Caracas Connect: July 2013

Caracas Connect: July Report

By: Dr. Dan Hellinger  

Twelve weeks after the April 14 presidential election, the shape of government under President Nicolás Maduro has begun to take form.  Although Latin American governments have recognized his victory in the election to replace the deceased President Hugo Chávez Frías, the United States continues to withhold formal recognition of the result.

The opposition continues to claim fraud but also says it will pursue a constitutional and electoral strategy, with local elections scheduled to take place in December 2013.  The Carter Center has issued a preliminary report on the elections, which we critically evaluate below.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterpart, Elías Jaua, opening the possibility of restoration of relations, but the future of U.S.-Venezuela relations has been complicated by the possibility of asylum in Venezuela for Edward Snowden.

Almost lost in the coverage of Chávez’s death, the subsequent election, and then the post-election protests and violence was an arrest made in a high-profile assassination of an indigenous leader.

Maduro Consolidates

 Although the Maduro government faces difficult problems, especially in regard to the economy, the longer that he continues to serve as president, the more the general public seems to accommodate itself to the reality that it will be years before another election (possibly, a recall effort in 2015) will change the status quo.

Maduro seems to have recognized that his campaign was, to say least, ineffective. Since the election, in both style and substance, he has attempted to step out of the long shadow cast by Chávez.

Stylistically, this means implementing “collective leadership,” as Maduro himself has put it, rather than practicing the highly centralized, charismatic style practiced by Chávez.  Eleazar Díaz Rangel, the editor of the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, Ultimas Noticiasmade this observation and editorialized, “We should recognize the importance of these initiatives being carried out by President Maduro, trust that he will know how to take in opinions that differ from his, and [take confidence] in the fact that this newly-created “collective leadership” will help him with the complex task of governing the nation under such difficult circumstances.”

Maduro has convened the Council of State, an advisory organ created by Chávez in 1999 but never formally assembled. He also met and consulted with the Great Patriotic Pole, the coalition of left parties that supported his election.

Maduro has taken several initiatives to address issues that have proved thorny throughout the Chavista period of government (i.e., since 1999) and have left the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) vulnerable in coming elections.

Corruption:  Several high-profile arrests were made in June and July.  Eduardo Samán, generally associated with the more radical wing of the PSUV, was made head of the Institute for the Defense of People in Access to Goods and Services (Indepabis), the agency responsible for overseeing price controls, after the head of the agency’s chief of control and inspection was arrested and accused of running an extortion ring.  Five other arrests were made in a case involving the embezzlement of $84 million from the China-Venezuela fund (Chinese loans payable in future oil exports).

The key here will be the Venezuelan judiciary system.  The system is notorious for its susceptibility to manipulation.  Partly, this has to do with corruption in the courts, but it also has to do with the complicated division of responsibility in the court system itself.  For example, commercial, civil rights, criminal, and constitutional issues are each handled by different divisions, and lawyers are expert at playing off one court against another.

If Maduro can somehow move the system along to have a fair and swift resolution of these cases, it will put a dent in the culture of impunity that has troubled Venezuelan justice – a problem that long precedes the Chávez era, but, as evidenced by the arrests, was never adequately addressed by Chávez himself.

Inflation and shortages:  Inflation has reached 25 percent cumulatively for the first six months of 2013, well beyond the 20 percent rate for all of 2012.  Higher prices and shortages of basic goods, most notoriously, toilet paper, probably contributed to Capriles’ surge in April’s election.  So too did the government’s decision on February 8 to devalue the currency from 4.3 to 6.2 bolivars against the dollar – though this action has the impact of providing the government with more funds to implement social programs, as each dollar accumulated from oil exports now generates more domestic currency.

The opposition and the business media abroad press the argument that inflation and shortages are due to faulty economic policy, while the government tends to place more blame on deliberate sabotage of the economy through hoarding.

In reality, both arguments hold some validity, but neither one acknowledges the reality that as long as oil prices remain high (over $100 after spiking in reaction to the crisis in Egypt) the government has some room to maneuver.  How long will prices remain so high?  Historically the “experts” have rarely accurately predicted prices beyond a year or two.  It is worth remembering that prices briefly plunged from $130 to $40 in 2009, after the onset of the global financial crisis.

