With less than one month to go until Venezuela’s Presidential election on 14 April, following the sad death of Hugo Chávez, prominent figures in Washington and in the Venezuelan right-wing coalition appear to have begun a campaign to discredit the election process and, with it, the near certain victory of Nicolas Maduro. Polls already show commanding leads for Maduro.
US Assistant Secretary of State, Roberta Jackson, claimed earlier this week that it would be “difficult” to have “open, fair and transparent elections” in Venezuela. This despite all the evidence to the contrary including former US president and Nobel Peace prize winner Jimmy Carter calling Venezuela’s election process “the best in the world” last September.
This smear campaign has been taken up within Venezuela itself, where sections of Venezuela’s right-wing coalition, known as the M.U.D, are working to undermine the legitimacy of the Venezuelan electoral process, perhaps with the intention of not recognising the results if, as the polls suggest, the right-wing opposition once again loses a presidential election.
For example, the major opposition aligned newspaper El Nacional claimed in an editorial this week that Venezuela’s independent National Electoral Council (CNE) is a “permanent obstacle” to free and fair elections in Venezuela. It even implied that voting is no longer a way of achieving change there.
Opposition politicians have also sought to discredit the CNE. Presidential candidate Henrique Capriles launched a high profile attack on its independence in the speech announcing his candidacy.
But perhaps the most explicit expression so far of the right-wing’s campaign strategy to discredit the National Electoral Council, and thus the wider electoral process and result, came in the open letter by Diego Arria published in the Huffington Post on 19 March (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diego-arria/an-open-letter-to-henriqu_b_2886218.html )
Diego Arria himself was a candidate in the opposition’s Presidential primaries held last year that chose Henrique Capriles as the right-wing coalition’s candidate. He is a high profile member of the Venezuelan right-wing opposition and a regular contributor in the international media about Venezuela. He is also a strong supporter of Henrique Capriles candidacy for the forthcoming Presidential election, saying in the Huffington Post article “Count on me for whatever you might think necessary in the coming days”.
In his open letter he repeats most of the false arguments and the distortions being made about Venezuela’s electoral process from sections of the right-wing opposition who seem set on undermining the results. For that reason it is worth looking in depth at Arrias’ false claims and setting the record straight about Venezuela’s constitutional and electoral process.
In his letter to Henrique Capriles, Diego Arria welcomes Capriles’ own recent attack on the CNE saying:
you expressed the plain truth: the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) — formally known as the National Electoral Council, but [which is] in reality the regime’s ministry of elections
This underlines how a coordinated campaign has begun to discredit Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) in order to bring into disrepute the electoral process and the likely victory of Nicolas Maduro.
Yet just one year ago Venezuela’s right-wing opposition coalition, the M.U.D, asked the CNE to oversee its own internal selection to choose its presidential candidate (the one Arria himself stood in). The M.U.D Executive Secretary described the CNE’s role in this selection as “an excellent indication of the democratic institutions in the country”.
It is clearly absurd to suggest that the CNE was “excellent” just over one year ago but is now controlled by “the regime”. In reality what has changed is not the probity of the CNE, but the opposition’s realisation that that they are set to lose another election.
Arria adds to his attack on the CNE by saying:
You’ll be aware that I have long considered the CNE to be no more than a tool of the regime to maintain its power.
Here Arria is bringing into question the probity of the previous elections, despite these being declared free and fair by a range of international organisations. Of course the CNE has overseen numerous elections where the results have been accepted by the Venezuela right-wing coalition. This includes those that elected Henrique Capriles as Governor of Miranda State and others that saw hundreds of opposition supporters elected to the National Assembly and to regional legislatures and local councils. Does he think all the right-wing representatives with elected office are invalid? Of course not. It appears it is only the elections that the opposition loses that are unfair.
Arria then recommends a course of action that would bring into question Venezuela’s electronic voting system, and thus the whole electoral process, by seeking to portray it as open to abuse. He says:
The elimination of the voting machines that capture voters’ fingerprints is thus [a] crucial and non-negotiable demand, and cannot be postponed because they are a further source of voter intimidation.
The claim of voter intimidation is absurd and collapses in the face of the facts. At the previous Presidential election held last October there was a record turnout of over 80%. Moreover the number of voters in the Presidential elections rose from 7m to 15m under Chavez’s time in office. People have been more likely to vote in recent years, not less.
Regarding the system itself, in August 2012, Jennifer McCoy, director at the prestigious Carter Centre, described Venezuela’s electronic voting system as “the most comprehensive that, electronically speaking, I’ve seen in the world”.
The ridiculous allegation that the voting system intimidates voters was even refuted by Henrique Capriles’ campaign team itself during the October’s presidential election. On election day a tweet from the Capriles campaign manager, and prominent opposition politician, Leopold Lopez said that the vote is secret (“El voto es secreto”).
Previously, in September 2012, the Executive Secretary of the right-wing opposition M.U.D coalition also acknowledged that voting in Venezuela is secret and secure.
Arria also advocates withdrawing from the CNE’s inclusive procedure whereby all parties are represented within it, instead advising:
I believe it essential for you to remove the representatives of the M.U.D in the CNE. New representatives must be appointed, including technical staff from the Esdata and Asociación Civil Súmate NGOs, completely independent entities whose participation is indispensable if we’re to have a high turnout at the election.
