- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela A postponed election in Venezuela, a flawed one in Peru and a violent and poorly organized election in Haiti, all in less than a week, are raising concerns about whether democracy is taking root in Latin America.

But Jimmy Carter, who as U.S. president championed human rights in Latin America when most of its countries were governed by dictatorships of the right or left, stressed here that Peru and Haiti are aberrations and that democracy will prevail in Venezuela.

Mr. Carter, here as head of a 37-member delegation of his Atlanta-based Carter Center, which has acted as an international observer of elections in developing democracies around the world, criticized Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for not postponing national elections held on Sunday as Venezuela did.

The latter delayed its elections indefinitely on Thursday because technical problems with the computerized vote-tabulation system threatened disruption.

In Peru, Mr. Fujimori refused to postpone the runoff election after his sole rival withdrew, despite international criticism that a fair vote could not be guaranteed. He won re-election Sunday in a runoff that was boycotted by his opponent, Alejandro Toledo who also lost the April 1995 presidential election when he finished fourth in a field of 14, winning 3.24 percent of the votes.

Elected 'without integrity'

"One comparison that has been made is that in Venezuela the election has been postponed, but with integrity. In Peru, the election has been held without postponement, but without integrity," Mr. Carter said in response to a question from The Washington Times during a news conference Saturday attended by dozens of Venezuelan and international journalists.

Partial results yesterday showed that Mr. Fujimori won with about 50 percent of all votes and 76 percent of valid ballots the only ones considered in final results.

Despite his boycott, Mr. Toledo still appeared on the ballots and drew 16 percent of the vote. But millions of Peruvians evidently joined his protest, with almost half of the 14.5 million registered voters either staying away from the polls or casting spoiled ballots, many scrawled "no to fraud."

Asked by The Washington Times if he agreed with President Clinton's threat of sanctions against Peru, Mr. Carter replied: "I think that there will be an international negative reaction to what seems to be likely in Peru.

"The Organization of American States has withdrawn their observers, the Carter Center has withdrawn our observers, Transparencia [a Latin American watchdog group] has withdrawn its observers because of a lack of confidence in the integrity of the Peruvian election.

"There is no doubt that there will be adverse international consequences for Peru if the election proceeds as planned," Mr. Carter said.

Also responding to the question was former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio, co-leader of the Carter Center delegation.

"I was a member of the team from the Carter Center that participated in the cooperative observation of the electoral process in Peru," Mr. Carazo said in Spanish.

Concerns expressed

"I was there on Wednesday. We expressed our concern very deeply that the electoral process would not guarantee the clear participation of the citizens, freedom of the parties, [or] the free expression of the citizens and the candidates.

"At the same time, we saw evidence in the campaign of the presence of the government utilizing resources that have no place in an electoral process of a democratic nature. We issued a written statement, delivered to the press and to the Peruvian authorities, manifesting very clearly our concern for the future of democracy in Peru."

Asked by The Washington Times if he were optimistic or pessimistic about the long-term prospects for democracy in Latin America in the light of events in Haiti, Peru and Venezuela, Mr. Carter replied: "The Carter Center has monitored, with the help of presidents and prime ministers throughout Latin America, more than 20 elections in recent years. Almost all of them have been very satisfactory. It seems obvious to me that the election in Haiti was seriously flawed. The international observers have withdrawn from Peru because there is no indication of legitimacy there.

A 'wise' postponement

"But I have confidence that in Venezuela the election was postponed for a good reason and that it was a wise decision. And I have confidence, too, that with the help of international observers, but primarily with the concentration of commitment by Venezuelan citizens, that the elections will be successful and that the results will accurately reflect the will of the Venezuelan people."

Venezuelans were to have elected a president, a new 165-member unicameral national assembly and hundreds of state and local officials under a new constitution promulgated by President Hugo Chavez as part of his program to restructure government and make it more accountable to the common people.

Polls showed Mr. Chavez with about a 20-point lead over his principal opponent, Francisco Arias, a former friend, when the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Court postponed the elections because of technical problems with the database necessary for tabulating votes. More than half the country's 8,400 polling stations are equipped with computerized voting machines.

The Congresillo, a 23-member standing committee of the Constituent Assembly that rewrote the constitution, which is serving as Venezuela's legislative body until the new National Assembly is elected, is expected to announce the new election date within a week after hearing testimony from computer experts.

Nebraska firm involved

A U.S. company, Elections Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., has the government contract for the electronic vote tabulation. According to local media reports, a Spanish firm, Indra, is likely to be given responsibility for conducting the new election. Speculation on the new date has varied from three weeks to two months.

At the beginning of the news conference, Mr. Carter read a statement in Spanish in which he offered eight suggestions to ensure a fair election in Venezuela: consultation among various parties and civic organizations, a free flow of information from the electoral authorities, tabulation of votes by a private firm, providing voters a list of all candidates, instructions for the public on voting procedures, abstaining from violence or harassment during the campaign, pre-testing of the vote tabulation system and adequate training of election workers.

The reaction to the election postponement in Venezuela from officials, candidates, the media and people on the street has varied from anger to disappointment to embarrassment.

