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Opinion and Analysis: Politics

Can the Carter Center Observe Venezuela’s Referendum Impartially?

The most internationally recognized observer mission that is monitoring today's recall referendum on the government of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias is the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  In view of the fact that both national and international opinion of Venezuela's political conflict is highly polarized, the Carter Center's evaluation of the referendum process is likely to influence both the level of political stability in the country and the international reaction to its electoral outcome.  Thus, the question of how the Carter Center might respond to the claims and counter-claims of Venezuela's political actors today is a pertinent one. 

In the face of projections that the Chavez government is poised to win yet another popular mandate, the business-led political opposition appears increasingly desperate.  Some sectors of the opposition have announced their intention to release the results of their own exit polls at 2 P.M. today, five hours before the voting centers are scheduled to close.  According to the Venezuelan publication Diario Vea, the Carter Center's lead observer --University of Georgia political science professor Jennifer McCoy-- has indirectly criticized the opposition's decision to release early and unofficial results.  Dr. McCoy reportedly declared that all political actors should wait for the announcement of results by the accredited governmental body, the National Electoral Council.        

Opposition leader Enrique Mendoza's argument in favor of preemptively releasing unofficial results as a means to counteract possible fraud by the government appears illogical on its face.  Why would a government risk jeopardizing the integrity of an electoral process when it holds a commanding lead in the polls, including polls commissioned by the opposition itself?

The more likely motive behind an early announcement of unofficial results would be to lay the basis for accusations of governmental fraud and to discourage late voters in the poorer neighborhoods --where Chavez's support is highest-- from going to the polls.

The Role of International Observers

As Latin America increasingly challenges the neoliberal policies that have long been foisted upon it by U.S.-dominated international financial institutions, one might hope that --for the Carter Center to remain a reputable international observer mission-- it would seek to disassociate itself from U.S. foreign policy objectives.  However, despite Dr. McCoy's principled reaffirmation of the National Electoral Council's authority over the Venezuela's electoral process, it remains to be seen if Dr. McCoy is capable of acting as a disinterested mediator in the ongoing conflict between the opposition --which has bipartisan backing from most of the U.S. political establishment-- and the Chavez government.

Unfortunately, McCoy has not always demonstrated political impartiality in her assessments of Venezuela's political actors, nor does she seem to disassociate herself from U.S. imperial prerogatives in her articles and presentations concerning Venezuela.  

In testimony before a U.S. subcommittee hearing on March 15, 2000, Dr. McCoy clearly placed the Venezuelan government in the category of "new, subtler forms of authoritarianism through the electoral option…"  In her declared quest to "deter new hybrid democracies," McCoy called for continued U.S. government support of the Carter Center, claiming that such funding represented a "neutral and professional means to improve the electoral process."  She also portrayed the Chavez government in the same light as Peruvian ex-President Alberto Fujimori, stating:

"The recent State Department messages in fact warning against President Fujimori's manhandling of the electoral process are welcome, but need to be sustained and spread to other countries, including Venezuela, which is coming up on very crucial elections in May."

What was most remarkable about Dr. McCoy's blatant call for U.S. government meddling in Venezuela's electoral affairs was that, unlike in the Peruvian case, there had never been any significant allegations of electoral fraud in either Chavez's 1998 election or in the plebiscites that his government sponsored in following years.  Dr. McCoy's call for U.S. pressure on the Chavez government appeared to have had little to do with how free and fair the electoral process had actually been under Chavez.  

Dr. McCoy's suggestion that the Carter Center's reliance on U.S. government funding reinforced its neutrality and professionalism was highly questionable.  Clearly there is a conflict of interest implicit in the Carter Center's reliance on U.S. government funding, especially in cases in which almost the entire U.S. political establishment favors one political side over the other (as in the case of Venezuela).                

McCoy to Chavez: Mind your manners

In an article that McCoy co-wrote with fellow Carter Center associate Laura Neuman for the February 2001 issue of Current History, the authors unmistakably portray Chavez as childish and irresponsible for "thumbing his nose at the West."  "He embraces world pariahs and seems to enjoy provoking the United States," write McCoy and Neuman. 

It is worthwhile to examine the authors' use of language.  The labeling of some of Chavez's allies as "pariahs"-a term that is almost exclusively applied to militarily weak regimes that periodically violate international law or internationally-accepted democratic norms-is politically loaded.  The term "pariah" is virtually never applied to large, militarily powerful states that violate international law with impunity, such as in the case of Ronald Reagan's contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s or George W. Bush's "preemptive" war against Iraq. 

After the United States underwent what could be described-up to this point-as the Western Hemisphere's most questionable presidential election in the early 21st Century, few mainstream journalistic or scholarly sources question the United States' adherence to internationally-accepted democratic norms.  Generally speaking, mainstream usage of politically loaded terms such as "pariahs" fulfills a useful propaganda function for U.S. power-holders; mainstream U.S. scholars and journalists tend to parrot the U.S. State Department's definition of "world pariahs" but fail to apply the same standards to their own government.

