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Survivor: Venezuelan Style

By Alexandra Beech,

Today is yet another historic day for Venezuela, which has seen a lot of history come and go during the last few years. For the next three days, thousands of Venezuelans will sludge through the mud and rain to participate in yet another petition drive, the “reparos”, characterized as “a sham process” by the Wall Street Journal. Many Venezuelans who signed an earlier petition drive for a recall referendum will now have to prove that they really, really, really meant to sign to invoke a presidential referendum the first time around. The latest ruse is yet another obstacle set up by the government to ensure that Hugo Chavez prolongs his stay in office.

Like a Survivor episode, Chavez keeps making the “challenges” harder. Starved for democracy, the opposition keeps playing. However, in all its efforts including the latest, the opposition couldn’t hope to win, “because Mr. Chavez, who controls the Supreme Court, the electoral council, the military and congress, has stood in the way,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “In doing so, he has displayed no small amount of fanciful logic and creative spin. Even the government cannot dispute the fact that in order to demand the "verification" of 1.1 million of over 3 million signatures, the Chavez-hand-picked electoral council had to retroactively change the rules.”

More concerning still, like a hurricane that gains strength over time, Chavez has become bolder. It wasn’t enough that he controlled the electoral authorities. The Miami Herald reports today that he now controls the elections technology. “Venezuela's investment in Bizta Corp., the ballot software firm, gives the government 28 percent ownership of the company it will use to help deliver voting results in future elections, including the possible recall referendum against President Hugo Chávez...” This deal replaced “the country's 6-year-old machines -- for a $91 million system to be built by two fledgling companies that have never been used in an election before.”

Senator Bill Nelson writes: “The reparos may be Venezuela's last chance. If the result of this process is seen as illegitimate by independent observers and the international community, it will be a sure sign that Chávez has succeeded in dismantling the institutions of democracy.” What the so-called international community fails to recognize is that Chavez doesn’t care about what the outside thinks. He knows that the world, including the US, needs his oil. As long as he maintains control over the country’s oil revenues, he remains unscathed. Since he controls every single government entity who could challenge the use of those revenues, he has no worries. Government-employed economists who have challenged his spending or economic policies, such as Harvard-trained Francisco Rodriguez, have suddenly found themselves out of a job. Anyone who now challenges him is considered a traitor and fair game for arrest. The milder punishments include the ransacking of homes.

In fact, one important member of the “international community” has been asked to step down as an observer. The Associated Press reports that “Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Fernando Jaramillo must step down as head of the OAS observer mission for allegedly siding with the opposition, which is seeking a recall vote on President Hugo Chávez.” In a country that holds no secrets, it is a known fact that Jaramillo has felt frustrated at the government’s manipulation of democracy. He is not alone. When the Brazilians met with the government for hours last year, they stormed out and told one respected international reporter that they were furious. It is no surprise that Lula’s support for Chavez became less evident over time. In fact, as Ambassador Diego Arrias recently pointed out in an editorial, Chavez’s only remaining friend is Fidel Castro, if we don’t count Mugabe and other well-wishers in there as well. In addition, AP reports that “Venezuela also said it would no longer recognize the United States as a member of the six-nation ''group of friends'' created two years ago to encourage Chávez and his opponents to work toward a peaceful resolution.” The message was delivered on Thursday by Chávez's ambassador to the OAS, Jorge Valero, who lives and glides through Washington with an enviable entourage. In a perfect world, Washington would send the vitriolic Valero home to the sea of happiness. But Washington is the capital of democracy, so Valero can say what he wants.

What amazes me is that Chavez still has defenders in Washington. During one recent meeting in Washington, two house staffers insisted that Chavez was concerned about the poor. What many fail to mention, when glorifying the presence of Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods, is the total decay of hospitals. in fact, they fail to recognize that poverty has increased during the Chavez administration. Some Democrats are quick to pounce on Bush for the erosion of basic rights in the US, but they turn a blind eye when Chavez arrests dissidents, such as the recent detention of retired Gen. Francisco Uson, Chavez’s former finance minister who now opposes him. They decry the torture of Iraqis at Abu Graith prison, but then become mute when confronted with the fact that the National Guard tortured and even killed young men in Venezuela. They cry foul when Halliburton emerges in any deal related to Iraq, but they will likely ignore that the Chavez government owns almost a third of the company that is manufacturing the technology for future elections. They gripe that Bush is all about Big Oil, but then celebrate when Mr. Big Oil himself, PDVSA president Ali Rodriguez, blows through town. Underlying his apologists’ disdain is the sick notion that somehow the opposition deserves it. Somehow, the opposition brought the torture on itself. Somehow, all those people “coming here wearing nice jewerly”, as one house staffer characterized the opposition, deserve pain and punishment.

Senator Nelson naively suggests: “If the reparos don't achieve a broadly accepted result, certified by international observers, the time will have arrived for the United States to rally our hemispheric allies to impose on the Chávez government the isolation that it will have earned. An undemocratic Venezuelan government should not be welcomed at summits of the OAS, and countries in the region should make clear that their bilateral ties with Venezuela cannot proceed as normal while democracy remains on hold.” The US should rally what friends? Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have enough friends in Caricom or Latin America who would be willing to impose sanctions on Mr. Chavez. With the exception of Colombia and Peru, not too many nations in the region have expressed any outward outrage at the injustices taking place in Venezuela today. While efforts such as Senator Nelson’s need to continue, it is time to finally call a spade a spade: Mr. Chavez is a tyrant who is here to stay.

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