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Opinion and Analysis: International | Participation | Politics

Venezuelan vs US Elections: A Democratic Example

If the mainstream Western media is to be believed, the world witnessed a shining example of true democracy in action in the United States on November 6.

In the Washington Post, Dan Balz described the US presidential race as a “contest of competing visions”.

Apparently, democracy is epitomised by a race between two representatives of the 1% fighting to impose “competing” agendas that ― with differences of nuance ― bear more similarities to each other than to public opinion.

Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Yale University Elizabeth Alexander was quoted stating that for African Americans, “this election is even more powerful than the first one”.

But this conclusion probably does not apply to the 9% of Americans who voted in 2008 but didn't this year. With 50.4% of the popular vote, Barack Obama won an election with a turnout less than 50%.

For example, a comparison between the presidential race in the US, versus that of Venezuela last month is telling. This is all the more so due to the frequent ― and basless ― implications or outright false claims in the US media about a lack of democracy in the Venezuela governed by socialist President Hugo Chavez, who was re-elected on October 7 with more than 55% of the vote.

One notable lesson the US could learn from Venezuela is that democracy works best when it isn't exclusionary. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this year as many as 5 million Americans were put at risk of being excluded from voting, due to new laws. Last year, a study by the centre found that “[m]inorities, poor and young voters will likely be most affected”.

This is on top of the 7 million Americans estimated by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study to have been excluded in 2008.

Meanwhile in Venezuela, the last decade has seen a general trend of rising participation in elections. In the October 7 poll, a record-breaking 81% of the electorate took part.

Chavez, who has won five presidential polls, was elected with more than 8 million votes ― the highest ever. His right-wing opponent won more than 6 million votes ― the largest number for the opposition since Chavez first won in 1998.

It came after three quarters of Venezuelans voted in the 2006 presidential elections and 66% took part in the 2010 Parliamentary elections.

This marks a general move to participation by the previously excluded poor majority in broad aspects of Venezuela's political and social life.

This is a key feature of the Bolivarian revolution the Chavez government is leading, which is combining significant reductions in poverty (halved since 1998) with seeking to create a system of participatory democracy.

Examples include the thousands of grassroots communal councils, that allow local neighbourhoods to govern their areas, and new attempts to set up workers' councils to introduce economic democracy into state enterprises.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council has also made voting much more accessible. Over the past decade, the number of polling stations have almost doubled. This effort has largely focused on providing stations in isolated and low socio-economic areas.

This has been coupled with an ongoing campaign to encourage voter registration. Even long-term undocumented Colombian migrants have been registered.

On top of this, there was unprecedented youth involvement in campaigning for the presidential elections.

So, while minorities, the poor and young people are being actively encouraged to keep away from politics in the US, they are being empowered to participate in democracy in Venezuela.

The results of these efforts culminated in the staggering 80% turnout ― in an election genuinely between two competing goals. Chavez presented a 39-page draft platform for a transition to socialism, while leaked documents from the right-wing opposition indicated plans for privatisation and dismantling the pro-poor social missions.

Yet for the Western media, Chavez is (or has already succeeded in) dismantling democracy.

Earlier this year, former US ambassador to the Organisation of American States Roger Noriega penned an opinion piece for Fox News, laying out out the argument for greater US interference in Venezuelan domestic affairs. Noriega described Chavez as a “dictator” and a “criminal”.

This is nothing unusual. Last month, CNN contributor David Frum likened Chavez to a “villain out of a Batman movie: buffoonish and sinister in equal measure”.

In June, William Dobson informed readers of The Wall Street Journal that Venezuelans are oppressed by a prime example of next generation “smarter dictators”.

Ignoring the conclusions of international observers such as the Carter Center, according to Dobson, the “linchpin of his [Chavez's] authoritarianism has always been, somewhat paradoxically, elections”.

In reality, all of Venezuela's elections under Chavez being declared free and fair by international bodies such as the OAS and the European Union.

Dobson and others like him fail to articulate how exactly the Venezuelan “dictator” uses free and fair elections to subjugate his people.

I took part in a solidarity brigade during the election campaign organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network. We took part in the 3-million-strong final rally for the Chavez campaign on October 4 (the largest rally n Venezuelan history). Those that attended, in pouring rain, didn't exactly look oppressed to me.

The rally was unlike anything in the West. It was a party that engulfed all of downtown Caracas with blasting music, dancing, food and a mosh that consumed at least three city blocks.

Even when the rain started flooding the streets, people were singing, dancing and celebrating in knee deep water. Needless to say, the rally dwarfed anything Obama or Mitt Romney could muster.

For days after the results came in, Caracas remained hostage to an insatiable optimism. The party atmosphere burned on long after thousands crowded outside Miraflores to hear Chavez's acceptance speech.

On the election day itself, when I visited polling stations Venezuelans from all walks of life were proud to show me their ink stained thumbs. They looked like they believed they were taking part in something important.

I guess they didn't understand the underlying message of Western anti-Chavez propaganda, that freedom is slavery