Violent crime:  Maduro has increased use of the military in attempts to control violence in the poor neighborhoods most affected.  Its deployment for crime prevention raises obvious issues and risks; but generally, the Venezuelan military enjoys a positive reputation in Venezuela, much more so than, for example, in Brazil.  The government claims that since the deployment announced on May 13, violent crime has dropped 30 percent.

The key here is whether the military and citizenship groups actually collaborate and implement parts of the program that actively involve the community in addressing impunity and social issues connected to crime.  A key test for the program will be its progress in Petare, a huge slum area in the east of the Caracas metropolitan area, where early reports are encouraging.  Petare is an area that has slipped from PSUV to opposition control and will be a bell-weather in the December local elections.

Violence entered the National Assembly on April 30 when a brawl broke out between pro-government and opposition deputies, after Cabello said he would refuse the latter speaking rights until they recognized Maduro as president. The subsequent development, when at Maduro’s instruction Cabello negotiated a compromise with the opposition, attracted much less international press attention.

U.S.-Venezuela Relations Warmed – Then Iced Over Snowden

 Despite the unwillingness of the U.S. to recognize Maduro’s victory, there were signs in the first weeks after the election that a thaw in relations was in the offing. Maduro moved to appoint Calixto Ortega as the new Chargé d’Affaires for Venezuela’s embassy in Washington (its ambassador was expelled from the U.S. in a diplomatic row in 2010). Ortega is known as a media savvy diplomat who worked well with Maduro when the latter was Minister of Foreign Relations. As a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Ortega was part of the Boston Group, a collaborative undertaking of members of the Assembly and the U.S. Congress.

In early June, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, much to the consternation of conservatives in Washington.  Venezuela subsequently released an American film-maker charged with spying.  Also improving the climate was the government’s decision to end the house arrest of Judge Maria Afiuni, whose detention has been widely criticized by human rights groups.

Then came a problem posed by Edward Joseph Snowden, an “infrastructure analyst” employed by a private contractor for the U.S. National Security Administration.  Snowden revealed details of the NSA mass surveillance of U.S. citizens and citizens and governments of many other countries (including Venezuela). Snowden fled to Hong Kong, then to Russia.

On July 5, the anniversary of Venezuela’s declaration of independence from Spain (in 1811), President Maduro offered asylum to Snowden.  Why would he do so, knowing it would severely complicate relations with the U.S.?

Maduro’s statement gave the official rationale as offering asylum to a “young man” who is “being persecuted by the empire.”

“To be independent, we must feel it,” said Maduro, quoted by Venezuelanalysis.com. “We must exercise our independence and sovereignty. Our discourses are meaningless if they aren’t exercised with force at the national level.

“Let’s ask ourselves: who violated international law?” he continued.  “A young man who decided, in an act of rebellion, to tell the truth of the espionage of the United States against the world? Or the government of the United States, the power of the imperialist elites, who spied on it?”

Capriles criticized Maduro for complicating relations with the U.S.  Asked about the asylum offer, Capriles commented, “How shameful Nicolás. Even Snowden knows that you stole the election and then switched to the other side.”  Presumably, Capriles is referring to Maduro “switching” from seeking better relations with the U.S. to antagonizing Washington over the Snowden affair.

There is some irony in Venezuela’s defense of Snowden’s leak of information detailing U.S. government surveillance.  Private recordings of the conversations of Venezuelan citizens, probably carried out by the country’s own security services, have been leaked frequently.  In the last two months, two instances were featured prominently in the press.  One case involved an alleged conversation between a Cuban colonel and Mario Silva, the rabidly Chavista host of the popular program, La Hojilla (The Razor).  The content suggests deep divisions between Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the Chavista head of the National Assembly.  Silva claimed the recordings were faked, but La Hojilla and Silva were taken off the state channel.  In June, a leaked conversation involving Deputy Maria Corina Machado included reference to another opposition figure telling U.S. State Department officials that a coup was the only way out of the country’s political crisis.

