The Washington Post Should Support Democracy in Venezuela Instead of Spreading Misinformation

Along with the publication of an op-ed by President Chavez, the Washington Post published a factually inaccurate attack on the Venezuelan government, which deserves a response from readers.

By Venezuela Information Office
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CONTACT THE WASHINGTON POST TO SUPPORT DEMOCRACY IN VENEZUELA

Today, 26 May 2004, the Washington Post ran an Op-Ed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calling on the opposition and the Bush administration to commit to respect the results of the signature repair process that will take place this coming weekend The Op-Ed is available online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55957-2004May25.html, and is included at the end of this e-mail.

Opposite the Op-Ed, the Washington Post's editorial page printed a factually inaccurate attack on the Venezuelan government (This editorial is available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55981-2004May25.html). Moreover, the Op-Ed will undoubtedly provoke a flurry of e-mail from right-wing radicals in the U.S. seeking to spread misinformation about Venezuela.

Therefore, the Venezuela Information Office is asking people to write publishable letters to the editor of the Washington Post, in order to provide factual information about recent events in Venezuela and point out the factual inaccuracies contained in the Post's editorial.

GUIDELINES FOR LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:

  • Send to: [email protected].
  • Remember to include your home address and evening and daytime telephone numbers.
  • Letters to the editor should no longer than 200 words long -- the shorter the better (roughly one-third of a page, single-spaced, maximum).
  • Mention in your letter the date and title of the Op-Ed you are responding to.

If you would like help drafting or editing your letter to the editor, please do not hesitate to contact the Venezuela Information Office at [email protected] or 202-737-6637, x.27 (In the United States)

While writing your letter you may want to keep in mind the following:

--While the Hugo Chavez and other Venezuelan government officials have repeatedly pledged to respect the rule of law and obey the upcoming ruling by Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE), the opposition and the Bush administration have yet to offer such a guarantee.

--Opposition leaders, including former President Carlos Andres Perez and former union leader Carlos Ortega, have recently made statements suggesting they plan to once again resort to violence in their drive to unseat Hugo Chavez. This raises the alarming possibility of renewed political violence in Venezuela.

--Venezuela remains a democracy.

  • Hugo Chavez was elected in both 1998 and 2000 in elections declared free and fair by international observers.
  • The opposition controls 48 percent of the seats in Congress and regularly delays or blocks legislation supported by the government.
  • The Supreme Court is independent, and has repeatedly ruled against Hugo Chavez, finding his land reform decrees unconstitutional and releasing from prison military officers charged with participating in the 2002 coup.
  • The Venezuelan media is completely free, and attacks Chavez in the harshest of terms on a daily basis.
  • The opposition regularly holds large, peaceful demonstrations without fear of police harassment.

--The Chavez administration has implemented a wide variety of new social programs benefiting poor Venezuelans. These include clinics in impoverished neighborhoods, new schools, adult literacy classes, infrastructure projects in poor areas, and land reform.

--Independent polls give Chavez an approval rate of 40%-50% nationwide, a figure comparable to US president George W. Bush.

--The opposition blames Chavez for Venezuela's economic woes; in fact, the country fell into economic decline in the 1980s due to mismanagement and corruption. The economy has been no worse under Chávez than under his predecessors. Moreover, the single most economically destructive event in recent Venezuelan history was last year's opposition shutdown of the state oil company, which cost the economy around 14 billions dollars. The economy is growing rapidly right now and the IMF projects an 8.8 percent growth for 2004 (World Economic Outlook Spring 2004).

--The Bush administration supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. U.S. officials continue to make very hostile statements about the Chavez administration, and have said that they will not accept anything other than a recall referendum, regardless of whether the legal requirements for such a vote have been fulfilled. The administration should declare its support for Venezuela's independent electoral authorities and pledge to abide by their decision.

--The editorial response to Chavez's Op-Ed contains multiple factual errors, some of which you may want to point out in your letter. These include:

  • Since 1999, the Venezuelan economy has contracted 14 percent, not 25 percent as the editorial claims. Most of this contraction is due to the three months shutdown of the state oil company in 2002-2003, which was organized by the opposition. The rest comes from instability in which the opposition played a major role, e.g. the 2002 coup d'etat, other strikes, and capital flight (some of which was deliberate and political or influenced by negative media reports).
  • The Post's editorial claims that Hugo Chávez appointed the National Electoral Council (CNE) that is overseeing the recall process. This is false. The CNE was appointed by Venezuela's Supreme Court, which is independent. Both the government and the opposition expressed satisfaction when the electoral authorities were chosen.
  • The Post's editorial says that the signature verification process scheduled for this weekend will be two days long. This is false. It will be three days long.
  • According to the Post's editorial, Hugo Chávez "tried to exclude" international observers from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States last week. This is false. Hugo Chávez had nothing to do with the dispute between electoral authorities and the CNE last week, and never publicly commented on it.
  • The Post's editorial expresses concern about " intimidation by government goon squads" during the signature confirmation period this weekend. In fact, there has been no systematic intimidation of voters or petition signers since Hugo Chávez took office in 1999.

________________________

THE ARTICLES:

Ready for a Recall VoteBy Hugo Chavez
Op-Ed in the Washington Post
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A27
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55957-2004May25.html

CARACAS, Venezuela -- For the first 24 hours of the coup d'etat that briefly overthrew my government on April 11, 2002, I expected to be executed at any moment.

