English | News | 24 septiembre 2012

The Chávez Plan to Steal Venezuela’s Presidential Election: What Obama Should Do (Ray Walser, Ph.D.)

On October 7, 2012, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez will stand for re-election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The Venezuelan presidential election matters to the U.S.: Venezuela is a major oil supplier to the U.S.; Chávez’s anti-American worldview has led to alliances with Iran, Syria, and Cuba; and Chávez offers safe havens to FARC and Hezbollah. Chávez also works to weaken democratic governance throughout the Americas. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. has offered no comprehensive strategy or policy for dealing with the man who continuously demonstrates his ruthlessness in implementing an anti-American, socialist, Bolivarian Revolution across the Americas, but there is still time for the U.S. to support democratic freedoms before the election.

There is still time for the U.S. to support democratic freedoms before Venezuela's election

On October 7, 2012, some 18 million Venezuelan voters will choose between the incumbent president, Hugo Chávez, and the unified opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. Chávez, president since 1999, seeks an unprecedented third six-year term and the chance to make Venezuela’s march to socialism and a dominant-party state irreversible.

The contrast of forces is stark: a populist, charismatic autocrat against his polar opposite. Capriles, former governor of the state of Miranda and winner of a February presidential primary, represents a unified democratic opposition with a constructive program for the return to liberal democracy. Venezuelans must choose between further descent into authoritarianism, archaic socialism, and official anti-Americanism and a return to representative democracy, adherence to free-market principles, and recovery of the rule of law and transparency, as well as improved relations with the U.S.[1] For the opposition, October 7 may represent the last stand against Chávez’s tightening authoritarian noose.

[…] Chávez is taking few chances. His electoral strategy consists of four distinctive steps: (1) exploit the advantages of an uneven electoral playing field that highly favors the incumbent; (2) conceal critical information needed to inform voter decision-making; (3) conduct an inflammatory campaign aimed at deepening polarization and inciting fears; and (4) tilt the process in his favor on election day. As a savvy operative, Chávez knows that the best electoral outcome is one that is determined—perhaps rigged or stolen—before voters even arrive at the polls.

Despite powerful and unfair disadvantages, Capriles and the opposition still believe they have a genuine shot at winning. While polling data are inconsistent, the race appears to be tighter than initially predicted, and the closer the race, the greater the temptation for Chávez to cheat.

Currently, the U.S. lacks a comprehensive strategy for the Chávez phenomenon or the upcoming elections. October 7 represents a critical juncture at which the U.S. needs to employ boldly all available diplomatic tools to focus attention not only on the voting, but also on the fundamental lack of fairness in the electoral process and the deterioration of democratic governance in Venezuela.

Before October 7, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should deliver strong messages of support for democracy and against dictatorship in Venezuela. Given the absence of serious international electoral observation, the U.S. should support active civil society participation and domestic electoral monitoring. From dispatching extra State Department personnel for observation on the ground to creating a bipartisan group of experts to monitor the elections and prepare a comprehensive post-election report, the U.S. can offer a serious assessment of whether the elections were genuinely free and fair.

Beyond October 7, the U.S. needs a well-prepared contingency strategy for dealing with potential violence and governability issues in case of a Chávez loss or post-electoral disorders. If Chávez wins, the U.S. cannot abandon the millions of Venezuelans who cast their votes against an increasingly authoritarian regime that promises to curtail individual liberty, throttle economic freedom, and endanger the security of everyone living in the Americas. It also needs to plan for longer-term intelligence assessments and possible punitive countermeasures if Chávez’s anti-American activities continue. […]

Read the full report at heritage.org

The Bolivarian Revolution:
Key Features of Chavismo

  • Personality-centered; power increasingly concentrated in executive’s hands.[5]
  • Reduced horizontal accountability (diminished checks and balances); power is unitary in an increasingly politicized, polarized state.
  • Power/influence/wealth of state freely used to build a permanent majority under a dominant “revolutionary” party.[6]
  • Control, restriction, and sanction of media without formal censorship.
  • “Autocratic legalism” that allows selective sanctioning and punishment of opponents.
  • Restriction of opposition nongovernmental organizations and civil society; elimination of foreign support and funding.
  • Speaking on behalf of poor while building dependent client base.
  • Anti-imperialism (compulsive anti-Americanism) that leads to supporting tyranny under the banner of building a multipolar world order. […]