By offering Snowden asylum, Maduro may gain some stature, showing that he will continue the legacy of Chávez as a leader of the left in Latin America.  While he acts more pragmatically on economic issues, he possibly reassures grassroots Chavistas that he remains committed to the Bolivarian project.

And there is little doubt that in the hemisphere, the move is considered favorably, especially after the plane of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, a close ally of Chávez, was forced to divert and land in Austria, and then was delayed for 13 hours as authorities searched for Snowden, whom they thought might have been secreted in the aircraft.  This proved to be wrong.

Imagine that Air Force 1 (or for that matter, a Russian or Chinese plane carrying that country’s head of state) had been forced down and detained.

Opposition Challenges to the April 14 Election Result

The National Electoral Council declared Nicolás Maduro the winner of the April 14 special election to replace deceased President Chávez.  After losing the October election to Hugo Chávez, Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), acknowledged defeat and began to prepare for December’s regional elections.  In April, under essentially the same election rules, he narrowly lost the election but this time he claimed, and continues to claim, that the election was fraudulent.  His complaints can be summarized as follows:

1. Lack of independent international election monitors.

2. The lack of a complete and transparent recount.

3. Abuses of incumbency on the part of Maduro.

4. Intimidation of voters and fraud.

On May 2, Capriles formally challenged the outcome of the election in court.  He filed a 149-page document alleging abuses, including intimidation of voters by government officials.  On May 19, the opposition filed a second formal challenge saying that as many as 2.3 million votes should be annulled.

The Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn the results.  In that case, the opposition will undoubtedly claim that the court is biased and dominated by supporters of the government.  That may be true, but it does not go to the question of whether the alleged irregularities are sufficiently documented to merit a different decision.

Perhaps the most serious complaint registered by Capriles that might affect the actual process of voting and counting of ballots concerns the claim that there was widespread falsification of identification and multiple votes cast.

Voters in Venezuela first have their fingerprints scanned by a machine that checks them against the electoral rolls for each voter’s district.  The reader then unlocks the electronic voting system to allow the individual to vote.  Capriles has demanded that the National Electoral Council match fingerprints against electronic totals and voter receipts – papers given to each voter showing how the machine has recorded his or her vote.  After the election, 54 percent of all machine totals are compared to the paper receipts.

Smartmatic, the company that provides the equipment and conducts training for the touchscreen system used in Venezuela, provides a detailed account of how the Venezuelan system works and also of pre-election tests conducted before the April 14 contest.

Before the elections were held, the CNE agreed to hold two audits of the fingerprint system:  one to test for duplication of fingerprints, and the other to test the accuracy of vote totals reported by the automated system.  (See CNE release from March).  These audits were delayed because the CNE agreed to the opposition demand that the remaining machines be checked against the paper receipts.  The fingerprint audits are still planned but now the opposition technicians are boycotting the audit to check for duplication of fingerprints.

The MUD has also alleged that there was electoral chicanery involving the continued presence of deceased voters on the rolls.  The Carter Center, relying on the report of the Venezuelan Electoral Observation (OVE), has estimated 49,000 dead voters on the rolls.  The MUD claims that there were 300,000 deceased voters still registered.

While the Carter Center and OVE have called upon the CNE to rectify the problem, it may be worth putting the problem in some context.  By comparison, the issue is more serious in Colombia and Chile.

Below are the estimates of the ratio of dead people on the voter rolls to registered voters.

Venezuela: 49,000 / 18,904,101 = 0.26% (based on OVE estimate)
Venezuela: 300,000 / 18,946,101 = 1.58% (based on MUD estimate)
Chile: 550,000 / 14,781,020 = 3.72% (based on registered voters, 2010;
midrange estimate of 500,000 to
600,000 dead people on the rolls)
Colombia: 1,250,000 / 30,000,000 = 4.17% (extrapolated from total vote and
turnout rate, 2010)

Nationally, The Pew Center on the States estimates that more than 1.8 million U.S. citizens on electoral rolls are deceased out of approximately 240,000,000 registered voters, a rate of about 0.7 percent.

