitly forbidden from wandering away from the official conference premises. Those who tried were subjected to a shrill diatribe from an official of the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology. As the conference progressed, the official's patience wore thin with those pesky conference attendees who thought they could have a free and open discussion. At one point she called on security to remove a young Algerian participant who had asked a perfectly benign yet unscripted question about users protecting their privacy online. The official claimed that the alleged offender was not registered and had forged her entrance badge (which was, naturally, untrue). And when said participant attempted to complain to another official at the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology, he lewdly invited her to his hotel room, harassing her by text message all throughout the night.

Amusingly, the Algerian government was not the only one trying to peddle a pro-surveillance agenda. A Lebanese government official, seemingly emboldened by the host's security-driven ideological bent, jumped on the bandwagon, declaiming at length about the "security" need for surveillance of personal communications.

Was holding this event in Algeria, a country with such a stifling attitude towards free expression, a good or bad idea? The optimist might argue that such a high-profile event forced Algeria to open up and face, head-on, the likelihood that the Internet, thanks to its speed and decentralized organization, will always be one step ahead of government control. The Algerian government's nervousness -- which they displayed increasingly as the conference proceeded -- is proof of this.

Pessimists, however, will argue that the event organizers ceded too much control to a government that was bent on stifling the debate on Internet governance. In a private conversation on the sidelines of the conference in Algiers, one participant who had also attended last year's regional IGF in Kuwait told me that she felt that the discussions this time around were rehashing all the same arguments. Her feeling is probably justified, especially if one compares the debates in Algeria with the issues tackled by the global Internet Governance Forum, where discussions have touched upon diverse and specialized issues (gender and youth perspectives on internet governance, the role of the internet in disaster management, emerging cyberthreats, and many others). By contrast, the Algeria forum kept circling endlessly around basic and repetitive debates about the issue of government surveillance.

The Arab world still jails people for tweets and caricatures. Governments that are unwilling to tolerate open discussions attempt to bury the truth under institutional debris.

The Arab IGF in Algiers proved that much remains to be done when it comes to Internet policy in the Arab World. But along the way it also demonstrated that digital rights and Internet freedom are unstoppable -- however hard the police states might try to prove the opposite.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.