Of course the very fact that the members of the M.U.D sit within the CNE undermines Arria’s own claims of partiality and that it is a “tool of the regime”. Sabotaging this inclusive process would seemingly be in order to discredit the CNE for political purposes and to step up the smear campaign against it.
Moreover, Arria recommends that Sumate should replace the representatives of the M.U.D within the CNE. Sumate is a campaigning organisation that has received money from the National Endowment for Democracy, an agency funded overwhelmingly by the U.S. State Department. Until 2012 Sumate was led by María Corina Machado, now a Venezuelan MP, but who infamously signed the Carmona Decree during the 2002 coup attempt. This was the document that imposed an unelected President, dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court and also suspending the Attorney General, Comptroller General, governors and mayors elected during Chávez’s administration.
As Head of Sumate, Machado had met Bush in the White House shortly before the coup. Following it she continued to receive funding from Washington and met President George W. Bush again at the Oval Office in May 2005. As a result The New York Times reported in 2005: “Ms. Machado does not hide her close relations with Washington , which has provided financial aid to Sumate, the anti-Chávez, election-monitoring organization she helps run. In May, she infuriated the government when she met with President Bush at the White House, and she further antagonized officials in September by announcing that Sumate had received a fresh infusion of $107,000 from Washington .” (Juan Forero, ’Venezuela ’s best-loved, or maybe most-hated, citizen,’ New York Times, November 19, 2005).
As well as attacking the CNE, another theme of the letter is that the current electoral process for electing Venezuela’s next President is somehow unconstitutional. Firstly he claims that saying the timing is rigged in favour of Nicolas Maduro writing:
The timing of the election, determined by the corrupt inheritors of Hugo Chavez, will yield enormous challenges
Yet the Venezuelan Constitution (Article 233) clearly states: “When the President of the Republic becomes permanently unavailable ….a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days”
Arria also targets Nicolas Maduro himself claiming he should not be acting President:
It’s clear both to the people of Venezuela and the world that Maduro is a usurper in his current position. His designation was spurious and he’s illegally occupying a position that should rightfully be that of the President of the National Assembly.
Again the key article of the constitution is Article 233 which could not be clearer. It states: “When the President of the Republic becomes permanently unavailable to serve during the first four years of this constitutional term …pending election and inauguration of the new President, the Executive Vice-President shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.”
It is therefore totally clear that, as Nicolas Maduro was Venezuela’s vice-President, he is now legitimately the country’s acting president. Arria’s misinterpretation of the Constitution appears designed to bring the whole of Venezuela’s electoral probity into question.
Arria also makes the outrageous claim that:
It’s obvious, therefore, that you [Henrique Capriles] are participating in an election against an opponent that has illegally seized no less a position than that of acting President of the Republic.
The allegation here is that a coup has been waged. This line of argument is also the basis of a recent petition for the army to intervene into Venezuelan politics, which Arria as well as María Corina Machado appear to have signed. Whilst Hugo Chávez was in Cuba receiving treatment for cancer, the petition asked “the Venezuelan …Armed Forces to restore the Constitution” and “that our Armed Forces… take charge”. (See the petition here: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/manifiesto-a-la-sociedad-democr%C3%A1tica-venezolana-y-a-su.html)
Arria’s confusion about what a coup is in Venezuela goes back a decade. In 2010, I personally asked him, at a meeting in the UK parliament, about the military coup in Venezuela in 2002 that ousted Hugo Chávez for several days. Arria replied saying it was “not a coup… Chavez resigned”. Diego Arria admitted that “the military forced him to resign” but again restated “legally it was not a coup”. You can even see his own tweet on the meeting admitting as much here.
Concluding the letter Arria writes that Venezuela is
a Republic that is dying in the hands of the most corrupt, incompetent and abusive regime in the nation’s history. Your candidacy is not only yours but that of all Venezuelans who want to rescue the country. I’m one of them and you can count on me. I’m convinced that Venezuela will either be saved in its entirety or not at all.
Arria cannot be taken seriously when describing the Chavez government as “the most corrupt, incompetent and abusive regime in the nation’s history”. He appears to have deliberately forgotten about the human rights abuses that occurred under the Venezuelan President that he himself was appointed by. Arria was Venezuela’s Representative to the UN from 1991-1993 under President Carlos Andres Perez. In 1993, Perez became the first Venezuelan president to be forced out of the office by the Supreme Court for the embezzlement of 250 million bolívars. Moreover, in 1989, Perez oversaw the Caracazo massacre of 3,000 people protesting against free market reforms, the bloodiest massacre in Venezuelan history.
These crimes reveal the real choice at the presidential election on April 14: a continuation of the social progress unleashed over the past decade by Hugo Chávez or a return to the policies of the past where economic disaster and social exclusion were matched by, at best, an ambiguous attitude to democracy and where political violence was all too common
What appears clear is that Nicolas Maduro will win the Presidency on 14 April. Less clear is whether of not the M.U.D coalition will accept the will of the Venezuelan people.
Lee Brown is a member of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign Executive and a researcher on Latin America and its socialism of the 21st Century