John Kerry Says Venezuela’s Chavez is Becoming a Dictator

As he continues to trail Bush in the polls, John Kerry declared that “democracy is a risk” in Venezuela, in an obvious attempt to garner South Florida’s anti-Castro South Hispanic vote

Thursday, May 6, 2004 ( For the second time in the first quarter of the campaign trail, John Kerry, the democratic candidate for president of the United States, has declared that “democracy is a risk” in Venezuela. Kerry also said that Venezuela’s democratically–elected President Chavez is becoming a dictator.

The statements were made on Wednesday night during Kerry’s first interview with the U.S. Spanish-language network, Univision, in an obvious attempt to garner the Hispanic vote. The 38 million strong Hispanic population in the United States is considered to be an important voting block in the upcoming 2004 presidential elections.

The Univision interview, conducted by Jorge Ramos, was clearly targeted at Southern Florida Spanish-speaking voters, known to be opposed to Cuban President Fidel Castro and with strong ties with the Republican Party. Yet in recent months, South Florida’s Hispanic population seems to have placed its votes up for grabs; the candidate with the firmest stance on Cuba and Venezuela is likely to acquire its support – democrat or republican aside.

For the last two years, the anti-Castro Cuban American community in South Florida has attempted to link anti-Chavez sentiments to its four-decade old battle against Cuba’s government. Cooperation between Venezuela and Cuba during the Chavez administration has prompted the Cuban conservative community in Southern Florida to join forces with Venezuelan Chavez opponents, as the Venezuelan President is seen as helping Castro stay in power.

Congressional representatives from Florida, such as Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have gone so far as to hold hearings in Congress on recent alleged human rights abuses committed by the police and the military during the Chavez administration, in an attempt to classify the Venezuelan government as a “castro-esque dictatorship.” The anti-Castro community, along with its Congressional representatives and supporters in the U.S. administration, including the outgoing Otto Reich, have appropriated the opposition movement to President Chavez in an effort to tie it together with their ongoing unsuccessful campaign against the Castro administration.

Twice democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez has critiziced President Bush’s aggressive foreign policy. Kerry’s would not be any different, at least when dealing with Latin America.
Photo: Venpres

In March 2004, John Kerry released a statement on Venezuela that emitted harsh anti-Chavez sentiments. For many, it evidenced an overall lack of understanding of the political strife that nation has been living during the past two years. Kerry’s call for more pressure on the Chavez administration to permit a recall referendum on the president’s mandate was criticized by progressives for its apparent misinterpretation of Venezuelan law. Despite widespread outcry from the progressive community in the United States, Kerry did not retract or rephrase his declarations on Venezuela. Many democrats and progressives dismissed the statement as a mere proclamation authored by the conservative Rand Beers, hired by the Kerry camp to bring in the sought-after South Florida voting block.

Yet, Wednesday evening’s declarations on the Univision network, seem to confirm Kerry’s animosity towards the democratically elected Venezuelan government and his unwillingness to get better informed about the laws of that nation.

Upon being asked by reporter Jorge Ramos if he considered Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez a dictator, Kerry responded,

“Chavez is fast on the road of becoming exactly that. He is breaking the rules of democracy. I think it is very important for him to allow that referendum to take place and for this administration and others to put more visibility on what is happening so we can hold him accountable to international standards of behavior. Democracy is at risk.”

The recall referendum in Venezuela is a constitutional right under Article 72 of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. In order to hold a referendum on the president’s mandate, 2.4 million registered voters or 20% of the population must petition for the recall to take place. To this end, in late November 2003, signatures were collected according to the regulations set forth by the National Electoral Council. The Council has certified approximately 1.9 million signatures to date and later this month, approximately 600,000 signatures will be placed for verification by their alleged authors in a “repair” process long contested by the opposition. These signatures originate from petitions that were filled out with similar handwriting and placed under observation for fraud. If the necessary 2.4 million signatures are validated, the recall referendum date will be set within 90 days.

The National Electoral Council is an independent government body whose five-member directorate was agreed upon by both opposition and pro-Chavez National Assembly members back in August 2003. The Chavez administration does not participate in any part of the referendum process.

“Straddling both sides of issues”

Kerry’s interview on the Univision network comes at a time when his poll numbers are dropping. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday, President Bush leads John Kerry 46 percent to 42 percent among voters for the US presidential election. This in spite of the increasingly difficult situation in Iraq, amplified by the recent release of pictures of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners.

When asked to name the two things they liked least about Kerry, 49 percent of those interviewd named his “straddling both sides of issues.”

US Ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, commenting on Kerry’s statements today said they reflected Bush’s own policy. “I represent George W. Bush, and I can’t speak for John Kerry, but there is consensus among these two politicians when it comes to Venezuela. There aren’t many differences among these two major parties,” said Shapiro at a press conference in Caracas.

Meanwhile, independent candidate Ralph Nader has 5% of support among voters, even though he is not actively campaigning. Nader could play a major role in deciding the current election, as he did in 2000. A Zogby poll released in April, shows that Nader would siphon votes from Kerry but not from Bush, reducing Kerry’s support among Hispanics by two percentage points.

Many progressives don’t seem to perceive Kerry as a real alternative to Bush. “Kerry appears to be out-Bushing Bush when it comes to Cuba and Venezuela,” said freelance writer Bill Berkowitz in an article published by US progressive website

The Univision network is part of the Cisneros Group of Companies, owned by Gustavo Cisneros, a Venezuelan billionaire of Cuban descent and outspoken Chavez opponent who has been implicated in the April 2002 coup d’etat against Chavez.

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