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Venezuela: Chavez's Cheatin' Heart

By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY / The Wall Street Journal / The Americas

August 6, 2004 - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spilled tankers of oil revenue trying to create a respectable image abroad. From employing high-priced Washington law firms like Patton Boggs to setting loose his Beltway ambassador to float oil-for-allies schemes, little has been held back.

In Venezuela he takes a different tack, regularly seizing the airwaves by executive decree to smear and threaten his opposition and to foment hatred.

It's worth highlighting this style of governance, based on propaganda and intimidation, as Venezuela's Aug. 15 national referendum approaches. On that date some 14 million registered voters will have the chance to rule "yes" or "no" on the question of whether Mr. Chavez ought to be removed from office, as the constitution allows.

Rationality suggests that given the torpedoed economy, the runaway murder rate and the more than four million anti-Chavistas who risked government harassment to sign a petition in favor of a recall vote earlier this year, Mr. Chavez's odds of survival are low if a clean and secret ballot is held. Yet in recent weeks, the chattering classes have begun to suggest that he can win fair and square. The Chavez government is a leading proponent of this line and is now claiming that all polls show it has a clear advantage of 15 to 25 points. More impartial parties also opine now that he could win, albeit in a tight race. For the record, I'm not buying it. Neither should the international community.

There has never been much reason to doubt that Mr. Chavez would pull out all stops to remain in power. Only the "how" has been in play. Skepticism about the government's good faith has risen sharply ever since it tried to block the referendum by disallowing hundreds of thousands of legitimate petition signatures. Now critics are worried about the "tricks" Mr. Chavez might employ to prevail on Aug. 15. The sudden "spike" in pro-Chavez poll numbers ought to raise those suspicions even further. What better way to win international acceptance of what would otherwise be an inexplicable Chavez victory than to set up such expectations ahead of time?

Since 1999 the bolivar has lost 71% of its value and according to Roberto Bottome, editor of the economic report Veneconomy, accumulated inflation is 187%. Veneconomy's latest issue cites an Andres Bello Catholic University estimate that "74.2% of Venezuela's population is living below the poverty line -- and 40% in critical poverty -- as compared with 56.5% and 21% in 1998."

Just as disturbing is the murder rate. Former Caracas police chief Ivan Simonovis told Venezuelan newspaper El Universal this week that in the past five years, Caracas has suffered 28,000 homicides and only 7% of the cases have gone to trial. Most of the victims of this horrific killing wave are poor. Forgive us if we choke when being asked to swallow the Chavez line that the masses are rallying to save his presidency.

The findings of voter surveys must be ingested with a giant block of salt, for the simple reason that Mr. Chavez's Bolivarian Circles of dedicated foot soldiers, who work their turf much like Cuban committees to defend the revolution, don't disappear when the pollsters come around. Venezuelans report that many poll interviews are done in people's homes, thus raising doubts in the mind of the respondent about whether anonymity is possible.

This lack of reliability in polls ought to be kept in mind since avenues for pro-Chavez cheating have been left wide open. As Jesuit priest and Andres Bello Catholic University rector Luis Ugalde emphasized during a visit to Washington on Wednesday there is great potential for government fraud.

Among the many red flags he raised is the government's new system of recording the fingerprints of voters, ostensibly to deter multiple voting. The old system of indelible ink on the thumb worked fairly well. The new system, says Father Ugalde, has the potential to seriously slow down the process, creating long lines. It also raises fears that ballots will not be secret and thus that economic retribution is a possibility. As the single most important employer -- by way of the state-owned oil company and all of its related contractors -- the government can economically crush most Venezuelans by withdrawing either their job or their state benefits.

There are also questions about the government's naturalization of over 200,000 immigrants and its efforts to block citizens who live outside the country from voting. Veneconomy reports opposition charges that some 300,000 voters have had their polling stations reassigned, some to far away locations; a pro-government group says the number is only 65,000 but the point remains: Voters are being harassed.

So, too, are observers. Father Ugalde says that the government wants to eliminate 18,000 trained referendum workers -- one-third of the total number trained to man the balloting "tables" -- because they signed the recall petition. The European Union will not send observers because Venezuela objected to the size of its team and its demand for free movement. The Carter Center will attend but its team will be sharply reduced. As a Goldman Sachs Emerging Markets report commented this week, "A significant number of other international organizations . . . with little to no experience in monitoring electoral events have also been invited, which could create room for the emergence of very different views over the same issues."

Yet it is the assault on Sumate, a prominent citizens group formed to oversee elections, that gives the clearest impression that Mr. Chavez wants to retain cheating as an option. The NGO is the nation's best hope for a fair referendum and Mr. Chavez's actions suggest he views it as a threat. Using the fact that the group received money from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy as a pretext, he has accused two of its leaders of treason. Nevertheless, Sumate promises to actively monitor the Aug. 15 vote.

Mr. Chavez has raised his odds of survival by liberally "spending" on his constituents. His "missions" in the poorest neighborhoods, amounting to state handouts, doubtlessly win goodwill and could pay off at the polls. But then why has he been relying so heavily on fear and propaganda?

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