A Revolutionary Environment
Michael Albert Interviews Fernando Vegas
1. To start, can you tell us a bit about your background? For example, how were you radicalized, how did you become involved with the legal system?
I had the usual life of any kid brought up in a middle class family, with the particularity that my mother always told me about her father´s involvement in clandestine activities against General Juan Vicente Gomez, a dictator that ruled Venezuela for 28 years (1908-1936) with cruel iron fist. My grandfather was imprisoned for 14 years with his ankle chained to a 30 pounds steel ball. My mother belonged to a group of solidarity with the prisoners and became close to many people of libertarian thoughts and leftist ideology. So, I guess some of all that came in the baby bottle with which she fed me. My radicalization as a militant of one of Venezuela´s leftist parties occurred in the mid sixties in the University while I studied to be a lawyer. This choice was probably catalyzed by the romantic inspiration of the Cuban Revolution and the exemplary will of the Vietnamese people fighting against and later defeating the aggression of the military of the empire based in Washington D.C. Afterwards, with my lawyers degree in hand I became part of the national legal system.
2. How did you come to be a Supreme Court Judge in Venezuela?
In 2004 the foundational law of our Supreme Tribunal of Justice was reformed and among other things the number of justices was expanded from 20 to 32 and also created a system of selection through a contest of credentials, interviews with a National Assemblies Committee, the review of the Citizens Power, plus the involvement of the citizens that could oppose the name of any nominee. In this time and circumstances, I was asked to participate by friendly representatives of the NA, I did, was later designated and was sworn in on January, 2005.
3. How would you compare the broad features of the Venezuelan legal system now, to before the Bolivarian project?
First of all, we must emphasize that the application of the law by judges since our independence days till now has been in correspondence with the structure of social and economic domination exercised through governmental powers. Before 1998, institutional Justice was exclusively managed by landowners and bourgeoisie, the social elite, the top of the pyramid. Big law firms controlled judges and auxiliary personnel of the courts, these groups were popularly addressed as “judicial tribes”. In the criminal area drug lords moved freely among other terrible things. We can recall a real story of Hollywood’s worst inspiration in which a well known editor started a campaign in his newspapers repeating that the Crest toothpaste produced cancer while he asked Procter & Gamble to publish adds in his media in order to cease the campaign, but instead of bending to the editors desires, Procter & Gamble decided to file suit against the editor. A few years went by and Procter & Gamble lost his claim in first instance and also in appeal. When Chavez won the 1998 elections, Procter & Gamble had his claim for review in the Supreme Court and was ready to move out of Venezuela if she lost again, then changes occurred other justices came to take post in the new Supreme Tribunal created by the Bolivarian Constitution and Procter & Gamble was ruled a winner and the editor compelled to pay compensation. Actually we are far from reversing totally that situation but for sure no longer is exclusive of the social elite. Now lawyers coming from the ranks of the left and persuaded by the Bolivarian and Socialist ideology are sitting in the bench of judges. This flattens the application of Justice because the sectarian view of social domination we had before is in the trend of abolishment. Of course there is also the peril of partisan rulings but it can be minimized with a legal system based on a progressive Constitution, written laws produced by the National Assembly and the judicial control exercised by appeals and reviews that, all together, create doctrines of mandatory application by the judges. The effects of this new institutional view of Justice comes out in the open and delivers gratuity of proceedings in courts of justice, brief duration of trials (in example: before the Bolivarian Revolution, the complete procedure for a worker to claim in courts his social earnings would take more than four years, now days it can be completed in eight months, even more, 80% of the cases are solved almost immediately by mediation courts), citizens ask for and receive free legal assistance in criminal, labor, civil, agrarian and child and adolescence competences, not only civil rights but also social rights are widely protected and have a national web of institutions to guarantee it, rights of the indigenous nations are respected, political rights are broader and we have a very lively participatory democracy and many others social and democratic achievements you can get acquainted with by just reading the Bolivarian Constitution of the Republic of Venezuela.
4. How do you think the Venezuela system compares to the legal system in the U.S.? What are the key differences, in your view? Why do they matter?
In the U.S the legal system is created to protect the interest of the minority that holds economic power: bank owners, merchants and industrialists, families that simply amassed money from land taken by their ancestors from the Apaches or the Sioux a century and half ago because they happened to find oil in it. This people do not add up to more than 3% or 5% of all the population of the country yet they control politicians, legislators and judges, they exercise an enormous mass media power and practically do as they please. Of course there are cracks in the system that allow for simple working people to actually assume government, legislative, judicial and county posts and some of those cracks are wide enough to cover big areas, but the moment they show peril to any of this elements of powers they will be intervened by the federal or state government, have no doubt. In the Revolutionary Venezuela the situation is the other way around.
