Monday, June 14, 2004

Washington Post editorial on Venezuela

I suppose it had to be an editorial. Not even the lazy reporters who call themselves journalists these days would spout such tripe.

AFTER MORE than a year of resisting, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has finally accepted the democratic vote on his tenure in office provided for under his own constitution -- or at least that's what he says now.

The truth is far from that. Chávez has said from the beginning that he welcomed a referendum and would accept any decision the election authorities made along the way regarding the signatures, and since they verified enough signatures to hold the recall vote, he has also said he welcomed the chance to be reaffirmed by another election.

Last week the National Electoral Council, controlled by the president's loyalists, announced that a recall election would be held on Aug. 15, vindicating an opposition coalition that collected more than 3 million signatures on petitions and overcame an ugly government effort to invalidate most of them.

Again, not true. The CNE is not controlled by the president's loyalists, and the "ugly government effort" was no such thing. The CNE, which is not a government body, was in charge of ensuring the process was legal and went to great lengths to do so, throwing out thousands of signatures that were forged and illegal, including signatures of dead people, and arranging for a process whereby questionable signatures would not be thrown out, but allowing people to reaffirm their authenticity. The entire time, the CNE process was monitored by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, something the government certainly had no legal obligation to allow.

That the movement finally succeeded is due in large part to the tireless efforts of former president Jimmy Carter and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, who insisted that the referendum process be respected and who intervened repeatedly to prevent Mr. Chavez from manipulating it.

Not at all true. The OAS and Jimmy Carter repeatedly assured the world that the process was going legally, and made suggestions, some of which were accepted, some of which were rejected, but at all times legal and according to the Venezuelan Constitution. There is no record or evidence of Mr. Chávez attempting to manipulate the process.

Their persistence and the opposition's own acceptance of the rule of law provide a ray of hope that Venezuela's long-running political crisis can be resolved by democratic and peaceful means.

Numerous times throughout the year, the Opposition attempted to disrupt the process, engaging in violent street demonstrations and in repeatedly stating that they would accept the CNE's results only if they found the referendum to have enough votes for a recall.

Much could still go wrong, however -- and that may be Mr. Chavez's underlying intention. Already there have been some disturbing developments. The electoral council set the referendum date a week later than previously agreed, meaning that it is now within four days of a constitutional cutoff date after which the recall of Mr. Chavez would not trigger new elections.

That sounds like there's a problem. But what is it? Even if it were within one day of the cutoff date, what difference would that make? It would still be within the time. And again, Mr. Chávez has welcomed the opportunity to have elections again affirm his mandate. Whether he gets it or not remains to be seen, but he seems to be confident. And, if the past is any indicator, he has reason to think so. He won an election in 1998, again in 2000 after the new Constitution was ratified, and his MVR party won seats in the National Assembly time and again during elections.

Officials also announced that the votes would be counted using untried electronic voting machines supplied by a consortium in which the government has a financial stake. Mr. Chavez's cronies have rejected proposals for independent monitoring of the machine tally and have suggested they will try to exclude observers from the Carter Center and the OAS.

This is a little less clear, but the voting machine ownership has just been dealt with in that the government's shares have been resold to the company who makes the machines, and the government's representative who was on the board has stepped down in an effort to remove any conflict of interest. The monitoring of the tally business seems to actually be an argument about whether the machines can be manually audited during the voting process. The CNE does not want this to be allowed, as they believe this is where the votes can be tampered with. They say the machines can be audited before and on the day of the referendum, but not during the process.

Mr. Chavez has ample motive to block a fair vote. His quasi-socialist, quasi-authoritarian rule has wrecked the Venezuelan economy and deprived him of most of the support he once had.

There is truth in the statement that he has lost support. It doesn't appear to be "most" of the support he once had, but the recall votes will tell that story. The accusation of "quasi-authoritarian rule", like the rest of the editorial, has nothing to back it up. And, the latest data speak of an economic recovery last year, and a projected continued increase. I won't argue data like that, because analytical figures can be used in various ways to say different things. However, I will argue that if the economy is "wrecked", it is wrecked in no small degree due to the efforts of the Opposition to wreck it, in particular by staging a work stoppage in the oil industry in late 2002 and early 2003.

Most polls show that Mr. Chavez would lose a fair recall vote, though the opposition's lack of cohesion -- it groups labor unions, business associations and political parties united only by the president's assault on Venezuelan democracy -- means a follow-up presidential election would be up for grabs.

Most polls are taken by the Opposition. And their lack of cohesion is a huge problem. They have spent years trying desperately to oust Mr. Chávez, and no time at all creating a platform or offering an alternative candidate. What does that say about their ability to effectively govern?

It's not clear whether Mr. Chavez would be allowed to compete in a new election -- which helps explain why he recently pushed legislation through the Venezuelan congress that will allow him to pack the Supreme Court.

And then what? Have the Supreme Court rule that he wins the election even if he doesn't, like some other country we know of?

Venezuelans, and the outside world, can only expect that Mr. Chavez will do everything possible to stop or manipulate the upcoming vote.

There is absolutely no reason to expect any such thing. I'm not saying he wouldn't do it. I'm saying there is no reason to expect that he will. He is at this moment seriously buckling down in a campaign toward winning the recall. (With a somewhat zany, but not politically naive, claim that the recall is a competition between himself and George Bush.)

If he were to win fairly, the opposition would be obliged to accept his completing the two remaining years of his six-year term. But just getting to a fair vote will require continued and concerted pressure by the United States and Latin American governments. They should insist that the recall not be further delayed -- and that international monitors be given full authority to monitor and audit the balloting.

Pure hogwash. The United States shouldn't even be involved in Venezuela's political affairs. It's a democratic country fully capable of handling its own. And there's no reason to have the recall vote before August 15, the date the CNE set for it. There is a reason to have it before August 19, but not before then. Unless that is to prevent any Chavistas and indigenous people who haven't registered to vote the time to do so. And why should Venezuela's authorities be forced to permit international monitoring if the United States elections authorities don't have to?

MSNBC has done the same thing in its international edition online, but with the added insult of pretending it is an actual journalistic report.

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