Elections: Opposition Gaining Ground

The October 7 election is the fourth presidential election since Chávez won the presidency in 1998 with 56.2 percent of the vote. In 2000, following adoption of a new constitution, Chávez retained the presidency with 59.7 percent of the vote. He survived a presidential recall referendum in August 2004 with a 59 percent margin and in 2006 defeated opposition candidate Manuel Rosales, winning with 62.84 percent.

In December 2007, Chávez suffered his first electoral setback when a referendum proposing to end restrictions on presidential re-election and 68 other constitutional changes was narrowly defeated. Term limits, however, were lifted in 2009 in an unconstitutional referendum.[9] Before his cancer was discovered, Chávez expressed a desire to govern until 2031.

Opposition candidates boycotted the 2005 legislative elections, giving Chávez a total majority, but in the 2010 legislative elections, candidates representing the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) stood united against the PSUV. Opposition parties gained a small majority in the popular vote but only a minority of seats (67 of 165) because districting and proportional representation rules favored Chávez’s PSUV.

By far the most significant political development has been the re-emergence of an energized, unified opposition. With increasing unity and growing sophistication, the opposition has ended its recurring tendency to engage in self-destructive infighting. The February 7, 2012, presidential primary, organized by the MUD, was a formidable display of activism and produced an impressive turnout of over three million votes.[10]

Capriles, the 40-year-old former governor of Miranda state, emerged as the clear winner with 64 percent of the vote. Since February, he has waged a vigorous campaign in the face of serious obstacles. Capriles’ central message has been one of reconciliation, a plea for the restoration of balance to national policy, and a promise not to jettison social programs but rather to place them on a sustainable foundation.

From a distance, the campaign for the presidency looks like many others, including those in the U.S.: catchy spots, large rallies, photos of Chávez kissing babies, celebrity support (including U.S. actor Sean Penn), and negative campaign ads. Yet behind the daily flow of campaign activity is a well-coordinated Chávez strategy to retain power while appearing to preserve a semblance of electoral legitimacy.

Read the full report at heritage.org

The Chávez Strategy, Step 1:
Unequal Electoral Competition

The Chávez strategy begins with what The Economist calls “tilting the pitch” and rigging the system to win an indefinite stay in power.[11]

Spending His Way to Victory. Central to the Chávez regime has been turning the nation’s oil earnings into social programs (misiones bolivarianas) that deliver free health care, free education, free or low-cost housing, and subsidized food for millions. Chávez has accelerated social spending in advance of the elections. In March, the government lifted Venezuela’s national debt ceiling while increasing the budget by 45 percent. Last year, Venezuela reportedly issued more sovereign debt than any other Latin American nation, raising $15 billion on international capital markets. In brief, chavismo is engaged in “incumbency protection on steroids.”[12]

Chávez has used patronage power to award jobs, contracts, and subsidies to partisans and pals. Government workers now make up 20 percent of the nation’s labor force. Government workers report that they are required to contribute to the Chávez campaign by selling raffle tickets, donating a day’s salary, attending political rallies, or campaigning door-to-door.[13] The head of the nation’s oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), has made it clear that he expects all 115,000 employees to vote for Chávez. Key opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo concluded that Chávez wants to “purchase a dictatorship.”[14]

Monopolizing and Manipulating the MediaThe Chávez regime increasingly restricts the independence and freedom of the press. The onslaught against a free press began in May 2007 when the government refused to renew the license for the nation’s oldest commercial network, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). It continued when Chávez targeted Globovision, a prominent news channel. The government hounded its owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, into exile and fined the station a ruinous $2 million for reporting on deadly prison riots in 2011.[15]Other media outlets have suffered fines or have been unable to renew their operating licenses. Chavismoforces competitive voices off the airwaves by imposing costly “legal” penalties rather than through censorship and shutdowns.

