Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski is leading President Hugo Chávez less than three weeks before the presidential election, according to the latest opinion survey. But the opposition is concerned that the presence of armed militias near polling stations is an indicator of plans to steal the election.
Capriles has 48.1 percent against 46.2 percent for Chávez , according to Consultores 21, a Caracas-based polling firm.
“If we were to make a linear projection for the election, it would be that Capriles will maintain an advantage of 2.5 percent over Chávez ,” the group’s Luis Christiansen told a recent conference hosted by the Council of the Americas (COA) in New York.
Commentators suggest that Chávez ’s refusal to debate Capriles is a telling sign of his uncertainty amid indications that his previously successful efforts to play the populist card may not be so effective this time:
“Promises, promises, is all we hear,” says Julietta Rodriguez, 37, in another temporary refugee shelter on the coast where she and four children have waited two years for new homes.
“I always voted for Chávez , I loved him, now I don’t know. Capriles looks competent and young. Maybe he deserves a chance.”
Chávez has “become more authoritarian over time,” Reuters reports:
At one recent rally, when he unilaterally named a candidate for the Carabobo state governorship, some in the crowd called for a different local official to be nominated instead.
“I have said Ameliach!” Chávez answered them angrily, making clear who his preferred candidate was – end of discussion.
“What you have in Venezuela is gross and systematic violation of human rights,” said opposition leader Maria Corina Machado.
In an attempt to escape further scrutiny of its poor human rights record, the regime is withdrawing from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Chávez ‘s socialism is, opponents say, a bitter joke, an empty concept that masks cronyism, mismanagement, grandstanding, autocratic leadership and the squandering of the biggest oil-revenue boom in the OPEC member’s history.
Just look at the ballooning wealth of Chávez ‘s closest allies, Capriles is wont to say. “If they’re socialists, then I’m a Marxist-Leninist!” the state governor quipped last week.
Dr. Carlos Ponce, general coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, warned that the withdrawal could be part of a trend. He wrote that: “Venezuela is progressively withdrawing from any international agreement in economic, human rights, or trade policy that implies fulfilling obligations or monitoring mechanisms or the possibility of any person or entity to be protected from government abuse.” Some observers also expressed concern about the timing of the announcement. Director of the watchdog group Espacio Público Carlos Correa told EFE: “I believe it’s not the opportune or adequate time because, in light of the electoral campaign, the message it’s sending is a message that reduces the rights of Venezuelans.”
These disturbing trends are further evidence of Chávez’s strategy “to retain power while appearing to preserve a semblance of electoral legitimacy,” writes the Heritage Foundation’s Ray Walser:
The ideology that Chávez espouses combines the themes of nationalism and Marxist–Leninist anti-imperialism with anti-Zionism and a post–Cold War vision of a multipolar world in which U.S. power and influence are drastically diminished. Because of his anti-Americanism, Chávez believes he must prepare Venezuela for an impending clash with the U.S., which he claims will take the form of covert actions—fomenting internal unrest and destabilization, a coup, even his assassination—sponsored either by the opposition or by the United States.
The Chávez Strategy, Step 1: Unequal Electoral Competition
The Chávez strategy begins with what The Economist calls “tilting the pitch” and rigging the system to win an indefinite stay in power.
Spending His Way to Victory. Central to the Chávez regime has been turning the nation’s oil earnings into social programs (misiones bolivarianas) that deliver free health care, free education, free or low-cost housing, and subsidized food for millions. …..Chávez has used patronage power to award jobs, contracts, and subsidies to partisans and pals.
Monopolizing and Manipulating the Media. The Chávez regime increasingly restricts the independence and freedom of the press. The onslaught against a free press began in May 2007 when the government refused to renew the license for the nation’s oldest commercial network, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). It continued when Chávez targeted Globovision, a prominent news channel. ….Venezuela’s Law of Social Responsibility for media forbids transmitting news that might “cause anxiety in the public or disturb public order” or that “incites or promotes hatred or intolerance.” The equally vague Organic Law of Telecommunications grants the government the power to suspend or revoke broadcasting concessions when “convenient for the interests of the nation, or if public order and security demands it.”
The Chávez Strategy, Step 2: Leave Voters in the Dark
A second thrust of the Chávez strategy is to mask or obscure inconvenient facts, unsettling trends, and policy failures that might negatively influence voter opinions. On October 7, voters will lack comprehensive information regarding the candidate’s health, his economic mismanagement, problems in the oil sector, the country’s crime epidemic and corruption, the government’s increasing militarism, and the regime’s hidden foreign policy agenda.