Both Mr. Chavez, who was elected president only 17 months ago, and Mr. Arias seemed surprisingly sanguine about the delay.

Thursday night, in a televised address, Mr. Chavez called the tribunal's decision "very wise," adding: "We have to applaud the decision, with optimism and in a philosophical manner, and with much confidence in those institutions that are being put to the test. I issue a call for unity, serenity and work."

Arias blames vote panel

At a campaign stop in Maracaibo, where he was governor of Zulia state until he resigned to challenge his former friend, Mr. Arias said he accepted the postponement but called for the immediate replacement of the five members of the National Electoral Council (CNE), all appointed by Mr. Chavez, saying they had demonstrated "mediocrity and incompetence."

Mr. Arias also called on Mr. Chavez to resign as president, as he himself did as governor, and face him as an equal.

In its lead editorial Friday, the respected daily El Nacional supported the postponement but also laid the blame squarely on the CNE.

The delay, the paper said, "opened a window of confidence on the road to achieving greater participation and credibility at the hour of holding the next elections."

But, the editorial added: "Only the directors of the CNE have remained blind and deaf in the face of clear signs of the imprudent and disorganized manner that accompanied the electoral process."

Ironically, despite Mr. Chavez's acceptance of the delay, the strongest reaction came from his supporters, who took to the streets after the announcement and surrounded the CNE headquarters Thursday and Friday to demand the members' dismissal. Apparently, they were angered that a victory they consider inevitable was delayed.

'Genuine shame'

Summing up the feelings of national embarrassment was political columnist Adolfo P. Salgueiro, who wrote in Saturday's El Universal: "As Venezuelans, we feel genuine shame in this case for something committed by someone else because of the spectacle that has happened and is still happening, which is doing everything possible to drag us down to the level of the 'banana republic,' the perception that the most important countries of the world now have of us."

Of the two countries, Venezuela claims a somewhat stronger democratic tradition than Peru.

In Peru, democratically elected civilian governments were routinely overthrown by the military until the last military regime yielded power in 1980. Mr. Fujimori was first elected in 1990. In 1992, faced with hyperinflation and a serious guerrilla insurgency, he staged his now-famous "auto-golpe" (self-coup) in which he disbanded Congress, suspended civil liberties and imposed a new constitution that permits the president to seek re-election to a consecutive term.

He was re-elected in 1995, highly popular for taming the hyperinflation and for vanquishing the Shining Path guerrillas. He argued that he could run for re-election again in 2000 because his 1990 election was under the old constitution and did not count.

More votes than voters

In the first round of voting in April, 3 million more votes were cast than there were registered voters, although Mr. Fujimori officially fell less than 1 percentage point short of an outright majority.

In Venezuela, democratic forces toppled the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. The following year, Romulo Betancourt was elected president and in 1961 promulgated a liberal constitution that was long regarded as a model for developing democracies. During the 1960s and 70s, Venezuela was one of only three Latin American republics with multiparty democracies (the others were Colombia and Costa Rica).

But there was a dark side to Venezuela's democracy. Presidential election was by plurality as in the United States rather than majority, and two major parties, Democratic Action and the Social Christian Party, or COPEI, both controlled by the wealthy elite, alternated in power until 1993.

Venezuela's oil wealth led to rampant corruption and to a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy.

In 1992, Mr. Chavez, then a lieutenant colonel of paratroopers, and other officers, including Mr. Arias, led an abortive half-day coup against the government of President Carlos Andres Perez. Both men went to prison. Later, Mr. Perez was impeached and removed from office for corruption and also spent two years in jail.

Mr. Chavez was elected president in December 1998 with 56 percent of the vote on a platform to scrap the old political order and to give a greater voice to the poor, who comprise 80 percent of the population. His new constitution expands the presidential term from five to six years, permits consecutive terms, gives the president broad new powers and abolishes the Senate.

Mr. Arias broke with his old friend this year, accusing him of corruption and of betraying the ideals of their "Bolivarian revolution."

Other bad examples

Venezuela, Peru and Haiti are only the latest examples of democracy gone awry in Latin America.

In February, the military forced President Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador to step down in the face of mounting public protests over a sour economy. To preserve a semblance of constitutional rule, the military installed Vice President Gustavo Noboa as president.

Last year, in a power struggle in Paraguay, Vice President Luis Argana was assassinated and President Raul Cubas, a protege of ambitious former Gen. Lino Oviedo, was impeached and resigned, accused of complicity in the vice president's murder. He was succeeded by Senate President Luis Gonzalez Macchi, whose beleaguered government survived a revolt two weeks ago by soldiers loyal to Mr. Oviedo.

In Guatemala, President Alfonso Portillo, elected in a December landslide, is widely considered a stand-in for former military strongman Efrain Rios Montt, who is now president of the Congress.

The next major test for Latin American democracy will come in the presidential and congressional elections in Mexico on July 2, where polls suggest the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could lose the presidency after 71 years in power.

Electoral reforms in Mexico have made the stuffed ballot boxes of yesteryear next to impossible, but in several governor's races in 1998 and 1999, the PRI was caught bribing likely opposition voters with bags of groceries in return for their voter ID cards.

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