Opposition on Two Tracks

The next trial of strength between the MUD and the PSUV will be municipal elections in December.  Capriles has been designated head of the MUD campaign.  As distasteful as the opposition politicians find it, and as much as they want to discredit the CNE, they feel their chances are buoyed by the result of the presidential race in April.  So they are now pursuing what amounts to a two-track strategy: participate in elections, but deny the legitimacy of the outcome if it loses.

This strategy requires some deft communication.  Capriles’s hard line immediately after the election, with the threat of escalating violence, may have hurt the opposition among those voters who had swung away from the Chavista candidate.  Within the MUD are sectors that want to take an even harder line.  And to be successful electorally, the MUD needs to convince its supporters that it is worthwhile to vote.

On May 31, Capriles told Reuters:  “I think this government, in the current conditions of illegitimacy added to a deep economic crisis it’s showing no intention of addressing, is going to cave in.”  He added immediately, “What does that mean? Well, all the mechanisms are in the constitution: referendum, new election, resignation. But…don’t ask me for ways out that are not in the constitution. Our fight is a peaceful one.”

To force a recall election, similar to the one in August 2004 when Chávez prevailed, the opposition must collect the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate (registered voters), and in the recall election it must win more votes than the number case cast for Maduro in the April election.  Given the high turnout (79 percent) in April, the opposition faces a high bar.  For this reason, Capriles has suggested that the opposition focus on convincing sectors of the PSUV who might be unhappy with Maduro’s leadership to back a recall.

Reports and Reactions by Election Monitors

Venezuela has maintained that the model of international electoral observation promoted by the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States is intrusive on Latin American sovereignty and biased.  It notes that the U.S. has never itself invited international electoral observation by any of these teams.  Venezuelan rules permit international organizations to monitor in the role of electoral accompaniment.

The CNE permits Venezuelan parties and groups to invite international groups for accompaniment, but they are not officially certified.  The CNE itself certified the UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) to provide electoral accompaniment.  The CNE also certified six domestic Venezuelan NGOs to participate as observers (see below).  International organizations can be invited by the CNE to provide “accompaniment.”

Other organizations invited by the CNE to provide electoral “accompaniment” included the Carter Center, the United Nations, the government of Spain, and the European Union.  The OAS agreed to send an accompaniment team consisting of Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, and Alfonso Quiñónes, the organization’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs. (As of this writing, the OAS official website had posted no report on its accompaniment mission.)

The most critical international assessment came from Instituto de Altos Estudios Europeos (Higher Institute for European Studies, or IAEE), a Spanish NGO which heretofore has been active mainly in Colombia.  The IAEE report largely ratified opposition complaints and declared that the election should be voided.  It was widely covered by the private media in Latin America and Spain.  Venezuela’s Embassy in Madrid responded to the IAEE in a statement that pointed out that the IAEE mission was in Venezuela at the invitation (as legally permitted) of the MUD.

The embassy also stated that the CNE accredited a Spanish governmental accompaniment team that had representatives of all major Spanish political parties.  That team expressed concerns on some issues that also appear in the Carter Center preliminary report (see below).  However, in contrast to the Carter Center preliminary report, the Spanish government team expressly cited the outcome as credible.

Two Venezuelan observer teams accredited by the CNE issued reports on the election.  One, the Observatorio Venezolano Electoral (OVE), is headed by Luis Lander and Ignacio Ávalos.  Lander is a well- respected sociologist; Ávalos was formerly chair of the CNE.  The OVE allows that its observers did not “systematically register” many irregularities in voting but the organization makes reference to other organizations that have charged such irregularities.  It recommended that fingerprint records be checked against voter records and also that competent authorities “clarify” questions arising out of reports based on claims and observations, even if the OVE itself or formal witnesses at voting stations did not observe them.

The OVE observation was organized around systematic sampling of 391 voting centers throughout the country.  Its observers reported that in 96.7 percent of locations, there were no problems with the electronic voting system, and in only a few cases were the problems not swiftly resolved.  The military is responsible, as has long been the case, for the logistics of the elections, but soldiers are not to be present in the voting area. The OVE found that they were present in 5.6 percent of cases. Each candidate had witnesses on-site in 83 percent of voting places (not necessarily the same places).

