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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Watch Chavez Run

By Aaron Mannes

While the international press has already conceded Venezuela’s presidential election to radical incumbent Hugo Chavez, the actual election is on Sunday, December 3, and despite the strong economy, fueled by high oil prices, and Chavez’s personal charisma, his re-election is not guaranteed. Because of Chavez’s efforts to dismantle Venezuela’s democracy and export his radicalism, the international community must carefully monitor the election and its aftermath to guarantee an open, accountable process.

The election ultimately will turn on the question: Are you better off after eight years of Chavez? Despite Chavez’s ostensible commitment to the Venezuelan poor, for many Venezuelans the answer is No. Chavez and his cronies enact symbolic programs at the expense of tangible results. While Caracas Mayor and Chavez ally Juan Barreto has called for seizing golf courses in wealthy neighborhoods for public housing projects, the government has, under eight years of Chavez governance, constructed 100,000 fewer homes for the impoverished than the previous administration built in five years of low oil prices.

Despite well-publicized networks of health clinics (staffed by Cuban doctors) and a literacy campaign that distributed free copies of Don Quixote and Les Miserables, the latest U.N. Development Program report finds Venezuela’s economic progress decidedly mixed. The report notes that while extreme poverty has been reduced, Venezuela has, on the whole, slipped on the Human Poverty Index because of its failure to improve access to basic needs (such as clean water and sanitation) — unimpressive results, considering the vast influx of oil wealth into Venezuela.

Chavez’s economic program is also not helping ordinary Venezuelans. Inflation is on the rise and price controls have led to shortages of Venezuelan staples like coffee and beef. Worse may be on the way: In a recent broadcast of his talk show Alo Presidente, Chavez called for replacing the economy with a national barter system.

Overshadowing these problems is Venezuela’s frightening crime rate. Last March the murder of three Venezuelan-Canadian brothers and their driver sparked massive protests across Caracas highlighting public rage at the frequency of such crimes. Since Chavez took office, Venezuela’s homicide rate has doubled to become the highest in the world, with 10,000 people murdered annually out of an overall population smaller than that of Canada.

The deterioration of public safety across the country has been due, in great part, to Chavez’s consolidation of power by politicizing police departments and the judiciary. Other government agencies have similarly been politicized. Venezuelans were shocked by a recently leaked video of the head of the powerful state oil company telling employees, “Here we are going to support President Chavez, who is the maximum leader of the revolution … and whomever does not feel right about it must surrender his job to a Bolivarian.” Venezuela’s public infrastructure is increasingly being used to glorify Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution.

Chavez’s power grabs have extended beyond the civil service. He has packed the supreme court with his allies, and passed restrictive media laws under which journalists can be jailed for criticizing public authorities and institutions. The election is for a six-year term, but Chavez has announced his aspiration to remain in office until at least 2021. There is a real danger that a Chavez victory will be the death knell of Venezuelan democracy.

If Chavez’s ambitions were confined to Venezuela, this would be tragedy enough. But Chavez has attempted to export his radicalism, providing cash, subsidized oil, and rhetoric for his ideological allies across Latin America — most notably in Cuba (where gifts of Venezuelan oil keep Castro’s regime afloat), Bolivia, Nicaragua, and most recently Ecuador. He has also forged a close alliance with Iran and has been one of the most vocal supporters of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Chavez is believed to be providing a safe haven for Latin America’s deadliest terrorist organization, the FARC. In January 2005 bounty hunters captured FARC’s foreign minister in Caracas; he had a Venezuelan ID and was registered to vote in Venezuela’s elections.

Meanwhile the challenger, provincial governor Manuel Rosales is running a vigorous campaign and attracting enormous crowds across the country (although the Chavez campaign, using public funds, is outspending him 12 to 1). The Venezuelan election season has seen a plethora of polls, many showing Chavez 20 percent and more ahead of Rosales. However, many of these polls appear to have been conducted in behalf of the government — i.e., Chavez — with the intent of depressing voter turnout. Some independent polls put Rosales just a few points behind Chavez and note that over the course of the campaign he has steadily narrowed the gap. Also, even at the end of the campaign there is a large “undecided” contingent, which could turn out for Rosales.

Regardless of who wins, it is essential that the election be a transparent process. There have been persistent claims of election fraud in Venezuela. While the European Union and NGOs are providing election monitors, more important will be the political will from the international community to ensure that irregularities are thoroughly investigated. The United States has an important role to play as well — but it must be done carefully, as heavy-handed American actions will work to Chavez’s advantage. If the international community watches these elections vigilantly, it will send an important message in support of freedom and the democratic process in Venezuela and help ensure that this election is not Venezuela’s last.

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