Article 68 of the Venezuelan Constitution reads as follows:
“Citizens have the right to demonstrate peacefully and without weapons, with no other requirements than those established in the law. The use of firearms and other toxic substances to control peaceful demonstrations is prohibited. The law shall regulate the actions of police and safety organizations when controlling public order.”
If you’re like me, the first thing you’re thinking is “there’s another piece of the Constitution that only exists in theory.” After more than two months of demonstrations, many of them peaceful, the last thing one can allege is that this article, or any sensible interpretation of it, is being followed.
That is why today’s Supreme Tribunal (TSJ) ruling is a big win for us.
The TSJ’s Constitutional Chamber (the only one that actually matters) came out with a unanimous ruling today saying that article 68 is no longer in effect. According to El Universal’s interpretation of the ruling, the police can lawfully attack and disperse peaceful demonstrations that do not have a permit from the corresponding mayor’s office, because those demonstrations are not protected by article 68.
Legal scholars will fret, but let’s face it: article 68 has been dead for months, if not years. No guarimbero, nobody protesting feels less safe now than they did a few hours ago, when article 68 was seemingly in effect. Chavismo does to demonstrations what it wants, when it wants to – be they peaceful or not. Call me a humbug, but today’s ruling doesn’t really change our ever-so-squalid rights one bit.
What today’s ruling shows is that the government feels insecure enough that it needs a unanimous declaration from the nation’s highest judges … affirming it can legally continue doing what it already does, no questions asked.
Now, wavering public safety officials who may be doubtful about the legitimacy of attacking peaceful demonstrations can be swayed … by gently shoving the text of this ruling down their throats.
Discerning judges who may be showing unease towards an increasingly repressive regime can now see that support for the government at the top is rock solid.
Hesitant chavista mayors who don’t know what to do about barricades now know that the TSJ is giving them the green light to do as they please.
Foreign officials daring to call into question the government’s heavy-handed tactics will now get a free copy of this ruling in their Embassy inboxes, with a subject saying “It’s the institutions, stupid!”
And government officials, uneasy at the prospect of dialogue in order to grant concessions to the opposition, has given the MUD one more reason to walk away from the table.
In answering to all of this, I think the TSJ ruling is, ultimately, a response to doubters, a show of force to prove that it has force. Why would they need to do that if not because there are doubts that it has it?
Tell me what you boast of and I will tell you what you lack, says the old saying. To me, a government that has to push the Supreme Tribunal to reaffirm their loyalty to it … is not in the safe place it wants to be in.