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March 10, 2006

The Man Who Controls Venezuela

Hugo Chavez He stood in front of the television cameras and cracked a whip in a fury. "This is what I am going to do to my opponents!" he declared as he drew back the whip and threw it forward once again. The air snapped loudly making the message of intimidation clear.

No, this was not a professional wrestler trying to entice teenage boys into watching his next championship match. It was Hugo Chavez in his campaign for the presidency of Venezuela. The month was November 1998 and in this televised appearance he was describing what he planned on doing to his main opposition, the Acción Democrática party.

Who would have thought at the time that some seven years later this man would be one of the most recognizable faces in world politics? One month his face is seen worldwide after televangelist Pat Robertson suggested he should be assassinated and the next Chavez is on CNN predicting the United States will soon be dropping bombs on Caracas in an effort to take over Venezuela's oil fields.

More recently, he received world attention for his "Anti"-Summit of the Americas in Mar de Plata, Argentina, an attempt to derail the real summit opening the following day. Now, this past December, headlines read his coalition of political parties have taken 100% of the seats in the Venezuelan Assembly after opposition parties withdrew from the election.

Love him or hate him no one can deny that Hugo Chavez has made sure the world knows his name.

And not only do people across the world know his name, many admire him to such a degree that Chavez has reached celebrity status. For example, in a recent BBC interview with Chavez favorable questions and comments poured in from abroad.

A reader from Irvine, California stated "I think you are a bright light amongst an otherwise dim group of world leaders - a Bobby Kennedy for Latin America" while a man from Saint John, Canada chimed in "I admire your work and your perseverance against all the critics. Stand strong and best wishes bringing prosperity to Venezuela!"

One published comment in particular seemed to sum up the feeling of many who took the time to write in: "Many people around the globe appreciate you dearly."

But what has he done to earn this goodwill? And more importantly, does he deserve it?

The most obvious reason for Chavez's international support comes from his oil funded social programs for the poor, combined with his anti-Bush rhetoric. But it is more complex than this simple recipe.

While Chavez's Barrio Adento program raises eyebrows due to the uniqueness of bringing thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil, the goal of bringing healthcare to the needy is not confined to his government. It is actually one of the most common themes pushed by politicians of all stripes. In Chile's presidential election in late 2005 one of the promises made by Joaquin Lavín, the furthest right-of-center candidate, was the construction of numerous new medical facilities to help the underprivileged. Likewise, Bush himself campaigned on building or improving 1,200 healthcare sites to serve millions in rural areas. His administration, like Chavez, has spent hundreds of millions accomplishing this goal.

Nor is the world in any shortage of politicians who condemn President Bush. While Chavez definitely pushes these limits, as he did when he labeled Bush "a killer, a genocidal murderer and a madman," criticizing the President of the United States is one of the easiest ways for politicians worldwide to score points with their constituents.

What does set Chavez apart from others is what many find to be his charismatic, albeit edgy, personality. This was reflected in an article by Robin Lustig, the BBC reporter who spoke with Chavez in the interview mentioned above. The title of the piece says it all: "Hugo Chavez: Charming Provocateur".


This personality in turn leads to a distinctive style of governance. For, not only does Chavez set up government programs for the poor, but if you are lucky enough to be one of the calls he takes on his weekly Sunday television show, Aló Presidente, he will personally change your life. Callers who describe serious medical problems are told that they will be flown to Cuba for treatment, often in the President's own plane. Others who are unemployed but have an interest in maybe budgeting or math, are told that the president of their government bank, Banco del Pueblo Soberano, is always in need of people and will immediately be calling to offer them a job. Chavez is Santa Claus and Jerry Springer all rolled into one and many people in the country love him for it.

It is also hard not to crack a smile, whether in disbelief or in sincere humor, when he tells stories about experiences with his daughter's pets, when he refers to Bush as "Mr. Danger", or when he recounts how he struck out Fidel Castro in a friendly baseball game between the two countries a few years back (Fidel still disputes the umpires call and the subject continues to be a matter of debate between the two).