The coup leaders told Venezuela and the world that I hadn't been overthrown but rather had resigned. I expected that my captors would soon shoot me in the head and call it a suicide.

Instead, something extraordinary happened. The truth about the coup got out, and millions of Venezuelans took to the streets. Their protests emboldened the pro-democracy forces in the military to put down the brief dictatorship, led by Venezuelan business leader Pedro Carmona.

The truth saved my life, and with it Venezuela's democracy. This near-death experience changed me. I wish I could say it changed my country.

The political divisions in Venezuela didn't start with my election in 1998. My country has been socially and economically divided throughout its history. Venezuela is one of the largest oil exporting countries in the world -- the fourth-largest supplier to the United States -- and yet the majority of Venezuelans remain mired in poverty.

What has enraged my opponents, most of who are from the upper classes, is not Venezuela's persistent misery and inequality but rather my efforts to dedicate a portion of our oil wealth to improving the lives of the poor. In the past six years we have doubled spending on health care and tripled the education budget. Infant mortality has fallen; life expectancy and literacy have increased.

Having failed to force me from office through the 2002 coup, my opponents shut down the government oil company last year. Now they are trying to collect enough signatures to force a recall referendum on my presidency. Venezuela's constitution -- redrafted and approved by a majority of voters in 1999 -- is the only constitution in the Western Hemisphere that allows for a president to be recalled.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council -- a body as independent as the Federal Election Commission in the United States -- found that more than 375,000 recall petition signatures were faked and that an additional 800,000 had similar handwriting. Having been elected president twice by large majorities in less than six years, I find it more than a little ironic to be accused of behaving undemocratically by many of the same people who were involved in the illegal overthrow of my government.

The National Electoral Council has invited representatives of the Organization of American States and the Carter Center to observe a signature verification process that will be conducted during the last four days of this month. That process will determine whether the opposition has gathered enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election, which would be held this August. To be frank, I hope that my opponents have gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum, because I relish the opportunity to once again win the people's mandate.

But it is not up to me. To underscore my commitment to the rule of law, my supporters and I have publicly and repeatedly pledged to abide by the results of that transparent process, whatever they may be. My political opponents have not made a similar commitment; some have even said they will accept only a ruling in favor of a recall vote.

The Bush administration was alone in the world when it endorsed the overthrow of my government in 2002. It is my hope that this time the Bush administration will respect our republican democracy. We are counting on the international community -- and all Venezuelans -- to make a clear and firm commitment to respect and support the outcome of the signature verification process, no matter the result.

The writer is president of Venezuela.

________________________

Mr. Chavez's Claim
Editorial
The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A26
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A55981-2004May25.html

IN A COLUMN on the opposite page Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez makes the remarkable assertion that he hopes his opponents will succeed in triggering a recall referendum that could cut short his term in office. Remarkable, because polls consistently show that Mr. Chavez would lose the referendum -- less than 40 percent of the population supports his eccentric, quasi-authoritarian populism. Contrary to his claims, he has impoverished as well as polarized his country: Venezuela's per capita income has declined by a quarter in the six years he has been in office, and the poor are worse off than ever.

More to the point, the president's words conflict with his actions. He has spent the past year doing everything in his power to prevent a democratic vote on his tenure -- and has repeatedly vowed that no referendum will take place.

So why would Mr. Chavez claim otherwise? Because the latest propaganda strategy of this would-be "Bolivarian revolutionary" is to portray a complicated petition verification process scheduled for this weekend as an impartial procedure whose outcome should be accepted as a fair resolution of the country's political conflict. In fact, the procedure should not be taking place at all: It is the result of an attempt by Mr. Chavez's appointees to invalidate on bogus technicalities 1.6 million out of 3.4 million signatures the opposition collected to trigger the recall election. By all rights, the election should have occurred months ago, because the opposition gathered 1 million more signatures than required by the constitution and has now collected more than enough signatures for a recall vote on two occasions. Instead, after protracted wrangling, authorities have set aside two days in which hundreds of thousands of would-be voters must return to confirm their signatures. Unless at least 600,000 manage to do so despite numerous procedural obstacles and intimidation by government goon squads, Mr. Chavez and his cronies will declare the recall a failure.

Sadly, the odds are that Mr. Chavez will carry out this coup-by-technicality and thwart a democratic resolution to Venezuela's long-running political crisis. The president points out that some of his opponents previously supported a coup against him (Mr. Chavez doesn't mention that he also once led a military rebellion against a democratic government); but now that the opposition has committed itself to an electoral solution, Mr. Chavez refuses to allow it. About the only hope for a fair outcome is the presence of observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center who could call attention to acts of overt fraud and intimidation; Mr. Chavez tried to exclude them from the verification process but was obliged to give in late last week.

Mr. Chavez swallowed the observers for the same reason he penned his op-ed: He hopes not only to block the referendum but also to head off any subsequent decision by the OAS to invoke its democracy charter, which calls for sanctions against governments that interrupt the rule of law. Even if it decided to act, the OAS probably wouldn't be able to stop Mr. Chavez from destroying what remains of democracy in Venezuela. Already, the president's only real friend in the outside world is Cuba's Fidel Castro. But if he proceeds to deny his country a democratic vote, Mr. Chavez should, at least, be denied the pretense that his actions are legal, or acceptable to the region's democracies.


Editors note: The Venezuela Information Office is an organiation that receives funds from the Government of Venezuela.