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Why Florida's Republican Power Grabs Remind Some Critics Of Venezuela's Socialist Regime

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Ariana Cubillos
/
AP
PRE-EMPTION PLAYBOOK Venezuela's late authoritarian socialist President Hugo Chavez in 2012, a year before he died.

Some political experts say Florida's efforts to usurp local government authority are uncomfortably reminiscent of the late strongman Hugo Chávez's playbook.

This post has been updated.

Last week a Florida bill that would let the state override local authority in matters of public protests and police budgets was approved by a Senate committee after passing the full House last month.

But as the unusual — and, to critics, constitutionally unsettling — anti-crime legislation cruises through Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature en route to GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who's pledged to sign it, you might not expect it to make people think of Venezuela's socialist-controlled regime.

Until, perhaps, you hear stories like David Smolansky's.

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In 2013, Smolansky was elected mayor of the Caracas borough of El Hatillo. He was a vocal opponent of Chavismo, the authoritarian socialist government founded by the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez.

Chávez died that year, but his regime remained in power — and that meant the local government Smolansky had just been elected to head was a big target for Chavismo sabotage.

“In those years of Chavismo, the main leaders against the regime came from local governments — that was the one space of resistance we had left," Smolansky said.

"So that is why I was persecuted.”

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Ariana Cubillos
Venezuelan opposition leader David Smolansky after being elected mayor of Caracas' El Hatillo borough in 2013.

That and because, despite being only 27 when he was elected, Smolansky was good at the job. Especially crime reduction — which was no small matter since Caracas as a whole has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates, and did at the time of Smolansky's election.

From the start, the Chavista regime blocked Mayor Smolansky’s access to most of El Hatillo’s law enforcement budget. But even without that money, he created innovations like connecting residents and local police on social media — and his borough saw significant drops in major crimes like murder and kidnapping.

“We were able to have a municipality of zero homicides for a hundred days,” he said.

That accomplishment of course annoyed and embarrassed Chávez’s protégé and successor, President Nicolás Maduro, who is widely blamed today for the catastrophic collapse of Venezuela's economy and public security.

READ MORE: As Key West Tries to Set Precedents, Tallahassee Lawmakers Say: Not So Fast

“The regime went completely nuts," Smolansky remembered, "because they knew people would see the difference between good governance and [their] bad governance.”

Not coincidentally, anti-regime protests were erupting across Venezuela at the time — and so to stamp out that inconveniently “good governance,” Maduro started ordering the arrests of opposition mayors like Smolansky who refused to stop the demonstrations.

In 2017, Smolansky escaped across the border into Brazil.

“I had to pass through 35 military checkpoints," Smolansky said. "I shaved my beard, I used glasses" — and he wore a Catholic seminarian’s disguise he had ready in advance for just such a trip.

“I knew that my number was up," said Smolansky, who today lives in Washington D.C. and is the Organization of American States' envoy to the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

"I was prepared for that moment."

In those years, the main leaders against the Chavista regime came from local governments – that was the one space of resistance we had left, and that is why we were persecuted.
David Smolansky

"SHOULD ABSOLUTELY BE A WARNING"

But political experts who know Venezuela and U.S. state governments say something about that moment echoes at this moment in places like Florida.

They're of course not suggesting Florida Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature in Tallahassee are a Venezuela-style dictatorship.

Even so, they find parallels in the increasing ways Florida is trying to weaken if not usurp the authority of local governments.

"I think Venezuela absolutely should be a warning for Americans about this sort of erosion of democratic rights," said Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University and a Venezuela expert.

In that regard, McCoy agrees it's hard to ignore legislation like Florida's HB1 — the anti-crime bill that passed the House in March and passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee last Friday, after hours of discussion.

The "anti-protest" bill, as it's become known, lets the state override local law enforcement and prosecute anyone at a protest where someone else might damage property or commit violence. Meaning, if it becomes law, even peaceful protesters in Florida could be charged with a felony.

It would also give Florida veto power over any city or town's police budget that the state decides is "defunding" or taking money away from law enforcement.

The bill's critics say it's a troubling assault on civil rights as well as the Federalist principle of home rule, which is supposedly a bedrock Republican tenet.

"It's harmful to the right of free speech," said Florida Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer (D-Lighthouse Point) during committee debate last week.

Both those issues — criminalizing public protest and controlling local police spending — frequently show up in Venezuelan cases where local rule is undermined. McCoy says the overtly partisan politics she's long seen involved there are now increasingly at play in Florida and states across the U.S.