OVE observers in 4.3 percent centers answered “no” to the question of whether voters were free of pressures, finding pro-Maduro campaigners in 4.3 percent of cases and pro-Capriles voters in 2.3 percent of cases; they reported seeing pro-Maduro propaganda in 7.3 percent of centers, pro-Capriles in 2.0 percent.  Observers at 0.5 percent of cases said they had witnessed some intimidation of voters, witnesses, or poll workers.

OVE reports no use of government resources to mobilize votes in 79 percent of centers observed.  It did observe use of government resources in 9.5 percent of centers, the majority in favor the PSUV, but in some cases in favor of the MUD as well.

A less systematic observation was carried out by the Asamblea Educación. On April 16 it issued a statement saying that based on 565 observations it had decided not to endorse the elections, citing alleged intimidation.  It has issued no report supporting that decision since that time.

On April 18, after a three hour meeting, six UNASUR heads of state, including Sebastian Piñera, the president of Chile, a conservative, called on all parties in Venezuela to respect the outcome as announced by the CNE. It added that “every complaint or extra-ordinary process solicited by a participant of the electoral process must be directed at and resolved within the current legal framework and democratic will of the parties involved.”

The OVE report, like the Carter Center, makes recommendations but does not address the charges of fraud.  UNASUR and the EU are among those that, while endorsing the call for a full audit, have called for recognition of Maduro as the winner.

The Opposition Complaints and Shifting Position

timeline of the positions taken by the opposition in regard to the two recent elections, constructed by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, suggests that Capriles and the MUD have significantly shifted their attitudes toward the CNE and voter processes.

In October, although Capriles complained about abuse of incumbency on the part of then-President Chávez, the defeated candidate affirmed his own confidence in the outcome and the voting system.  Some parts of the opposition claimed fraud, but Capriles accepted the results.

On April 8, six days before election day, Capriles began preparations to react differently, refusing to sign a pre-election accord among parties promising to respect the results, as all did before the October election.  As soon as the polls closed on April 14, Capriles claimed he had won.

Venezuela did away with manual counting of votes to overcome fraudulent practices that reached serious proportions in the 1990s.  Replacing this was a touch-screen computerized system with a paper trail that allows an audit of voting machines, which is done automatically by the CNE in over half of the polling places.  This time, in response to MUD demands after the election, the CNE agreed to do a 100 percent audit, which would be witnessed by the contending parties.  Nonetheless, the Capriles campaign announced on April 25 that it would boycott the audit.  On May 9, Capriles claimed that he won the election by 400,000 votes.

On May 15, the CNE announced that it would do an audit of the fingerprint registration system.  This audit will check for repeat voting at election centers.  The procedure was accepted by all the parties before the election.  The Carter Center report correctly notes that there is not a way to check the registry for voters registering and voting at multiple polling places, and it recommends that this capacity be developed for future elections.

On June 3, the MUD executive director urged supporters to vote in local elections scheduled for December, assuring them that no one can tamper with their vote.  On June 14, the CNE completed its audit of all voting machines and paper receipts and found a 99.98 percent match.

Capriles’ initial statement on the election on the evening of April 14 was confrontational:  “There have been 3,200 [irregular] incidents on the electoral process. In a very firm way, I want to tell something to the government candidate: you are the one who has been defeated today.”  He went on to demand a recount and “a very detailed review” in front of the country and the world.

The CNE’s announcement that Maduro had won a narrow victory was followed by violence that cost nine lives, and was also directed at government and PSUV property.  Despite the charged atmosphere, the opposition planned to stage a major protest march on Wednesday, April 17.  President Maduro announced he would not permit the march in such a polarized atmosphere.  Capriles subsequently called it off.