Venezuela’s Law of Social Responsibility for media forbids transmitting news that might “cause anxiety in the public or disturb public order” or that “incites or promotes hatred or intolerance.”[16] The equally vague Organic Law of Telecommunications grants the government the power to suspend or revoke broadcasting concessions when “convenient for the interests of the nation, or if public order and security demands it.” Journalists can also be hauled into court for violating insult laws (desacato), which penalize citizens for criticizing public officials.

Electoral rules limit air time for presidential candidates: three minutes for television, four for radio. Yet independent monitoring shows that pro-government, pro-Chávez publicity has averaged more than one hour per day since July 1.[17] Similarly, Chávez exploits a public-service requirement for private broadcasters to broadcast pro-government messages and employs the right to demand national air time (cadenas). […]

Read the full report at heritage.org

The Chávez Strategy, Step 3:
Demonize, Isolate, and Instill Fear

Chávez engages in discourse filled with insult, rancor, and vilification.[50] He routinely claims that Capriles is the tool of Venezuela’s elite and “the right wing” in the U.S.[51] Allies and supporters of Chávez have gone further by making spurious attempts at character assassination, seeking to foment anti-Semitic propaganda by portraying Capriles as Jewish, and portraying him as a fascist and a homosexual.[52] In early August, Chávez claimed to have evidence showing that Capriles belonged to a “fascist” organization of wealthy families implicated in “neo-Nazism.”[53]

Undercutting Recognized Human Rights Standards. The commitments to democratic government enshrined in the founding documents of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Democratic Charter of 2001 bind all signatory nations not only to regular elections, but also to governing democratically. However, Chávez has undertaken to dilute Venezuela’s commitment to the higher standards of the inter-American system. He continues to war against the OAS, denouncing it as U.S.-influenced and a “corpse waiting to be buried.”

Chávez claims that citizens who air their grievances before OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights violate national sovereignty. A recent decision to withdraw from the commission clearly signals that Venezuela will abide by its own standards, render increasingly politicized justice, and ignore or deny international protections afforded to its citizens.

Criminalizing Support for Democracy.Venezuela’s 2010 Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Determination attacks nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have international support, stating that such bodies that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” are barred from receiving foreign funding.[54] Foreigners invited to Venezuela by NGOs can be summarily expelled. NGOs failing to comply with the law face stiff fines and other punitive measures. Such a backlash against the promotion of democracy is common with neo-authoritarian regimes from Russia to Egypt and Venezuela.

Sparking Fear and Uncertainty.Chávez freely provokes a climate of fear: fear of losing benefits provided by the state, fear that one’s vote is not secret, and fear that a vote for the opposition will lead to disorder, violence, and even civil war. While Chávez claims that he will respect any outcome of the elections, he also claims that a Capriles victory would lead to social catastrophe and bloodshed. “If the right wing’s presidential candidate gets into office,” Chávez railed, “it would put an end to the social programs promoted during 14 years of government, and as a result the country would enter into civil war.”[55] Chávez’s brother Adan stated in June 2011 that Bolivarian revolutionaries must be ready to consider “other methods of struggle” if a majority vote against Chávez.[56]

The Chávez Strategy, Step 4:
Prevail on Election Day

On October 7, as much as 80 percent of the roughly 18 million registered voters will visit 14,035 polling centers and 38,500 polling stations, many in districts that are deeply loyal to Chávez. Also on October 7, the regime will deploy its final set of measures.

Winning Over the Electoral Tribunal. The five-member Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) is dominated by pro-Chávez members who have managed to salvage a partial reputation for neutrality and objectivity.[57] The CNE is credited for overseeing the referendum that Chávez lost in December 2007 and not altering the strong showing of the opposition in the 2010 legislative elections. Despite that, however, its impartiality is in question. Critics maintain that the CNE bends far too easily to the will of the president. In a close contest, it is far from certain that the CNE would be able to resist pressure applied by Chávez and his supporters.

