As leaders of Britain’s main political parties make their promises for 2016, voters will not see much on offer about the rule of law and the effective operation of Britain’s justice system. Yet the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, recognizes that these are central to Britain’s democratic tradition. He intends to introduce a British Bill of Rights, to replace the Human Rights Act and so reinforce the independence of the judiciary in Britain’s Constitution. That independence is pivotal when it comes to the protection of liberty under the law and for the stability and certainty that allow for economic success and social opportunity for all. For countries where this is missing, the future will be bleak.
European countries are now contending with those escaping from war and the breakdown of civil society. In Latin America too, liberty under the law has suffered. In the name of socialism, Venezuela, Cuba and others have consistently belittled the individual economic and social liberties that are the cornerstone of western democracy. Whilst the USA and the South American republics share similar foundation principles based on individual freedom and democracy that formalize the separation of powers into the executive, legislature and an independent judiciary, Latin America socialism has concentrated power in the executive to the detriment of the rule of law.
Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of Presidents Chavez and Maduro is considered a standard-bearer for international socialism. Even so here in Britain where Dianne Abbot, shadow International Development Secretary, claimed Chavez showed ‘another world is possible’. That claim should, however, be judged against the hardship that socialist economic policies have inflicted on the Venezuelan people and against the regime’s continual breach of human rights and democratic principles. Gradual centralisation of power in the executive to implement its economic measures has also allowed the silencing of critics in parliament and in the judiciary. In 2009, for example, Judge María Afiuni was imprisoned under charges of corruption and abuse of power shortly after finding in favour of a vocal critic of the government.
Not content with silencing critics in public office, the Venezuelan government moved further to tighten its control over the media where some opposition can still be found. A law passed in 2010 allows for licenses of private media companies to be suspended or cancelled if the government judges it to be convenient in the interests of the nation. Similarly in 2013, the previously critical TV channel Globovision was sold to government interests after its owner considered it politically, economically and legally impossible to continue with its editorial line.
Change may now be imminent. The recent defeat in parliamentary elections of President Maduro and the Chavista government at the hands of the opposition, may result in a change of policy. Prominent opposition leaders such as Leopoldo Lopez imprisoned under politically motivated charges may be released. But President Maduro has already attempted to thwart electoral will by nominating 13 new Supreme Court Justices before the new Parliament has a chance to object to their nomination. The Venezuelan High Court, without substantive legal reasons, has also accepted injunctions against three opposition parliamentarians therefore depriving the opposition of their crucial two-thirds majority in parliament.
Here in Britain, in an article for the Socialist Campaign Group, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn sees the ‘survival of Cuba since 1979’ from alleged US imperialism as ‘an inspiration to the poorest in the region’. Indeed it is impossible to isolate the left wing governments of the last decade from the example lent by Cuba now and in the 1970 and 80s when Latin America suffered at the hand of Marxist guerrilla movements. The one-party state has encouraged many of the recent socialists governments. Hugo Chavez, former Venezuelan President, named Fidel Castro as his mentor and Cuba as a ‘revolutionary democracy’. Cristina Kirchner, Argentine President until very recently, called Cuba ‘a land of heroism, courage and convictions’.
Human rights, including freedom of speech and democracy, are severely limited in Cuba. Despite President Obama’s recent overtures to Cuba, the regime’s crackdown on internal opposition seems to have increased. An independent monitoring centre estimates there were 768 politically motivated detentions in August 2015 alone, a rise from 674 in July 2015. Numerous laws exist to curb the rights of free expression – particularly if used against the Castro regime. Law No 88, for example, for the ‘Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba’ allows the state to imprison a citizen for up to twenty years for acts that are deemed to further US policy against the Cuban regime. Art 53 of the Constitution prohibits private ownership over the media – Cuba ranks in the bottom ten countries in the International Press Freedom Index. The current estimate is of 60 political or ‘counterrevolutionary’ prisoners after Washington secured the release of 53.
A good measure of a government’s success are the risks those living under it take to escape from it. The US estimates more than 1,200,00 Cubans – about 10 per cent of the Cuban population – have left the island. Very often they brave the waters of the Florida Straits in rafts and small boats. Prior to 2013, severe restrictions including a government visa meant legal exit was in the hands of the regime. Recent changes have liberalised the regime but controls still exist, particularly for dissidents and Human Rights campaigners. It is in this context that Senators Cruz and Rubio, both children of Cuban exiles to the US, and their brand of republicanism should be understood: they take liberty to be precious and non-negotiable.
As we look onto 2016 the cause of freedom and democracy seem to be all the more relevant. The terrorists’ attacks in Paris, and other cities have reminded us the rule of law and the liberties it guarantees are essential to Western civilization and worth defending. These include the economic individual freedoms without which an entrepreneurial society cannot hope to succeed. Such basic individual liberties have too often been sacrificed in the name of promised social improvement that never quite happens. As Britain debates a new British Bill of Rights it should consider this is not merely a domestic debate, but one that matters across the world.