The Carter Center Report

The most influential NGO involved in monitoring elections globally is the Atlanta-based Carter Center.  The Carter Center’s report on Venezuela’s 2004 recall election is widely reviled in opposition sectors because it largely invalidated charges of fraud.  In 2012, former President Jimmy Carter stated, “Of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

On its web page, the Center summarizes its work in Venezuela as follows:

“The Carter Center observed elections in Venezuela in 1998 and 2000 and joined with the OAS and U.N. Development Program to help mediate a 2002 political crisis between the government and opposition groups that temporarily removed President Hugo Chavez from office. The mediation led to a recall referendum, which the Center also was invited to observe. The Center has continued for more than a decade to study the nation’s electoral processes, to train media in nonpartisan reporting practices, and to foster dialogue between Venezuela and its Andean neighbors.”

The Preliminary Report, Study Mission of the Carter Center acknowledges that the high turnout and pre-election polls show that the Venezuelan population has confidence in the integrity of the electronic voting system used now for nearly a decade.  It goes on to say, on the other hand, that there is “not agreement about the quality of voting conditions and whether every registered voter is able to vote one time, and only one time.”

The bulk of the Carter Center criticism is aimed at ventajismo – what we might call the “abuse of incumbency.”  The main points of criticism are the involvement of elected officials in the campaign in violation of Venezuelan law, especially statements by the head of the armed forces and by officials pressuring public employees; the use of cadenas (commandeering of broadcast time on all stations) by Maduro before the start of the official campaign and immediately after the election; the use of government facilities and property in campaigning by the PSUV; illegal presence near or inside some polling stations; and some incidents of intimidation of voters.

The report makes the following recommendations to the CNE for future elections:

  1. Clarify the regulations governing the participation of public officials and civil servants in campaign activities.
  2. Ensure greater campaign equity. Provide free and equitable access to public and private media for campaign messages; regulate and enforce equally campaign messages in the “pre-election period” [the weeks and months before the official start of an electoral campaign]; limit or prohibit the use of cadenas and inauguration of public works in a specified period prior to the elections; limit the right of public officials to campaign for members of their own party or coalition.
  3. Better enforce the regulation of the use of state resources for political purposes.
  4. Clarify the role of paper receipts.
  5. Provide more information about the performance of the biometric identification system and include audits of the duplication of fingerprints and incidences of the SAI [System of Integrated Authentication] in the published chronogram of audits.
  6. Improve the quality of the voting experience on Election Day.
  7. Audit and update the Electoral Registry.
  8. Legal framework [to clarify legal and constitutional ambiguities, especially those arising from the constitutional changes to incumbency rules in 2009].
  9. Appointment of Electoral Authorities.  It is urgent to reach multi-party agreements on new members to fill expiring terms of the CNE.

The Center report summary concludes:

“No system of voting in and of itself can guarantee the confidence of the population in the process and outcomes. Whether manual or automated, confidence in elections is built by clear rules, transparency in all aspects of the process, impartial institutions to administer elections and adjudicate disputes, and monitoring by citizens and political parties. Elections are by their nature divisive, but in a democracy possessing all the characteristics just indicated, the loser accepts based on the knowledge that s/he will have another chance to compete in regularly scheduled elections, the winner governs in the name of all citizens and counting on a constructive opposition, and the society moves forward with the knowledge that elections are but a means to make periodic decisions on programs and leadership for a specified period of time.  When one or more of these characteristics are weakened or missing, however, elections can become contentious affairs and can disrupt national harmony and governability.”

The Center planned to issue its final report after completion of the CNE audits and the rulings by Venezuela’s Supreme Court on the appeals by Capriles.

Commentary on the Carter Center Report 

The Carter Center has provided important mediation service and observation in Venezuela, dating back to forging the agreement that led to a recall referendum that was won by Chávez and put a temporary end to the acute political crisis in the country between 2002 and 2004.

Most of the Center’s recommendations to the CNE cannot be considered controversial, and a number of them concern plans that the Council will likely carry out.

Representing my own position, I find troublesome the Preliminary Report’s unwillingness to criticize Capriles’ immediate claim of victory (in violation of Venezuelan law) after the polls closed.  This action, along with his shifting position before and after the election strongly suggest he never planned to accept a Maduro victory regardless of what the CNE might say.

The issue of ventajismo obscures the main question:  Did Maduro “steal” the election?  Relying mostly on the OVE report, the Center’s preliminary report highlights some problems with election day procedures and incidents of intimidation or campaigning at the polls, but the OVE numbers, reviewed above, do not indicate that the abuses were nearly as widespread as Capriles maintains, and are not unique to the government’s campaign.

