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Vultures, Tricks, and Venezuela's Referendum

By Alexandra Beech,

Early in 2003, Jimmy Carter warned the Venezuelan government not to employ “dirty tricks” during the referendum process. Since then, I have often wondered how the Nobel Laureate defines a “dirty trick.” “Dirty” is “malicious or scandalous”, “obscene or indecent”, “soiled:, or “unclean”, according to one dictionary, which also defines “trick” is “an act or procedure intended to achieve an end by deceptive or fraudulent means”. A definition that applies to the Chavez government is: “To cheat or deceive or to practice trickery or deception,” given its unbridled and largely unchallenged success at cheating and deceiving many throughout the world about the referendum.

Thawing, the international press is now pushing for fairness. Asking Mr. Chavez to be fair in the referendum process is like asking a vulture to guard the meat, as a popular expression In Venezuela goes. Mr. Chavez, transparent as plastic foil, has explicitly said that there is not going to be a referendum.

Since “polls consistently show that Mr. Chavez would lose the referendum -- less than 40 percent of the population supports his eccentric, quasi-authoritarian populism,” according to the Washington Post, how is Mr. Chavez going to avoid a referendum?

And if he can’t avoid it, then how is he going to ensure that he wins? Has he already employed “dirty tricks”? Will he employ more?

Since the opposition allegedly controls Venezuela’s privately owned media, let’s ignore their reports for the purposes of this exercise. What do international reporters and observers write about “dirty tricks” and the referendum process?

During the next three days, the opposition will have to validate at least 500,000 signatures which were invalidated in an earlier petition drive. The Washington Post characterizes this latest petition drive as “the result of an attempt by Mr. Chavez's appointees to invalidate on bogus technicalities 1.6 million out of 3.4 million signatures the opposition collected to trigger the recall election. By all rights, the election should have occurred months ago, because the opposition gathered 1 million more signatures than required by the constitution and has now collected more than enough signatures for a recall vote on two occasions.”

What challenges will the opposition face? What “dirty tricks” has the government employed to block the referendum process?

1. “procedural obstacles and intimidation by government goon squads” (Washington Post)

2. “Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party organized dozens of teams to persuade voters not to verify or to withdraw signatures from the petition, which was presented to elections officials in December.” (Dow Jones newswires)

3. “thousands of voters who filled out their own information claim their names are missing from the official count released by the council. Others - particularly government employees or contractors - say they've been harassed, and even fired, for signing.” (Dow Jones Newswires)

4. “government supporters have the opportunity to cancel signatures supposedly usurped in their name....There have also been reports suggesting that the government has been issuing its followers with false ID cards, potentially allowing Mr Chávez's supporters to cancel signatures at the same time that opponents are revalidating theirs.” (Financial Times)

5. “Over the objections of the OAS and Carter Center, the elections council agreed to government demands that voters be allowed to withdraw their signatures from the petition this weekend.” (Dow Jones Newswires)

6. “For months, a pro-Chavez lawmaker has posted the names of those who signed on the Internet.” (Dow Jones Newswires)

7. “officials at ‘repair’ centres are under strict orders to insist that people's appearance matches identically the photograph on their ID cards.” (Financial Times)

8. “About the only hope for a fair outcome is the presence of observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center who could call attention to acts of overt fraud and intimidation; Mr. Chavez tried to exclude them from the verification process...(Washington Post)

9. “[Vice President Jose Vicente] Rangel threatened to expel an Organization of American States observer team if it didn't remove team leader Fernando Jaramillo. Rangel accused Jaramillo of favoring a recall vote.” (Dow Jones Newswire)

10. "If your identification number, that of a friend, or that of a relative was used: You Must Delete It," warned a Thursday newspaper advertisement by the government allied Fatherland For All Party. "If you signed under pressure or you repent: Delete Your Signature." (Dow Jones Newswire)

11. "Anecdotal evidence suggests numerous cases of quite arbitrary deletion, including the signatures of some of the country's most prominent public figures." (Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in its May 21 "Hemispheric Focus”)

12. “I have also come across such anecdotes. A Caracas friend who went out of his way to make sure he followed the signing rules tells me that his name is on the list of questioned signatures.” (Mary O’Grady, Wall Street Journal)

13. “The realities of daily life will help the chavistas some. Many folks may find travel impossible. Illness or other conflicts could arise. Also, the government has organized an anti-referendum campaign named Comando Ayacucho to canvas door-to-door against the petition.” (Mary O’Grady, Wall Street Journal)

14. “economic and physical intimidation, fearmongering about foreign threats to Venezuelan sovereignty and, in the end, data manipulation are more likely to ensure his survival...The government's economic power may be its most insidious tool...Anyone who wants to eat had better kowtow to the government.” (Mary O’Grady, Wall Street Journal)

15. “There are reliable reports that soldiers, PdVSA workers and other government employees who signed the November petition have been dismissed.” (Mary O’Grady, Wall Street Journal)

16. “Mr. Chavez is able to buy a lot of goodwill and thereby recruit supporters. Government handouts of jobs, food and privilege all sit well in a country where the private sector has been crippled. If some meaningful number of signers recant this weekend, want could explain a lot.” (Mary O’Grady, Wall Street Journal)

17. “President Chavez has treated opponents as enemies rather than seeking to heal the divisions that have plagued Venezuela. He has undermined the constitution and used his Bolivarian Circles to repress peaceful dissent as his government systematically moved to expand its powers.” (Senator John Kerry’s Statement on the Referendum Process)

18. “even if the CNE does find there are enough valid signatures, the government could still avoid a referendum. Earlier this month, government-aligned legislators passed a law allowing the legislature to increase the number of magistrates in the Supreme Court from 20 to 32. That, say some, will allow the government to stack the court in its favour, leaving open the possibility that Mr Chávez can appeal against the findings of the CNE and win.” (Financial Times)

Could this be part of an international conspiracy to oust Chavez? Could the Financial Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have been paid by the CIA to distort the truth? In their “Kafkaesque” world, Chavez and his goons would say so. More surreal still, when the Washington Post published a harsh editorial this week, it was the government-funded Venezuela Information Office which sent out an action alert asking people to write letters declaring that “Venezuela remains a democracy.” By doing so, isn’t it the government and not the opposition that is attempting to manipulate international opinion regarding democracy in Venezuela?

Needless to say, the distortion of justice that is taking place in Venezuela is far grosser and macchiavellic than a “dirty trick”, a term better used to describe adolescents and wayward gamblers. Venezuela needs justice now more than ever, before sliding further into chaos. Chavez must accept that his appointment with history is over.

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