“These are examples that are looking increasingly similar," said McCoy. "A party in power trying to beat back opposing parties by intervening in the administration, in the legal authorities, of local level offices.”

McCoy feels that’s also reflected in the new election law in her state of Georgia. There the Republican-controlled state government may now intervene, in unprecedented fashion, in local election administration.

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the Polk County Sheriff's office last September announcing legislation that would increase felonies for public protests and defund cities that "defund" police.

Back in Florida, GOP Gov. DeSantis denies the crime bill is a partisan power play. When he introduced it last September, in response to nationwide demonstrations sparked by the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, he said it was meant to prevent municipalities from making communities less safe.

“Everything flows from public safety," DeSantis argued. "And you are seeing crime increases in some of these what I would determine more lawless jurisdictions.”

"ANTIFA TYPES"

But DeSantis made a point of equating “lawless jurisdictions” with Democrat-run cities like Portand and causes like the Black Lives Matter racial justice protests.

In fact, DeSantis remarked the bill was aimed at busting "scraggly-looking Antifa types" associated with last summer's demonstrations.

But he made no mention of, for example, menacing Proud Boy types involved in far-right violence like the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman was killed, and in this year's Capitol insurrection in Washington D.C. that left five people dead, including a police officer.

McCoy saw similar tactics in Venezuela. She was Americas director at the international nonprofit Carter Center when Hugo Chávez was in power and sometimes helped mediate political conflicts there. She closely observed how Chávez set up federal laws and other measures to thwart opposition mayors and governors.

“Chávez was masterful at creating parallel, 'communal' regional and municipal structures," she recalled, "so that [local government] funding would be controlled for the most part from the central government.”

The Venezuelan and U.S. examples are looking increasingly similar: a party in power trying to beat back opposing parties by intervening in the administration, in the legal authorities, of local level offices.
Jennifer McCoy

That was most glaring in the case of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma.

In 2008, Ledezma was elected mayor of municipal Caracas. Chávez was furious: an opposition leader was now mayor of Venezuela's capital city.

In a speech a few days after the Caracas election, Chávez called Ledezma, "la peor plaga" — "the worst plague.”

Chávez soon had his loyal National Assembly pass a law nullifying Ledezma’s powers. Ledezma was evicted from Caracas' neoclassical city hall building and had to find offices wherever he could.

“They stripped me of 90 percent of my budget and installed a Chávez appointee as a parallel mayor,” Ledezma pointed out.

PARALLEL MAYORS

Still, voters defiantly re-elected Ledezma mayor of Caracas in 2013.

So not surprisingly, two years later on a late February afternoon, Ledezma’s supporters saw an alarming message from his Twitter account.

Venezuelan intelligence police, he told them, were storming his office in east Caracas to arrest him on treason charges — for which Maduro, who was now president after a special 2013 election held shortly after Chávez's death, never offered proof.

“It was barbaric,” Ledezma told WLRN from Madrid, Spain, where he lives in exile. “As the agents hauled me away, I kept thinking: I never imagined the regime would go to this extreme to regain total, absolute control of the country.”

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Building security video showing then Caracas Mayor and Venezuelan opposition leader Antonio Ledezma (in photo circle) being arrested at his office building by regime intelligence police in 2015.

In reality, it's common in Venezuela for the regime to arbitrarily to disqualify opposition candidates, usually on bogus charges of corruption or the "treason" Ledezma was slapped with. Four years ago, when another opposition leader was elected governor of the oil-producing state of Zulia, the pro-Maduro legislature there simply removed him.

“I don’t think anybody has gone as far as Chávez did," said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales, author of "Fixing Democracy" and a strong Venezuelan regime critic.

"But he’s not the only one.”

Corrales, too, fears Chávez’s anti-democratic playbook for preempting local authority is being adopted by regimes around the world — he and McCoy point to countries like Turkey and Hungary — and now by U.S. states like Florida and Georgia. One of the key reasons it's happening, he says: because it’s easy.

“It’s not surprising to see governors become agents in this process of democratic backsliding." Corrales said. "It is always easier to undermine the institutions that safeguard democracy at the local level.”

Which critics say is another reminder of the Florida "anti-protest" bill championed by Gov. DeSantis that lets the state preempt local authority over public protests and police budgets.

It looks set to pass the Senate and the full Legislature in the coming days, and be signed into law this month.

This story is part of our series looking at how state leaders have wielded influence over Florida’s local elected officials — and voters. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as the legislative session continues in Tallahassee.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report suggested the "anti-protest" bill moving through the Florida legislature would let the state withhold funding from municipalities deemed to be "defunding" police in their budgets. That was not included in the final version of the bill.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.