- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008



The results of last Sunday´s elections in Venezuela are clear, or are they? Hugo Chavez and his leftist coalition won the Nov. 23 state and municipal elections, encouraging the Venezuelan autocrat, originally elected in 1999, to again try to become president for life.

Mr. Chavez was so pleased he held a press conference for the international press, blessing the gathering with a two-hour monologue. The president’s tactic is to convince one and all he is again popular and therefore entitled to press for an enabling court ruling or constitutional change to run for the presidency with no term limits. He currently is barred constitutionally from running for re-election in 2012.

The results do not justify his real or feigned confidence. An objective review of both the results and the conditions of the elections reveals Mr. Chavez greatly exaggerates his victory.

Opposition candidates won five of 22 state governorships outright. Most important, their victories included Miranda, Carabobo and Zulia, respectively the heart, industrial and petroleum centers, and the nation’s three most populous states. Together with victories in the two largest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo, the opposition now controls 70 percent of Venezuela’s gross domestic product.

Four of the five municipalities comprising metro Caracas elected opposition mayors, including Sucre, teeming with 720,000 mostly impoverished inhabitants, supposedly the Chavistas’ core support. Eduardo Ramirez, a key backer of winning Sucre mayoral candidate, 37-year-old Carlos Ortiz, put Mr. Chavez’s plight clearly: “We are exploding the myth that only Chavez can be the champion of the poor.”

Overall, the opposition received 5 million votes, 47.5 percent of the total, a remarkable achievement despite massive pro-Chavez fraud and overpowering spending. Ambassador Norman Pino, a retired career diplomat and experienced political observer, considers the results a clear indicator of Mr. Chavez’s plummeting popularity. “He toured the country endlessly, turning the elections into a personal plebiscite. Nevertheless, the pro-democracy vote increased by more than 50 percent. With all his monetary and other advantages, the fact pro-Chavez candidates received only slightly more than 50 percent support is devastating.”

Former Chavez ally, ex-communist guerrilla and muckraking newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff estimates Mr. Chavez’s current core support at 20 percent, and declining. As he told me in a recent interview, “Hugo Chavez’s weakest point is the man himself. … The problem of Chavez is Chavez.”

Massive unconstitutional government campaign expenditures, two months of nonstop canvassing by Mr. Chavez and major fraud in virtually all sectors (especially poor urban and remote rural areas) marked the weeks preceding the Nov. 23 elections.

Fair government and opposition forces were able to monitor the urban areas won by the opposition, but not the rural areas, where Mr. Chavez and his allies gained their victories. On election day, the opposition needed 120,000 poll watchers, but were able to field some 80,000, most of them focused on urban polling locations.

The extent and cost of mostly illegal activities in support of pro-Chavez candidates is literally incalculable and included:

— Transportation to polling places and cash gratuities to motivate voters.

— Purposely jumbled registration records causing long delays, to confuse and discourage dissidents from waiting hours while their status was verified.

— Electronic spying to learn for whom voters cast their ballots.

— Manipulation - up or down, as required - of voting tallies.

— Multiple registration of Chavista activists to enable multiple votes.

Watchdog organization ESDATA uncovered hundreds of instances where the same name and address, often with different identification numbers, were used multiple times, frequently at the same voting table. In one case, the same name and address were used more than 70 times.

Pre-election, government funds were illegally expended in advertising, paid attendance rallies and free pro-Chavez souvenirs. The president repeatedly threatened to withhold central government funding from states and municipalities electing opposition candidates, and to order tanks into the streets if the results went the wrong way.

Just prior to Nov. 23, Mr. Chavez proudly announced Raul Castro would visit Venezuela just three days after the elections, the first stop on his initial foreign trip as president of Cuba. The government later revealed Russian President Dimitry Medvedev would visit Caracas the next day, Nov. 27, purportedly to coordinate arrival of the Russian fleet for joint exercises with Venezuela’s navy.

In short, every pressure imaginable has been used to wheedle, cajole and frighten voters to support the PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and its coalition allies.

It is not clear, however, the extent to which any of these actions helped the opposition. Threats of cutting off spending, putting tanks in the streets and tracking individual voting patterns do not seem to have cowed opposition voters.

Mr. Chavez’s pre-election announcement of the Cuban and Russian leaders’ visits is especially puzzling. Besides palpable popular dislike of Cuban politics, government ministries and nationalized telecommunication centers harbor thousands of Cubans, blamed for corruption and inefficiency. Russia is resented as a recipient of billions of dollars from arms sales to Venezuela, a large part of a spending spree in which a huge percentage of the country’s oil revenue has been re-exported rather than invested in improving steadily deteriorating domestic conditions.

Whatever the net effect of such actions, the ability to pay some voters and confuse and discourage others - as well as to manipulate the results - remained.

The elections indicated the forces opposing Mr. Chavez were becoming less egocentric and more cooperative. Most dramatic was metro Caracas where the victorious opposition candidate, old-line politician Antonio Ledezma, defeated incumbent Aristobulo Isturiz, a stalwart Chavez ally.

The young mayor of Chacao municipality, Leopoldo Lopez, had been the original opposition candidate - enjoying a 65-35 lead over Isturiz - but was disqualified in August on bogus corruption charges which the government refused to prosecute before the election.

Mr. Ledezma replaced Mr. Lopez and won. In a powerful show of unity by formerly fractious opposition forces, Mr. Ledezma and Mr. Lopez stood together on election night, as the mayor-elect announced that the popular Mr. Lopez would be his adviser.

Much more collaboration is needed among pre-Chavez politicians and young reformists coming to the fore, if Hugo Chavez is to leave the country’s political scene anytime soon. And if the opposition develops a common vision for Venezuela and works to activate the largely apathetic middle and upper classes, Mr. Chavez’s slide can undoubtedly be accelerated.

A united opposition, coupled with Mr. Chavez’s manic, error-prone penchant, will continue his decline. As the country sinks daily into a more inflationary and less productive, more corrupt and less secure existence, the former colonel’s departure and the nation’s return to principled democracy can come none too soon.

John R. Thomson recently spent two weeks in Caracas studying political, economic and social conditions in the Venezuelan capital.



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