I just returned from Venezuela where I was one of 170 international election observers from around the world, including India, Brazil, Great Britain, Argentina, South Korea and France. Among the observers were two former presidents (of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic), judges, lawyers and high-ranking officials of national electoral councils.
What we found was a transparent, reliable, well-run and thoroughly audited electoral system. Two unique and endearing features of the Venezuelan process is that both campaigning and alcohol sales are forbidden in the final two days before an election.
What has been barely mentioned by the U.S. mainstream press is that over 54 percent of the voting machines in the April 14 election have been audited to ensure that the electronic votes match the back-up paper receipts. This was done in the presence of witnesses from both the governing and opposition parties right in the local polling places. I witnessed such an audit, and the Venezuelan electoral commission has since agreed to audit 100 percent of the ballots.
An election observer and former president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, called the vote “secure” and easily verifiable. All told, the experience of this year’s observers aligns with that of former President Jimmy Carter, who observed last year’s elections and called Venezuela’s electoral system “the best in the world.”
What were the results? With an impressive 79 percent of registered voters going to the polls, Nicolas Maduro, heir to Hugo Chavez, won by more than 260,000 votes — 1.8 percent — over opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
While this was certainly a close race, 260,000 votes is a comfortable margin. Recall that John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960 by only 0.1 percent. George W. Bush became president in 2000 after losing the popular vote to Al Gore but winning by only a few hundred votes in Florida — where a recount was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In none of these U.S. elections did any other nation insist upon a recount or hesitate in recognizing the declared winner. Had a country like Venezuela done so, we would have found such a position absurd.
The United States’ refusal to recognize the April 14 Venezuelan election is no less absurd, especially given the electoral commission’s agreement to audit all of the votes. Ironically, President Barack Obama won re-election last year by a mere 0.7 percent of votes cast.
The U.S. position is all the more ridiculous considering that it helped engineer and quickly recognized a coup government in Paraguay last year and approved the results of a 2009 election in Honduras even though the previous president, ousted by the military, was not allowed to compete. Of course, this pales in comparison to U.S. involvement in violent coups against democratically elected leaders in Latin America, such as those against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 2004.
The U.S. refusal to recognize the April 14 Venezuelan election is having devastating consequences because it is emboldening some in the opposition to use violence to destabilize the country. Al Gore in 2000 stepped aside for George W. Bush in the interest of his country, but Henrique Capriles and his backers would rather foster chaos and crisis in an attempt to topple the Maduro government. The same conservative forces represented by Mr. Capriles kidnapped and briefly overthrew Mr. Chavez in 2002 — with U.S. support.
The opposition has been burning down health clinics, attacking Cuban doctors and destroying ruling-party buildings, reasonably believing itself to have the backing of the U.S. government and military. So far, at least nine Venezuelans are dead and dozens have been injured.
The United States could halt this violence quickly by recognizing the results of the April 14 elections. The reason it does not do so is obvious — it does not like the government chosen by the Venezuelan people and would be glad to see it collapse in the face of violence.
We should all understand that the United States is undermining, not supporting, democracy and stability in Venezuela.
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer with extensive experience in South America who teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
First Published April 30, 2013 12:00 am