Let me make something clear, what we are doing with these reflexions is an exercise of sociology of law, we are not talking about plain Justice. A judge provides justice to whom, according to the law, has the reason proven in fair and transparent trial no matter how much pressure he gets from economic offerings, political counsel, criminal menaces or familiar and friendly sentiments, a very difficult mission to achieve in absolute terms, albeit is something to pursue.
5. Are there attributes of the Venezuela legal system that you think need improvement or even major overhaul and transformation? If so, what?
We have done many good things, like digitalization of files, also procedures in process and rulings, all of public free consultation. We have taken big steps to improve academic preparation for our judges. We have invested to enhance the buildings that house courts, yet still not enough to cover all of our country. We have kept a good pace in covering horizontally the administration of justice by creating more courts at municipal levels to attend criminal acts. But, we have problems of burocracy, in some cases lack of leadership. These are the areas that give more trouble. Remember we can´t simply think that we have adequate human resources because we win the elections and assume the powers of the State. No, what we receive is the same people that leaved in Venezuela before 1998 and they have many defects, including me.
6. What are the obstacles to accomplishing further gains in the Venezuela legal system?
We have to insist in providing formation in moral and ethics to those who aspire to be judges and those who already are, but also to secretaries, clerks and auxiliary personnel. We need a better selection of the leaders and managers of the legal system as a whole (judicial circuit leaders, prosecutors, defenders appointed by court, penitentiary directors). We must defeat bureaucracy. All this has to be surrounded by a revolutionary environment in which the principles and social values of our Bolivarian Socialism come to life in every order of a functioning society. This is not a utopia is a horizon we must pursue.
7. You have been going through a traumatic time in Venezuela, mainly due to Chavez´s illness and all it entails. Perhaps the biggest effect is on morale, on people´s mood. Why is the personal, emotional and also political tie to Chavez so deep for so many people in Venezuela?
When Chavez, overwhelmingly, won the 1998 elections the common people started to see a connection between hope and realization. Till then, all politicians that won elections offering many things in their platforms never really accomplish much of them, if not none. Actually, there is an expansion of the social expenditure of government. Matters like education, housing and health are guided by inclusive social policies, but also the traditional means of decision making process now are subverted because participatory democracy is practiced by millions of Venezuelans that were invisible for society before 1998, while those who in the past controlled things from banks, manufactures, mass media, political parties are now left aside. The first love Chavez and the later hate his guts. But the first are many and the later just a few. For the vast majority of the people Chavez is a leader, someone they consider family. For a minority Chavez is the devil himself. In the described circumstances, due to Chavez´s illness most of the people suffer because they don´t want their leader to go and although only a few want him to vanish, the sum of both is the whole society, something that has to reflect in the day by day reality.
You can appreciate a vast majority showing sadness, on one hand and a strong will to keep the Revolution moving forward, on the other. Also, you can find a thin minority who has access to mass media trying to sow mischief showing false photographs, sabotaging the economy and bombing internet with lies through hundreds of daily tweets or simply conspiring to find cracks in the Bolivarian institutions to bring them down.
8. Do you worry that owing to Chavez´s absence there will be losses for the revolution? Why should that occur, or why that might occur? Are there things that need to be done to reduce the dangers?
In event of the undesired disappearance of Chavez of the presidency I don´t think any losses should come to the Revolution. I´m not saying that dangers and menaces won´t exist, but not many more than the ones we had in the recent past. After 14 years of Bolivarian Revolution a majority of the people has been a consistent voter for Revolution, and even more important, a very large sector of the population (a few millions) have a revolutionary political conscience and they cover all the estates of society peasants, workers, professionals, military, small entrepreneurs, intellectuals, etc. There is ample international support and internally a party of the revolution (PSUV) with its own leadership and of course all Venezuelan social sectors have assimilated in their collective consciousness the figure of Chavez as the leader and guide of the Revolution beyond his physical existence. I have no doubt that if early presidential elections were celebrated because Chavez stepped down, a landslide of votes will keep the Bolivarian Revolution in power.
9. How do you feel about Venezuela having to deal with countries that are not following a similarly popular and ethic path whether Venezuela selling oil to the U.S. or trading with Iran or whoever else? Does dealing with overseas violent and repressive systems interfere with developing an ethical balance and disposition at home?
I think that when it comes to interchange of goods and services you really deal with the people of the country you do it with, no matter who is the president and what are his thoughts. Isn´t this the reason why progressive and even conservative men and women all around the world criticize the embargo the U.S government has on Cuba? Another thing is the case of governments well supported by their national people´s vote, that bomb countries with the determination of extinguishing the entire population (ethnical cleansing), which is the case of the Zionist state of Israel and their Palestinian victims. No one has to tell us about was happening in Gaza, we can see it. This is the reason why Venezuela does not have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. In the other hand, we only read in the main stream press that Iran is not a democratic revolution but a dictatorship, while we do not appreciate Iran bombing countries and killing people. Also we receive messages of friends and comrades expressing there is an absence of democracy in Iran, although they hold elections that are monitored by the same institutions that monitor Venezuelan elections to say later we also have a dictatorship. Maybe our comrades have not stopped to think that the Persians exercise a very different culture than ours. Why do we have to calibrate everybody with the same lens? In example, if the Persians cut the hand of thief is terrible but it´s all right if in Texas an assassin receives a lethal inyection. Maybe my comrades do not agree with either punishment but in the first case they are willing to help overthrow the government, while in the second case, they are not.
Take China, why should the U.S. and so many countries, trade with this nation. Only a few years ago, Europe, UK, U.S. and all their satellite countries screamed against China and their violations of human rights. All of the sudden they all looked with appetite to the Chinese market and the accusation ceased or minimized. What are we talking about then, because in this case, either the ill treatment of human rights never did existed in China or the governments and business elites of all this countries are hypocrites.
My personal view is that we exercise politics with ethics in Venezuela but we do not include them in catalogue of requisites to hold diplomatic and business relations with the countries of planet, unless the policies of the government of an specific country openly and cruelly disregard the life of their own people or of other nations. Of course, we don´t take knowledge of the ethical behavior of the countries from a Human Rights Watch report, the same institution that, in every chance they can get, assert that our revolution is a dictatorship and, naturally, does not respect human rights.
10. Similarly, how do you feel about having to conduct court and legal activity more generally in a horrible unequal context of continued ownership of great productive power by capitalist, as against working people owing nothing but their ability to work? How does it make it hard to get just legal results in Venezuela?
Have no doubt, the vast majority of the people of Venezuela are doing a Revolution based in Bolivarian fundamentals and a democratic review of the socialist principles. We call it Socialism of the XXI Century. It´s been done in the context of an open society, with democratic and transparent elections, with multi partisanship and free press, all submitted to the constant criticism of the hegemony of main stream media established in Europe, UK and the U.S. and their notes based on lies or facts taken out of propaganda laboratories that mix lies with truth.
After 14 years we have advanced not only in the field of the economy and the ownership of industries but also with the approval of laws that, for example, favor the working class enhancing their rights in front of the proprietors. In the first case, government has stimulated the creation of mix ownership (state + workers or state + capitalist + workers or only workers), also the creation of Communal Councils and Communes (the gathering of much or a few communal councils on certain territory) that administer a budget financed by the State to provide for social necessities or investment in productive activities. In the second case we have laws like the Workers Code that establishes the worker´s rights and brief legal procedures to claim them in Court, we have laws that organize the Communal Councils and Communes and their bond to governmental policies, laws that defend in ample manner the rights of tenants in front of landlords, as many others more.
All this generates a growing and favorable environment in which the judge can move in the current of changes promoted by the Revolution. Now days you have common people that file claims against landlords or capitalist that deny their natural and legal rights, something they find easier than it was before do the our own changes and adjustments in the Judicial Power, by the way, something always questioned by the national opposition and their coaches in the north. But not only this is helpful for the task of judges, also there is an institutional support of laws like the ones quoted above, that provide an adequate climate for the roll of the revolutionary judge.
Of course, we need to advance more, we need more laws and to deepen the activity of the government to amplify changes in the economy and its best organization and planning in whichever area is really needed, always keeping in mind the democratic participation of the people. We have done much to solve the heritage of social problems caused by capitalism with the Social Missions, but still have a long way to go to build the Socialism of the XXI century.
On the other hand, judges are usually submitted to a lot of pressure from the media. No matter the ruling the judge takes, if it does not favors the opposition politician, the capitalist, the criminal who embezzled or took bribes or killed people in the failed coup of April 11, 2002, he will always be vilified. But this goes with the job and we have to deal with it without diminishing our capabilities and compromise with the Constitution, the law and the people