For example, in its sections on the media, the Carter Center report clearly shows both sides violating the rules and Capriles actually getting more TV coverage per capita, butthe language used in the recommendations leads one to think only the Chavista side violated rules, the Capriles side had no media access, and Maduro ran rampant with cadenas – the latter contention in particular is not supported by the data.  Few people are likely to read all 87 pages.  Most will only read the summary and the recommendations, and in the United States they will read the report in the context of a media environment favorable to the “young charismatic” candidate of the opposition.

Ventajismo is an issue that needs to be addressed – no less so than because many grassroots supporters in the Bolivarian movement have complained about abuses by government officials in primaries and internal party affairs.  But the key issue before the Venezuelan courts (in the opposition’s suits filed in May) is the matter of fraud and whether the incidents of ventajismo and intimidation are sufficient to invalidate hundreds of thousands of votes or to justify a new election.

The Carter Center’s report fails to address the issue of whether Capriles’ strong words on election night and the MUD claim of victory before the CNE had issued any bulletin on results contributed to violence.  The preliminary report implies that Capriles deserves credit for aborting violence by calling off the antigovernment protest march (p. 17: “Capriles’s remarks seemed to pull Venezuela back from the brink”).  The report’s criticism of Capriles is limited to referring (p. 19) to his “imprecise communication” in having contributed to “fuzzy discussion about the post-election audit.”  (On confusion about the difference between a recount and an audit, see Caracas Connect, April 23.)

The Center’s concluding words on the need for confidence in elections emphasizes both respect for the right of the winning side to govern and respect for the losing side to contest for power in future elections.

If the Venezuelan court rules, as expected, that the Capriles complaint is without sufficient merit, one hopes that the Carter Center in its final report will recommend that Capriles and the opposition recognize the legitimacy of Maduro and the government.

It is Capriles’s right and obligation to protest and to legally contest the election outcome, if he really believes that a fraud occurred.  But the opposition’s past record and what appears to be a “two-track strategy” raises serious questions about its true motives.

Arrest Made in Assassination of Indigenous Leader

Obscured by the death of Chávez and subsequent political battles over presidential succession, the assassination of a key indigenous leader raised serious questions in the minds of Venezuelans, including many Chavista supporters, about the government’s inability or unwillingness to protect both peasants and indigenous people from violence by those whose power and interests they are challenging.

On March 3, indigenous leader Yukpa chief Sabino Romero was gunned down by a masked assassin on a motorcycle.  Romero had led the struggle for recognition of his community’s tribal rights to land.  After years of protest, the government expropriated 25 ranches and distributed titles in the Sierra de Perijá (Zulia) to the Yukpa, but in November of 2012 Romero was in Caracas again protesting the failure of the Chávez government to compensate ranchers and finalize the transfer.  Several indigenous people, including Romero’s father, had been killed in disputes between the Yukpa and ranchers.

On July 3, a suspect, Angel Romero Bracho, was arrested.  Government authorities said that he was unlikely to have acted alone, and they were investigating six possible collaborators.

Suspicion fell on the ranchers as authors of the crime, but the failure of the government to provide adequate security was certainly a factor.  Sabino and his people had successfully resisted a government plan to open coal mining operations in the area, leading some social movement activists to question how committed authorities were to his protection.

On the agenda in Venezuela for the next few months:

The coming months are likely to see continued conflict.  The Supreme Court will issue a ruling on Capriles’ request to annul the election.  If, as expected, it finds against the opposition, the MUD will have to decide whether to continue denying Maduro’s legitimacy, even as it prepares for the December local elections.  The Bolivarian Constitution requires consultation with civil society in choosing CNE directors. Implementing this participatory procedure depends upon the good will and faith of both the Maduro government and the opposition – neither of which seems ready to consult and compromise at present.  Meanwhile, the fate of Venezuela-U.S. relations for the next few years may be tied to the question of whether or not Snowden lands in Venezuela.

(c) 2013 Center for Democracy in the Americas. All rights reserved.