In Venezuela, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has lately been accused of hypocrisy for seeking enhanced powers to rule by decree so that he can tackle the corruption that rots Venezuela's political institutions.

The accusation is fitting. Maduro is finally admitting that the Venezuela he inherited from the late Hugo Chavez is wracked by corruption, just five months after he famously claimed, “There is no corruption, for the first time in the history of Venezuela, in 180 years.” Plus, after 14 years in power, Maduro's own Chavistas -- as Chavez's political allies are known -- have a well-documented struggle with graft.

An Aug. 20 editorial in Tal Cual, an opposition-leaning newspaper, discussed the outrage: “How can Maduro demand an enabling law? The pretext that he needs it to fight corruption is immoral. The country doesn’t need more laws to fight corruption because it already has them. What the country demands is that these are enforced.”

Perhaps the most worrying part of Maduro’s search for “special powers” is what it says about his country's broken democracy. This presidential endeavor is not a new one. On four different occasions during his tenure, Chavez received an enabling law from a Chavista-controlled legislature, which he used to pass more than 200 laws without parliamentary approval.

The continuation of this trend shows that the Chavista movement -- both its politicians and the large segment of the population that supports them -- has grown accustomed to allowing the president unchecked power to bypass Congress and pass laws he wants enacted quickly. In a country where billions of dollars in oil revenue are controlled by the presidency, having a majority in Congress and exercising control over the supreme court, the attorney general’s office, the comptroller general and the courts is somehow not enough for the party in power. It wants to rule with no checks and balances -- which, of course, will probably only breed more corruption.

The irony is not lost on some Venezuelans. Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a columnist for El Nacional newspaper, one of the remaining outlets critical of the government, discussed the controversy in an Aug. 18 column: “A government cannot declare itself in a state of emergency against the government. It’s too ridiculous, scandalously incoherent.…It makes no sense. The absurd has become an ideology.”

When Patricia Janiot, a senior anchor for CNN en Espanol, tweeted on Aug. 13: “#Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro would seek special powers to fight against corruption. What do you think of the proposal?” The response from Maria Monsalve of Caracas captured a common idea among Venezuelans: “He will have to begin with his own cabinet!”

Incidents of corruption in Venezuela since Chavez took power in 1999 are too many to count. Few can forget the 2007 “suitcase scandal” that ensued when U.S.-Venezuelan businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, apparently accompanied by individuals from state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, tried to smuggle $790,550 in bills through an Argentine airport, reportedly destined to help finance the campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, then a presidential candidate in Argentina.

In another well-known case, Venezuelan Finance Minister Tobias Nobrega and his team were accused of benefiting from shady real-estate dealings in 2002 and 2003. Only in 2011 was he banned from holding public office for 15 years. But neither Nobrega or any of his collaborators served jail time.

Also in 2011, a Ponzi scheme run by Venezuelan-born fund manager Francisco Illarramendi through a Connecticut-based outfit unraveled, taking roughly $500 million in PDVSA workers' pension money with it. The case laid bare a scheme whereby the fund allegedly paid kickbacks to a PDVSA executive. PDVSA removed half of its board of directors, including its longtime finance chief; but, while Illarramendi pleaded guilty to fraud in the U.S., no one faced prosecution in Venezuela.

Seventeen corruption complaints are apparently still pending in the attorney general’s office against Diosdado Cabello, the current president of the National Assembly and a top power broker within Chavismo. The list could go on.

With such a history of impunity, many may wonder why Maduro would go on a hunt that could end up hurting his closest collaborators. But given the president's weak mandate following a close result in April’s presidential elections, as well as Venezuela’s continuing economic troubles, he needs to appear to have a strong hand. As political analyst Luis Vicente Leon put it in a column on Prodavinci on Aug. 14: “Economic populism is no longer enough. He has to resort as well to a political media side show based on extreme radicalization against the adversary.” This is especially important before the municipal elections in December, which many will consider a vote on Maduro’s tenure.

There is one minor glitch, however. A new enabling law requires approval by three-fifths of Congress, and the Chavistas are one vote short of the 99 votes needed. This explains why Maduro is coaxing opposition politicians to debate the issue of corruption and to support additional powers. One can only guess what kind of potentially corrupt backroom deal could convince an anti-Chavista politician to back such legislation. Leon forecasted the outcome in an Aug. 19 tweet: “Obviously the government will try to accuse the opposition of protecting the corrupt, if they refuse to back a new enabling law. It’s part of the political game.”

Approximately 100 years after Venezuela first discovered oil, its vast wealth has done more to deliver a rotten political class than to develop the country. The real revolution could come if Venezuelans take away a large portion of the oil rent from the hands of politicians and create a system similar to Alaska’s in which each citizen gets a direct cut from the nation’s oil revenues every year. Sadly, such a prospect is as much wishful thinking as the idea of eliminating corruption. (Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter. To contact the author of this article: Raul Gallegos at