Former Foreign Policy editor [and National Endowment for Democracy board member] Moises Naim warns that interaction between government officials and criminal organizations has created a dangerous “mafia state.”
The Chávez Strategy, Step 3: Demonize, Isolate, and Instill Fear
Criminalizing Support for Democracy.Venezuela’s 2010 Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Determination attacks nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have international support, stating that such bodies that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” are barred from receiving foreign funding. Foreigners invited to Venezuela by NGOs can be summarily expelled. NGOs failing to comply with the law face stiff fines and other punitive measures. Such a backlash against the promotion of democracy is common with neo-authoritarian regimes from Russia to Egypt and Venezuela.
The Chávez Strategy, Step 4: Prevail on Election Day
On October 7, as much as 80 percent of the roughly 18 million registered voters will visit 14,035 polling centers and 38,500 polling stations, many in districts that are deeply loyal to Chávez. Also on October 7, the regime will deploy its final set of measures.
Winning Over the Electoral Tribunal. The five-member Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) is dominated by pro-Chávez members who have managed to salvage a partial reputation for neutrality and objectivity. The CNE is credited for overseeing the referendum that Chávez lost in December 2007 and not altering the strong showing of the opposition in the 2010 legislative elections. Despite that, however, its impartiality is in question. Critics maintain that the CNE bends far too easily to the will of the president. In a close contest, it is far from certain that the CNE would be able to resist pressure applied by Chávez and his supporters.
Limiting Electoral Observation. Following the 2006 presidential election, Venezuela ended serious electoral observation missions by the OAS, the European Union, and other groups, such as the Carter Center in the U.S. The CNE now allows only electoral “companions” invited primarily from friendly groups such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which is currently led by a Venezuelan chavista.
What Needs to Be Done
To defend democracy in Venezuela while advancing U.S. interests and values, the Obama Administration should:
Support Venezuelan civil society. Despite restrictive Venezuelan laws, the U.S. should increase its democracy assistance to civil society and NGOs by working to train domestic electoral observers, urge voter participation, coordinate collection and tabulation of voting results, and encouraging all polling stations to report electoral infractions to the CNE and the MUD.
Conduct systematic public diplomacy. The Administration should prepare a public diplomacy brief examining the erosion of democracy and the unfair advantages accumulated by Chávez. It should report the fact that electoral conditions are far from fair.
Reaffirm principles of democracy. President Obama and Secretary Clinton should speak out on democratic principles and the commitment to full democracy, not merely holding elections, in the Americas, highlighting what is at stake in Venezuela, urging citizen participation and transparency, and holding Chávez accountable for the preservation of peace.
Dispatch U.S. observers. The U.S. embassy in Caracas should send its staff in a systematic fashion to monitor the elections on October 7, and Washington should assign additional State Department officers to temporary duty in Caracas.
Call for bipartisan monitoring. The Administration should call on the State Department to assemble a high-level working group of analysts, congressional staff, academics, and electoral experts to monitor and evaluate the election and its outcome.
Heed early warning signs of violence and instability. The Administration should closely monitor the situation in Venezuela on October 7 for evidence of incitement to violence by political parties, harassment of or harm to opposition figures, reprisals against voters, distribution of arms to militias, and increases in politically-related violence.
Establish a coalition for Venezuelan democracy. The U.S. should employ active diplomacy to establish a coalition of democratic leaders—one that could certainly include Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Spain, the United Kingdom, and others—to act in unison in case of fraud or violence.
Continue support for democracy. Although the defeat of Capriles would clearly demoralize many Venezuelans, the U.S. must nonetheless continue to offer sustained support for civil society, a free press, free labor unions, and other voices for liberty and preserve the resilience of a unified opposition for future elections.
Appoint a high-level Cuba/Venezuela Mission Director. The position of Cuba/Venezuela Mission Director in the Office of the National Intelligence Director should be filled with a senior-level official with responsibility for all ALBA countries.
Develop an aggressive, proactive plan of action. October 8 will mark the starting point for one of two courses: either one of sustained cooperation and support for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela or one of tough, proactive responses to Chávez’s promised radicalization. Potential policy tools for leverage include visa denials, further Treasury designations of corrupt Venezuelan officials, financial and trade sanctions, interdiction of Venezuelan vessels and aircraft used to transport drugs, the designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism, and an embargo on the purchase of Venezuelan oil. All of these tools should be considered in the event of electoral fraud, significant electoral violence, or hostile acts contrary to U.S. security interests.
The above extract is taken from a longer analysis by Ray Walser, PhD, Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.