Yet, despite all these humorous antics, one quickly realizes that this comic relief can reach the point of absurdity. Such was the case in 2002 when Chavez decided to terminate employees of the state oil company who were helping to organize a strike. No, they were not sent letters by the government letting them know they would be dismissed. Instead they were given notice live on national television by Chavez who read each of their names off a list. After reading some of their names he would sarcastically thank them for their service, while for others he blew a soccer whistle and screamed "Offsides!!!" to let them know they had been fired.

It is times like these you ask yourself, how is this man running a country?

This same bizarre attitude is seen extending across all segments of the Venezuelan government.

For one, Hugo Chavez is a man of change. Within a year of winning the presidency, not only did Venezuela have a new constitution but it also had a new name, Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, something Chavez insisted upon. In 2001, he passed 49 radical new laws by executive decree, many of which drastically changed the country's business environment and even violated his new constitution. On top of this, his possible presidential term has been extended to 2013 with talks of extending this date to 2030. Prior to his arrival, presidents could only sit for one 5-year term without the possibility a second term for 10 years. This would have forced Chavez to relinquish his office in February 2004.

With regards to the centralization of power, in addition to the above, on his show he has publicly taunted governors of opposition parties who he has denied or delayed funds to run their provinces (unlike the U.S. all tax revenue flows through the Federal government before making its way back to the states). In places like Zulia, Carabobo, and Miranda when the money was eventually sent a good part of it did not go to the provincial government, but instead to generals allied with Chavez who thereafter acted like elected governors. Under such circumstances people quickly learned that it literally didn't pay to vote for an opposition candidate.

In another incident this past fall, the world saw firsthand his respect for property rights. While Chavez continued putting forth the idea that land should be expropriated from large owners, he suddenly declared that next week's Aló Presidente would be filmed from one of these large ranches he wanted to confiscate. Military soldiers quickly invaded a portion of one large estate, cleared an area for a makeshift set, and the following Sunday Chavez indeed broadcast his show live from the ranch... all without permission of the owner.

Which is just one example of Chavez's respect for the law. During his term he has also illegally recorded private phone conversations with a wire tap then broadcast them to the country on national television, passed "organic" laws ( i.e. the most important) by a simple majority instead of the necessary 2/3 mandated in the constitution, and even dismissed 20,000 state oil company workers without their promised severance packages, company savings, or rights to their pensions.

But who needs to respect the law when you have the courts stacked in your favor? This past year Chavez increased the number of justices on the Supreme Court of Venezuela from 20 to 32. Five additional justices were added to fill vacancies bringing the total number of new appointees to 17.

These new justices, appointed by a Chavez-controlled Assembly, made clear that they are anything but unbiased interpreters of the law during the opening ceremonies for the Venezuelan courts. At the event on January 26th of this year, the justices began chanting "Oohhh! Aahhh! Chavez no se va!" (i.e . "Oohhh! Aahhh! Chavez will not leave!"… a popular chant at pro-Chavez rallies).

Other Chavez acts are guaranteed to turn your stomach. Case in point, in early 2004 Chavez informed the world that Condoleezza Rice kept bringing him up because she was having dreams of him out of sexually frustration. He added that while it would be too much of a sacrifice for him to personally help her out in that regards, he listed several friends who could offer their services.

All the while the government continues to crack down on those who are critical of these acts. In 2005 a new law was passed that makes it a crime to "insult" the President of the Republic. This crime, which is not even definable, will land you in prison for 6 to 30 months. The punishment is increased by a third if the act was done publicly.

In this same vein, the influential Venezuelan NGO Súmate states on it's website that there are "presently more than two hundred political prisoners and people who are persecuted for political reasons in Venezuela." A quick search on the internet will turn up several articles from Venezuelan periodicals such as El Universal and El National that put names behind these figures.