Presuming Victory. The Chávez propaganda machine consistently claims that Chávez’s polling lead is insurmountable. In June, Chávez forecast a win with 60 percent of the vote.[58] On August 15, Chávez proclaimed that “it would be easier for 100 camels to pass through the eye of a needle than for [the capitalist class] to win the election” and later claimed he will win by 70 percent.[59] Supporters touted an August poll prepared by Jesse Chacon, an associate and former minister under Chávez, claiming that the incumbent leads with 56 percent among those with the intention to vote, as opposed to 29 percent for Capriles.[60] With campaign messaging, a number of friendly polls, and extensive media influence, Chávez seeks to project a confident air of electoral invincibility all the way to October 7.

Questioning Secrecy of the Vote. The Venezuelan system of electronic voting, according to the country’s electoral specialists, is protected against tampering. But voting machines are connected to an anti-fraud authentication system that requires a registered fingerprint to activate. Many Venezuelans harbor concerns about the system and the privacy of their ballots. Doubts about the secrecy of the ballot could scare voters, especially opposition voters, away from the polls.

Limiting Electoral Observation. Following the 2006 presidential election, Venezuela ended serious electoral observation missions by the OAS, the European Union, and other groups, such as the Carter Center in the U.S. The CNE now allows only electoral “companions” invited primarily from friendly groups such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which is currently led by a Venezuelan chavista, Alí Rodriguez Araque. Since these companions arrive mere days before elections and take tours of polling places escorted by Venezuelan authorities who are also charged with preapproving their statements or reports, the electoral companions lack international credibility.[61] On October 7, allegations of voting improprieties or fraud will lack validation by impartial external observers.

Cheating and Disenfranchising Voters. Opposition experts have expressed concerns about the lack of a comprehensive audit of the voting register and about the ease with which voter identifications have been issued, possibly resulting in duplicate voter documents and noncitizens being able to vote. On October 7, the geographic distribution of polling stations—with higher numbers in pro-Chávez strongholds—and overcrowding and inefficiency in processing registered voters will affect voting. Obstructionism by Chávez-friendly officials and potential intimidation by pro-Chávez bullies could slow or negate votes in many districts.

Venezuela permits voting overseas in embassies and consulates. However, following the expulsion of Venezuela’s consul general in Miami in January 2012, Chávez ordered the consulate closed. Despite appeals, he has refused to reopen it in order to punish the Venezuelan diaspora—as many as 20,000—in Florida. To exercise their right to vote, they must travel to the nearest open consulate in New Orleans.

Promoting Disinformation.The Chávez regime plants stories about alleged opposition plans to contest the election outcome and disrupt the post-electoral civil order. On August 9, Chávez announced that a “mercenary” carrying a U.S. passport had been arrested in Venezuela, adding matter of factly that “a group of the bourgeoisie is preparing to reject the people’s triumph…and [will] try to plunge the country into a political crisis and fill the country with violence.”[62]

October Surprise. Despite the four-step Chávez strategy outlined above, opposition candidate Capriles, the MUD, and millions of Venezuelans sincerely believe that they still have a real opportunity to win and alter the course of Venezuelan history. The hopes of the opposition have recently been bolstered by reputable polling data that place Capriles either ahead of or closing the gap between himself and Chávez.[63] Emergent crises such as the August PDVSA refinery fire, the collapse of key bridges, and restiveness in some labor unions have also tarnished the aura of triumph that Chávez had aimed to project.[64]

When the polls close on October 7, Venezuela and the world will demand swift, honest, and transparent voting results. Will Chávez deliver the massive knockout punch he has worked so assiduously to develop? Will Chávez and his loyalists accept a narrow defeat? Will they risk domestic and international disapproval by manipulating the vote? A victory for Capriles also opens not only the issue of acceptance by Chávez and his followers, but also a number of transition challenges that would pit the new executive against the Chávez-dominated legislature, courts, unions, and armed forces. […]

Read the full report at heritage.org

What Needs to Be Done

[…] Right now, the Obama Administration can still focus U.S. and international attention on the Venezuelan electoral process, especially its lack of fairness and transparency. The Administration should protect and defend the ability of Venezuelans to cast their ballots without hindrance, in secrecy and without fear of reprisals. It should exercise all possible vigilance to monitor and, if necessary, validate claims of fraud.