Equally interesting is McCoy and Neuman's use of the term "provocative."  By what logical standard could one argue that Chavez provokes the United States?  In common parlance, one state's provocation against another generally involves some type of threat to another state's security.  McCoy and Neuman cite Chavez's calls for "a new foreign policy" to create a "counterbalance to United States dominance in the Western Hemisphere" as an apparent provocation against the U.S.  One such example that McCoy and Neuman point to is the Venezuelan government's initial opposition to the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, combined with Chavez's denial of American requests to allow U.S. "drug-surveillance planes" to fly over Venezuelan airspace.  In other words, the Venezuelan government's defense of its national sovereignty in the face of a U.S.-sponsored militarized solution to a neighboring country's civil conflict was "provocative," according to McCoy and Neuman.  But, in this case, it's worthwhile to ask which governments have operated in a truly "provocative" manner.  Is it not "provocative" for U.S. administrations --which have been clearly hostile to the Chavez government-- to increase their military presence in a country that borders Venezuela? 

According to McCoy and Neuman, Chavez has created "tensions" with Colombia by "verbally supporting leftist guerrillas fighting against the Colombian government."  Perhaps if McCoy and Neuman had bothered to listen to the Venezuelan government's actual statements about Colombia's civil conflict-instead of the gross distortions peddled by U.S. intelligence and Venezuela's opposition media-they would find that the Venezuelan government has never made public statements "supporting" Colombia's guerrillas.  Rather, the government adopted a position of neutrality with regard to Colombia's civil conflict and offered to broker negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.                      

Economic "provocations"?

Clearly, neither Venezuela nor its Latin American allies represent a military threat to the United States.  Rather, the threat that U.S. power-holders perceive from the Chavez government seems to be more economic in nature.  This "threat" is not one of economic ruin, such as that which Venezuela faced during the opposition-sponsored and U.S.-supported campaign of economic sabotage from December 2002 to February 2003, but rather one of diminished U.S. economic domination of the hemisphere, something that U.S. administrations find unacceptable.

The Clinton and Bush administrations have pushed for free trade agreements in the hemisphere, which Dr. McCoy also strongly supports.  In testimony before a House subcommittee on March 15, 2000, Dr. McCoy called for the reintroduction of presidential fast track authority for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the extension of NAFTA-style agreements to Central America and the Caribbean.  Perhaps not coincidentally, McCoy's views on trade contrast starkly with that of President Chavez, who argues that FTAA would be tantamount to U.S. economic annexation of Latin America; Chavez advocates a South American economic bloc independent of the U.S. 

Might Dr. McCoy's general support for U.S. economic and geo-political objectives diminish her ability to observe Venezuela's electoral process in a balanced fashion?  One apparent bias demonstrated by Dr. McCoy is her failure to hold opposition leaders accountable for their role in the political and economic destabilization of the country.  For example, she treats the failed coup of April 11, 2002 as almost a natural reaction to Chavez's behavior, as demonstrated by the following passage from the Carter Center's website:

Despite early approval ratings exceeding 80%, his leadership style was confrontational, and the country became extremely divided and polarized, culminating in an attempted coup against him....

Clearly, such a simplistic explanation exempts certain sectors of the opposition from their responsibility for contributing to the political instability that led to the failed coup. 

Neither does Dr. McCoy take the opposition to task for its subsequent attempt to force Chavez out through business-led economic stoppage, which resulted in a massive economic contraction and greater socio-economic deprivation of the population.

There is a steady and disturbing theme in McCoy's narrative of Venezuela.  According to this narrative, the powerful sectors that oppose the Chavez government-both Venezuela's economic elite and the United States government-are essentially beyond reproach.  In McCoy's analysis, these sectors are not generally held accountable for their actions; rather, according to McCoy, these sectors are "provoked" by the Chavez government's insufficient subservience to their interests.  Based on the unspoken assumption that the economic interests of Chavez's powerful adversaries should remain essentially untouchable, the Chavez government becomes the guilty party by definition. 

The basic and disturbing premise of McCoy's argument is that any significant challenge to the economic interests of domestic economic elites and the U.S. government is impermissible within a "democratic" framework, irregardless if the electorate has specifically granted the government a popular mandate to loosen these sectors' stranglehold over the country.              

Where does the Carter Center go from here?

Hopefully Dr. McCoy may eventually come to reassess the basic assumptions upon which she has operated with regard to Venezuela's political conflict.  For a leading representative of the Carter Center to adopt a subtly hostile approach to a democratically-elected government and to serve as an apologist for U.S. bullying in the region may not be befitting of an "impartial" electoral observer.  One hopes that Dr. McCoy will set these biases aside today and perform the constructive role of impartially observing Venezuela's electoral process and respecting the country's legitimate electoral outcome. 

Meanwhile, for the Carter Center to remain a reputable international observer mission in the Americas, it may have to reconsider whether it is appropriate for it to allow itself to be publicly represented by a scholar with openly partisan tendencies.