With these few examples in mind (there are many more), it is worth recounting some of the tumultuous events that led to the last election that left Chavez in complete control of the political system.


In April 2002, after a continued series of strikes and protests aimed at the Chavez government, a giant opposition march on April 11th turned into a blood bath as government forces opened fire on demonstrators headed towards Miraflores Palace. While Chavez was having television stations taken off the air for covering the events, several key military officials denounced the massacre and relinquished their positions. By the end of the day Chavez himself had stepped down with a guarantee for his safety but in an odd turn of events an unorganized opposition overplayed its hand and two days later Chavez was back in office.

While strikes and protests continued, the opposition's focus now shifted to a recall referendum to remove Chavez from power. In the fall of 2002 enough signatures were gathered for a consultative, or non-binding, referendum to be held on February 2nd, 2003. But shortly before the referendum was to take place, the Supreme Court stopped the vote, not on grounds that the referendum itself was unconstitutional, but that the vote could not be held until a new National Electoral Council (CNE) was named by what was now a Chavez-controlled assembly.

So in February, on the same day the first referendum was to take place, another signature drive was held and millions of people signed a constitutional recall referendum to remove Chavez from power. Yet, this process was again deemed illegitimate by the newly appointed CNE later in the year.

This forced the opposition to hold yet another signature drive in late November 2003, this time in compliance with rules made by the council. During the drive 3.4 million signatures were gathered, more than enough to put the referendum on the ballot. However, in the months that followed the CNE again questioned the legitimacy of the process, saying that the validity of many of the signatures was in doubt. After intense negotiation, it was decided that Venezuelans would be called on once again, this time to validate their signatures. They did in late May 2004 but reaffirming their signatures took on a whole new meaning.

For in the months between the signature drive and when signers were to reaffirm their signatures, Luis Tascon, a deputy in Chavez's party, published a database on the internet. This database, that would come to be known as the Tascon List and was accessible to anyone, documented who signed the petition to remove Chavez from power. It was subsequently used to fire referendum supporters who worked for the government, cancel government contracts, turn down requests to replace lost identification, and to deny government jobs for those seeking such employment. The government then made it clear that those who had originally signed the referendum could withdraw their signatures at the second signature drive. Many did to avoid further harassment.

Amazingly, enough signatures were still gathered, and while the now Chavez controlled CNE still tried to block the referendum, there were so many signatures that ultimately it could not refuse. It followed that on August 15th, 2004 Venezuelans headed to the polls to determine Chavez's fate.

Chavez was initially trailing heavily in the polls, but he began to gain ground as the election neared after heavy spending on social programs, pro-Chavez campaigning on the government's dime, and sometimes not-too-subtle reminders that those who voted against him might regret it (many feared that voting machines could be used to track their votes).

The day of the election exit polls showed Chavez losing by 60% to 40% margin, but surprisingly he emerged victorious by a virtual mirror image of the predicted results. These totals were not accepted without controversy.

The OAS and the Carter Center were criticized for quickly giving the election their blessing without even a partial random audit of the paper ballots in front of opposition representatives as was agreed on prior to the elections. The opposition also complained that the voter's registrar had grown by leaps and bounds in the months before the vote, possibly by adding individuals near the Colombian border who were not citizens. This would have been facilitated through a new government identification program called Mission Identidad.

Even today the controversy still rages. Just this past November a group of academics disclosed the findings of a new study they had just completed with regards to the August 2004 vote. According to an interview in El Universal, they found that given the number of voting machines, to reach the total of 8.5 million votes cast polls would need to have been open for an additional six hours. Their study concluded that between 1.5 and 2 million votes had been inserted into voting machines, turning a 5 percentage point victory for the opposition into a 20 point defeat.

Although the finding of this study was released in the week that preceded the last election it was not the reason for the boycott. Instead, it was concerns over voting privacy and election gerrymandering that made it clear that voters were going to stay home the day of the election. This in turn led opposition candidates to withdraw.

