Throughout Caracas, sidewalk vendors sell a very small and attractive edition of the new Venezuelan Constitution. Costing about $5, it’s been a best-seller since its adoption a few years ago.
And Venezuelans take their constitution seriously; indeed, some take it everywhere.
So I should not have been surprised when, as the polls closed on the presidential election earlier this month, and as election officials closed the doors to one of the schools where I had watched the voting, an elderly woman thrust her constitution through the wrought-iron gate and insisted that she and a small crowd be allowed in to watch the vote tallying. The officials opened the doors.
That constitution was on my mind when, a few days earlier, seven other American judges and I met for two hours with the chief justice and an associate justice of the Venezuela Supreme Court. In the course of a very cordial and candid discussion, I asked the chief justice two questions:
Do Venezuela’s Jews have anything to fear from the Chavez government? And if the government threatens, discriminates against or persecutes Jews or other minorities, does the Venezuelan Constitution provide sufficient judicial power to protect them?
The chief justice seemed taken aback. As if wondering why such questions would even come to mind, he recounted the Venezuelan history of religious freedom. He noted the thriving Venezuelan Jewish community. He commented on his Jewish friends and his recent attendance at a Jewish wedding. He emphasized the Venezuelan Constitution’s explicit guarantees of religious liberty and utterly rejected the possibility of any governmental threat to Venezuelan Jews.
The next night, I had the pleasure of joining the leader of the Caracas Jewish community and four generations of his family for a wonderful Sabbath dinner in their beautiful home. Arriving from Romania in 1960, they indeed had thrived in Venezuela. They echoed many of the chief justice’s words, pointing to Venezuela’s proud history of religious freedom and decades of peace and prosperity for Venezuelan Jews.
Still, my hosts were cautious and deeply concerned. They pointed to President Hugo Chavez’s policies, pronouncements, and apparent fascination with Iran and other anti-Israel forces. They referred to a police search of the Jewish community center two years ago — for weapons, they were told, allegedly linked to the assassination of a federal prosecutor. The search found nothing. Was it pretextual? Was it intended to intimidate?
Most seriously, my hosts emphasized the increasing anxiety of their community. Despite tremendous affection for their country, 10,000 of Caracas’s 25,000 Jews have left Venezuela in recent years.
So what’s going on? It’s hard to say for sure.
Most Venezuelans readily acknowledge that Chavez has, in just a few years, produced unprecedented improvements in employment, health and education. Even his critics concede that the president earned his 63% vote in the December 3 election.
And a fair election it was. My colleagues and I — eight judges from New York and Wisconsin — were among hundreds of international election observers from dozens of countries and organizations, including the European Union, the Organization of American States, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Carter Center. We attended presentations from public and private officials responsible for the election, studied the state-of-the-art computerized voting systems and met with backers of both candidates.
On Election Day, from 6:00 a.m. when the polls opened to the evening hours when the tallying ended, we watched. Sometimes scheduled and escorted, sometimes not, we visited polling places throughout the country. We moved about freely, interviewing voters, poll workers and official “witnesses” for both candidates who monitored each voting table.
The next day, we drafted our report. Consensus was immediate, complete and consistent with the reports later presented by the other organizations. We found “no evidence of fraud or other illegality.” We concluded that the presidential election was “free, fair and transparent,” ensuring “the honest expression of the will of the Venezuelan people.”
The next two days, I walked for hours through the streets and shopping malls of Caracas. Some Venezuelans drove by, honking horns, waving banners and chanting Chavez slogans. Others, seeing the “Observador Electoral Internacional” credentials I still displayed, stopped me. Courteously yet forcefully, they expressed concerns — unfounded doubts about the electoral process, as well as understandable misgivings about presidential pronouncements.
Venezuela, like much of Latin America, is in a transformative time. The United States has a choice: We can undermine democracy, as we have done so often in the past in Latin America, or we can partner with peoples and their new governments.
The Chavez government is a work in progress. Buoyed by rich oil reserves, its policies now offer a unique mix of free-market capitalism, socialism and communism.
Unthinking hostility toward the Chavez government can only drive away a natural ally with whom we share many values. Constructive partnering can confirm our commitment to democracy and re-inforce the sound constitutional values that have helped secure a cherished home for Venezuelan Jews.
Article 21 of the Venezuelan Constitution declares:
“All persons are equal before the law; therefore: Discrimination based on race, sex, religious belief or other factors that, in general, have as their purpose or result the annulment or diminution of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of the conditions of equality and the rights and liberties of each person, is prohibited.”
From the elderly woman clutching her constitution and demanding entry to the polling place, to the chief justice reassuring his judicial visitors, Venezuelans take their constitution seriously. We should, too.
We must confront our country’s policies and secret practices, now starkly revealed through Freedom of Information Act disclosures, that have destroyed Latin American democracies. We must recognize that such hypocritical actions betray our best values and alienate Latin Americans who otherwise would be our allies.
As good neighbors, let us recognize the passionate values we share, from Venezuela’s number-one sport, baseball, to democratic elections. And as intelligent partners, let us respect Venezuela’s president and the constitution under which he governs. Such respect can only re-inforce the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty that Venezuelan Jews have enjoyed for generations.
Charles Schudson, a reserve judge in Wisconsin, is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and president of KeynoteSeminars. In 2005, he served as a scholar in residence at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile.