If Hugo Chavez goes, should his supporters get amnesty?

Venezuela's upcoming presidential election has spurred debate over whether Chavistas need the protection of an amnesty law to maintain political stability when he leaves office.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez smiles during a working session of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, summit in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday.

As the Venezuelan opposition primary moves forward, one of the issues highlighting differences among the candidates is the hypothetical question of whether President Hugo Chavez and other top government officials from the past decade should be tried for various crimes, human rights abuses, and corruption.

Fringe candidate Diego Arria was quickly at the extreme, promising to deliver Mr. Chavez to the Hague for war crimes. He's already preparing his case. Other candidates have backed away from that view.

Maria Corina Machado appeared to take the other extreme, promising to pass an amnesty law within the opening days of her administration. I'm not quite sure what crimes her law would cover.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the leading opposition candidate, provided a moderate answer at the recent debate. Asked about Mr. Arria's plan to try Chavez at the Hague, Mr. Capriles says the job of the president is not to prosecute the previous administration or do anything that is a judicial branch function. It's not amnesty, but prosecuting past abuses is also not a priority in a country that needs so much done.

On the traditional (and now outdated) left-right spectrum in Latin America, the debate over amnesty laws was long one of the left focused on the abuses of right-wing military dictatorships. In general, the center has favored "amnesty" as the least worst option for maintaining political stability while the left has demanded the prosecution of those who committed awful crimes as a way to punish impunity and deter others from acting in the future.

With Chavez and other "leftist" leaders who have abused their positions of power eventually leaving office, there are questions of how the political spectrum will shift on this issue. There are certainly some within the Chavez administration who could be tried for corruption and human rights abuses. However, is it really in the best interests of Venezuela's future to be so focused on the previous decade, or is it necessary to halt impunity and prevent future abuses of power? In this case, the center seems to once again favor amnesty or avoiding the issue while the extreme (this time right-wing) is demanding justice be done. The exception is Ms. Machado, who is fairly conservative but seems to be a moderate on this issue.

Of course, this hypothetical is putting the cart before the horse. Venezuela's opposition has a number obstacles in front of them before they can really address this issue, not the least of which is winning the 2012 election and successfully transitioning in to power. Those other challenges in transitioning to democracy are exactly why justice was long delayed or never implemented in places like Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Brazil.

The trend from those other South American countries is that amnesty laws eventually faded as the country became more democratically stable. Ten to twenty years later, prosecutions finally began. I think it is likely Venezuela will see the same trend. Officials within the Chavez administration will not be tried by its successor, whether that comes in 2012 or at a later date. But wait a political generation of separation and there may be some very old Chavistas facing trial in 2030 for crimes from decades past.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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