To defend democracy in Venezuela while advancing U.S. interests and values, the Obama Administration should:

  • Support Venezuelan civil society. Despite restrictive Venezuelan laws, the U.S. should increase its democracy assistance to civil society and NGOs by working to train domestic electoral observers, urge voter participation, coordinate collection and tabulation of voting results, and encouraging all polling stations to report electoral infractions to the CNE and the MUD.
  • Conduct systematic public diplomacy. The Administration should prepare a public diplomacy brief examining the erosion of democracy and the unfair advantages accumulated by Chávez. It should report the fact that electoral conditions are far from fair.
  • Reaffirm principles of democracy. President Obama and Secretary Clinton should speak out on democratic principles and the commitment to full democracy, not merely holding elections, in the Americas, highlighting what is at stake in Venezuela, urging citizen participation and transparency, and holding Chávez accountable for the preservation of peace.
  • Dispatch U.S. observers. The U.S. embassy in Caracas should send its staff in a systematic fashion to monitor the elections on October 7, and Washington should assign additional State Department officers to temporary duty in Caracas.
  • Call for bipartisan monitoring. The Administration should call on the State Department to assemble a high-level working group of analysts, congressional staff, academics, and electoral experts to monitor and evaluate the election and its outcome.
  • Heed early warning signs of violence and instability. The Administration should closely monitor the situation in Venezuela on October 7 for evidence of incitement to violence by political parties, harassment of or harm to opposition figures, reprisals against voters, distribution of arms to militias, and increases in politically-related violence.
  • Establish a coalition for Venezuelan democracy. The U.S. should employ active diplomacy to establish a coalition of democratic leaders—one that could certainly include Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Spain, the United Kingdom, and others—to act in unison in case of fraud or violence.
  • Continue support for democracy. Although the defeat of Capriles would clearly demoralize many Venezuelans, the U.S. must nonetheless continue to offer sustained support for civil society, a free press, free labor unions, and other voices for liberty and preserve the resilience of a unified opposition for future elections.
  • Appoint a high-level Cuba/Venezuela Mission Director. The position of Cuba/Venezuela Mission Director in the Office of the National Intelligence Director should be filled with a senior-level official with responsibility for all ALBA countries.
  • Develop an aggressive, proactive plan of action. October 8 will mark the starting point for one of two courses: either one of sustained cooperation and support for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela or one of tough, proactive responses to Chávez’s promised radicalization. Potential policy tools for leverage include visa denials, further Treasury designations of corrupt Venezuelan officials, financial and trade sanctions, interdiction of Venezuelan vessels and aircraft used to transport drugs, the designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism, and an embargo on the purchase of Venezuelan oil. All of these tools should be considered in the event of electoral fraud, significant electoral violence, or hostile acts contrary to U.S. security interests.

Conclusion

Hugo Chávez is by nature a demagogic populist, nationalist, and military-minded leader who believes that history has assigned him a mission to convert a representative democracy and free-market economy into a one-party, authoritarian, socialist state. His goal is to crush the opposition with a winner-take-all approach.

If the people of Venezuela reject this somber plan for the future and vote to return the country to a more democratic course, it is vital that the U.S. stand as a leader in support of a transition to democracy, rule of law, and economic and personal liberty. If Chávez prevails, as he is confident he will, the U.S. needs to prepare for the increasingly dangerous consequences of a radicalized, despotic, anti-American leader with six more years to make the Bolivarian Revolution and socialism of the 21st-century irreversible.

Ray Walser, PhD, is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.



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