First off, a system of "morochas" or "twins" was in place whereby voter would cast ballots for both their party of choice and a candidate. Yet, with the addition of a new pro-Chavez political party, Chavez's coalition would receive an even higher percentage of the seats in the assembly than the proportion of votes they had received on election day. Even the Chavez-friendly head of the CNE, Jorge Rodríguez, stated that he had concerns over this issue but it was too difficult for him to solve this problem. This violation of proportional representation was clearly a cause for concern amongst the opposition.

Secondly, days before the election, at a voting simulation for international observers, the opposition demonstrated that Smartmatic voting machines to be used in the election could be used to keep track of individual votes. As observers voted in a mock election a man named Leopoldo Gonzalez read aloud for whom each person had voted. Embarrassed, Smartmatic technicians had him stop the demonstration and in the days that would follow the government would offer further concessions in an attempt to have the election as planned despite this demonstration.

But with unresolved issues like the presence of "morochas", the inequitable directorship of CNE, a voter registrar never checked in spite of constitutional mandates, and the Tascon List still fresh in people's minds, the concessions were not enough. Listening to their constituents the opposition candidates decided to boycott the election. According to the government 75% of registered voters did not cast ballots, while according to some this figure is in excess of 83%. Everyone is still waiting for the official numbers, which, despite the sophisticated voting machines, still have not been released.

The figures are stunning considering that the government extended voting hours in certain areas as they made last ditch efforts to get people to the polls (the CNE had previously made clear that hours would only be extended if there were lines to vote as the polls closed, which there were none).

Additionally, in an election day television appearance a deputy in Chavez's party said that public employees who did not vote should be fired (a fact hard to conceal from your employer as voters dipped their fingers in ink that was impossible to wash off for several days).

Nonetheless, at the end of the day Chavez's coalition of political parties held every seat in the assembly.

And what has been the international reaction to this turn of events?

As I read the headlines back home I was saddened to see that many focused on the accusation that the U.S. was behind the opposition's boycott. Not mentioned in these articles were the facts behind the concerns over voting privacy or that these accusations were made in a tirade by the vice-President who also said the opposition parties could "go to hell."

Nor did I see much press on the reaction by Chavez to the unfavorable EU and OAS reports. While in August 2004 Chavez repeatedly fell back on the OAS analysis to counter claims of fraud, this time around he stated that the EU and OAS were "acting in cohorts against people's interests and democracy" because they validated many of the opposition's complaints.

Then, in a package I recently received from home, my father threw in a copy of an article from the San Francisco Chronicle that heaped praise on Chavez for selling discounted fuel to low-income families in Massachusetts. Of course, relative poverty in Massachusetts cannot be compared with poverty in Venezuela, a country where according to the most recent data collected by the UN millions live on less than $1 a day.

Still, the quotes from Americans didn't reflect this sentiment, nor did they seem concerned with the political turmoil that exists in Venezuela. Instead they paid tribute to Chavez much like the comments from the BBC interview. Almost ironically, Joseph Kennedy was featured in the photograph accompanying the piece as he helped to haul a heating hose to one of the first recipients of the program.

In the same vein as my reporting from Cuba, I must stress to those that are sympathetic to Chavez that it is a logical error to assume the good is found in your enemy's enemy. As can be seen, the Chavez government is one that is no friend of decency in governance or political freedom, two standards we all cherish.

Simply put, too many people are allowing themselves to ignore violations of these ideals. Deep down some no doubt feel it is good to have a counterweight to Bush while others think that Chavez's "socialism for the 21st century" might finally get it right. And with that they give him the benefit of the doubt.

But such complacency comes at a cost. In free countries across oceans it may be safe to play with Chavez without getting burned, but it also condemns millions of Venezuelans to a life in the flames.

Posted by Peter Mork at March 10, 2006 6:09 PM

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