The End of Democracy in Venezuela

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By Michael Rowan, Co-author of The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chávez and the War Against America

The March, 2009 referendum to allow Chávez to be president for life may cap the death of Venezuela’s democracy, which fell fatally ill in 2004.  In the presidential recall referendum of that year, Chávez reported through new electronic voting machines with centralized counting under his control that 58% of the voters opposed his recall, which the Carter Center and the Organization of American States then endorsed.

Yet there is good reason to believe that 58% of Venezuelans voted to recall Chávez who rigged the vote through a fraudulent, secret count by his machines. The evidence of 2004 fraud is overwhelming but Chávez has closed the books on the data as state military secrets. Polls before the referendum showed Chávez was a big loser; exit polls on the day of election showed 58% voting to recall Chávez; and a study by Harvard and MIT statisticians found Chávez’s victory to be statistically impossible.

Proving fraud in any election requires auditing of the voting rolls, the electronic machines, and the vote count by machine, none of which anyone has seen but Chávez loyalists. Neither the Carter Center nor the OAS had independent access to those facts but both ìobserversî of the referendum mysteriously went along with Chávez’s outlandish victory claim nevertheless.

     

Chávez had perpetrated the rigged referendum because he believed that the U.S. was trying to assassinate him since his controversial visit to Saddam Hussein in 2000. Thereafter, a paranoid Chávez blamed the U.S. for a 2001 strike, a 2002 coup and a sixty-day national strike in 2003, all absent of evidence of U.S. involvement. As 3.5 million Venezuelans petitioned to recall Chávez — three times over — by 2004, in preparation for the vote Chávez replaced Venezuela’s serviceable election machinery with electronic machines that were easily corruptible, while adding millions of new unaudited names collected by his loyalists to the election roll.

Afterward, the names of all 3.5 million petitioners against Chávez were placed on the Internet where Chávez’s government denied them public services such as identity cards and jobs. The 2004 fraud was so obvious in Venezuela that the opposition boycotted the 2005 election, where Chávez embarrassingly won all 167 seats in the national assembly.

In the 2006 presidential election, Chávez publicly threatened government employees and the military to vote for him or be fired. Most Venezuelans believed that Chávez’s fingerprint machines could identify how they voted, which increased abstention. And Chávez also distributed $11 billion in street money giveaways in the barrios to buy votes. Even so, 2006 election-day exit polls showed Chávez winning by only 5% over Governor Manuel Rosales of Zulia state. Rather than show a close election, Chávez reported a 64% landslide, which the world then accepted as true. In 2007, Chávez ran a referendum to allow him election for life and giving him virtual dictatorial control over all aspects of public and private life, as Fidel Castro enjoys in Cuba.

Pre-election and exit polls showed a 13% loss for Chávez but he made no timely announcement of the count. Fearing another fraud, General Raul Baduel, a co-founder of the Bolvarian Revolution with Chávez but who opposed Chávez’s transparent desire to be dictator for life, went on TV to say that Venezuelans would go to the streets if Chávez did not report the accurate election result. He was supported by millions of peaceful students and voters who then did so.

Baduel made Chávez blink. Early in the morning, Chávez said he was 1% behind while 13% of the votes remained to be counted so it was statistically impossible for the loss to be reversed. This left voters happy yet scratching their heads about Chávez’s arithmetic, which he had failed at school. Calling it a ìshittyî victory by the opposition, Chávez pledged to try again, which is unconstitutional, but when Cardinal Jorge Uroso pointed that out Chávez called him a sinful liar.

In December, 2008, Chávez candidates won most of the races for governor and mayor in Venezuela but lost the biggest states and cities and half the national popular vote. Intimidation, fraud and vote-buying were charged by Human Rights Watch, which was then expelled from Venezuela, with the U.S. ambassador close on its heels. Governor Manuel Rosales, General Raul Baduel and Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, the most popular opposition candidate who was prevented from running in 2008 along with hundreds of others, are now under prosecution for trumped-up crimes against the state.

Similar 2004 charges of treason against the leaders of Sumate, the NGO that collected the 3.5 million petition signatures to recall Chávez in 2004, are still pending. So the March, 2009 second referendum on "Chávez for life" is going to be a donnybrook. Polls show a clear majority of voters against Chávez. With the oil price dropping from $147 in July to $34 today, he has run out of big money to buy votes or loyalty.

If Chávez uses his magical election machines to rig the vote, President Obama will be faced with a difficult choice: the people of Venezuela will be on one side, and Chávez, the Cubans, the Russians, and the Iranians — with $5 billion in new weapons — will be on the other. Venezuela, the first Latin American nation to conduct a democratic election in history, may become the last – with one exception, of course, which is Chávez’s favorite: Cuba.

©2008 Michael Rowan Author Bio Michael Rowan, a political consultant and writer, lived in Caracas from 1993 to 2006. He was the strategist for Governor Manuel Rosales in the 2006 presidential race and is the co- author with Douglas Schoen of The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chávez and the War Against America (Free Press, January 6, 2009 publication; 978-1-4165-9477-2).

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