Many observers have asked whether the election in Venezuela last Sunday, which returned self-described “socialist” Hugo Chávez to power, was free and fair. To the extent that Venezuelans were mostly unimpeded in gaining access to the polling stations and in casting votes that were apparently counted, the race seems to have been free.
But if the rules that governed the election process not only favored one of the candidates, but were also totally under the control of that candidate, and fully stacked against the challenger, can we conclude that the process was fair? Not even close.
Some have asked whether there was fraud in the election. The initial answer must be: “In what aspect of the election?” The rules for the campaign, the design of the ballots, the counting, the verification, and even the decision as to who was allowed to be a candidate were set by a National Electoral Commission (CNE in its Spanish acronym) that has a majority pro-Chávez membership. These rules were rigged long before Election Day.
For the past 14 years, Hugo Chávez has controlled every aspect of Venezuela’s national government and has made every important decision unilaterally. The courts do not challenge him because he names all of Venezuela’s judges. The legislature does not question him because his party has a majority. He runs the executive branch without the slightest dissent because any word of disapproval will cost the offender his job.
Chávez appoints the heads of the military and the police, who do his bidding unquestioningly, attacking political opponents while being nearly useless as a deterrent against criminals — Venezuela has the world’s fourth-highest rate of violent crime. Chávez uses the national budget as his petty-cash box to support his political agenda, and there are no checks and balances to constrain him, as there would be in a functioning democracy.
He misappropriates large portions of the nation’s oil revenues, estimated at billions of dollars, to use as “walking-around money” for his political activists, to support his allies in foreign countries, to give multimillion-dollar handouts to his business and ideological associates inside Venezuela, and to underhandedly influence the outcome of elections in Argentina and elsewhere.
Chávez misused many other national resources to give himself a boost in this election. He used government transportation, for instance, to take thousands of government employees to his rallies during working hours. From his de facto position as manager of the nation’s budget, he promised three million voters that he would provide them with new housing. All they had to do, Chávez promised, was ask for a house or apartment. Is there any doubt who would win the vote of these hopeful supplicants? The candidate who committed to give them a new home, or the one who reminded them that Chávez has built practically nothing new in 14 years?
Chávez also controls the media in Venezuela. He has jailed, censored, and intimidated journalists and closed press outlets at will. As the head of state, Chávez makes frequent use of a provision allowing the president to call a cadena nacional (national network). This measure places at the disposal of the president all national broadcast outlets; all radio and television stations must carry the president’s appearances, as often as he wishes and for as long as he wants to speak. Chávez so abused this privilege, originally created to allow the president to address the public in case of national emergency, that he averaged 50 minutes on the air for every one minute that the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, was able to broadcast.
In spite of the uneven playing field, the Capriles campaign was a credit to the bravery and resourcefulness of the Venezuelan people, some of whom lost their lives at the hands of Chávez hoodlums as they attempted to save Venezuela from six more years of socialist decadence. Even in these flagrantly inequitable circumstances, Capriles garnered 45 percent of the vote. Imagine what the opposition could accomplish in a fair contest.
What we now face in the countries of the Castro-Chávez alliance, which adhere to the so-called Socialism of the 21st Century, is a collection of authoritarian strongmen who have found a method of undermining the institutions of a democracy in order to stay in power indefinitely and build totalitarian societies in the mold of their idol, Fidel Castro.
Venezuela’s Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega — all part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA, in its Spanish acronym — have said they intend to rule “as long as the people want.” They are not even being original. Unlamented 20th-century despots said the exact same thing.
It is a remnant of that bloody century, Cuba’s Castro, now in his 54th year of totalitarian rule, who showed them the way: by adapting his fascist model to the modern world through propaganda, deception, and, finally, that ultimate instrument of dictators, fear. Winning an election under those circumstances does not make a ruler a democratically elected president.
— Otto J. Reich was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela under President Ronald Reagan, and assistant secretary of state and senior staff member of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.