English | News | 26 julio 2012

Venezuela’s Free but Not Fair Elections (José R. Cárdenas)

José R. Cárdenas

José R. Cárdenas served in several foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration (2004-2009), including on the National Security Council staff. He is a consultant with Vision Americas in Washington, DC.

With Venezuela’s presidential election only a few short months away, international attention is starting to focus on the country leading up to the vote. Such scrutiny is welcome, given Hugo Chávez’s historical track record of tilting the playing field in his favor every time Venezuelans go to the polls.

In recent weeks, two reputable international organizations — Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) — have released comprehensive reports detailing the Chávez administration’s abuse of power, and the extremely difficult conditions being faced by the Venezuelan opposition prior to the October 7th election.

While the reports’ observations will not surprise anyone who has remained informed of Chávez’s systematic hollowing out of the country’s democratic institutions over the years, they are nonetheless important, non-partisan additions to the record by serious watchdog organizations. Try as he might, Chávez can hardly dismiss them as mouthpieces of “the empire.”

Human Rights Watch’s 133-page report, “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez’s Venezuela,” is a follow-up to their critical 2008 report that earned its authors an unceremonious expulsion from Venezuela. It concludes that basically nothing has improved and that, “the accumulation of power in the executive and the erosion of human rights protections have allowed the Chávez government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and civil society.”

On the media in particular — which plays an essential role in ensuring freedom of expression in any electoral campaign — the report documents how “the Chávez government has used its regulatory authority to expand the number of pro-government media outlets, while reducing the availability of those that engage in critical programming.”

The International Crisis Group’s report, “Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela Elections” paints an equally bleak picture: “Under President Chávez’s watch, power has been concentrated in the executive and checks and balances steadily eroded. Politics are polarised, society divided and levels of criminal violence high, while the proliferation of weapons and of pro-government armed groups offer easy opportunities for stoking violence.”

The report does an impressive deep-dive into all facets of the campaign and finds Chávez up to his old tricks: using his control of the state treasury and the media to try and steamroll any challenge, and to prevent the opposition from getting a fair hearing before the Venezuelan people.

For example, the report’s authors write, “Arguably the gravest symptom of CNE [Venezuela’s electoral authority] bias is the failure to check blatant violations in the rules restricting the use of state resources for campaigning mostly – though not exclusively – by the ruling party.” The ICG report calls on Chávez to halt his practice of using the promise of government social programs to induce Venezuelans to vote for him.

On the media, they write, “…together the Chavista dominance of the state media, the cadenas [government-mandated broadcasts], the compliance or self-censorship of much of the non-state media and the harassment of outlets that openly support [opposition candidate Henrique] Capriles give the president a handy advantage.”

Nor does it appear that credible international observers will be present on election day, because the Chávez government has no intention of inviting any. Still, the ICG urges regional governments to press Venezuela for credible observers to monitor the election — a plea certain to fall on deaf ears in Caracas.

The ICG report also devotes some analysis to Henrique Capriles’ chances amidst Chávez’s continuing abuses of power. Most notable is the report’s assessment that Capriles’ campaign has not let itself become distracted by Chávez’s unfair tactics. It is focused, disciplined, moderate in tone, and absolutely committed to convincing voters that the opposition understands the country has changed and that working-class and poorer sectors’ interests will be respected.

Polls for October’s election continue to give the edge to Chávez, but his health remains the wildcard. The uncertainty – along with the substantial proportion of undecided voters – means events could go off in any number of directions should he succumb to his cancer. But the Capriles campaign remains clearly focused on the here and now. The playing field may be tilted in Chávez’s favor, but the opposition are clearly determined to take the campaign to him regardless of the disadvantages. In this they make Chávez, who continues to preposterously assert that his cancer is cured, look weak. It is indeed a measure of how far the Venezuelan opposition has come since the early days of Chávez’s rule.

Original article by José R. Cárdenas at What’s Next Venezuela?

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