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Venezuela: Chávez's 'monitors' are really electoral tourists

The Oppenheimer Report, reprinted from The Miami Herald

It's not surprising that the 25-nation European Union has decided not to send observers to Venezuela's referendum next Sunday on the future of leftist President Hugo Chávez.

The government's restrictions on international observers are the worst in any free Latin American election since Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega imposed similar constraints in 1989.

Tuesday's statement by the EU presidency said the group ``regrets that it cannot deploy an observation mission to the referendum in Venezuela. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to secure with the Venezuelan electoral authorities the conditions to carry out an observation in line with the Union's standard methodology.''

It's hard to blame the Europeans for pulling out. According to U.S. and European election experts, the Chávez-controlled Electoral Council has put all kinds of limits on the work of election monitors from the 34-country Organization of American States, the Carter Center and the EU.

At the same time, Chávez has invited a collection of celebrities of the revolutionary left, all expenses paid, to applaud whatever result he announces at the end of the voting.

Among the 98 personalities he has invited to ''monitor'' the election is Hebe de Bonafini, the leader of the ultra-leftist wing of Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a self-proclaimed human rights activist who in 2001 publicly expressed her ''happiness'' about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Other government-invited ''observers'' are Nobel Prize winners Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Rigoberta Menchú, two enthusiastic supporters of Cuba's dictatorship.


Consider these restrictions placed on the observer teams:

• Nobody but the government's Electoral Council will be allowed to do a quick count of the vote.

By comparison, all potentially contested recent elections in Latin America have allowed independent quick counts, including the 1994 and 2000 elections in Mexico, the 2000 election under authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori in Peru and the 1988 plebiscite in Chile.

• The Electoral Council has asked international monitoring teams to limit their observers to 40 people nationwide. The OAS and the Carter Center each deployed more than 60 election monitors in recent Venezuelan elections and want to keep at least that figure.

Electoral historians say the last Latin American leader besides Castro to cap the number of electoral observers was Panama's Noriega, who placed a limit of 20 observers per international group.

• While the Electoral Council says international observers will have freedom of movement, its regulations will restrict their movement: Observers are being asked to participate in a ''program'' of guided tours on election day.

In other words, unless they resist the government's guidelines, they will be chaperoned by pro-Chávez electoral officials and shown whatever Chávez wants them to see.

• The Electoral Council has prohibited the OAS, the Carter Center and other international election-monitoring teams from expressing their opinions during the electoral ''process,'' which presumably includes election day.

Experts say a key role of international observers is to keep the public informed before, during and after the election, so as to give a credible outside opinion when there are irreconcilable differences among opposing parties.


So what is the difference between the observation missions by the OAS and the Carter Center, and the Chávez-invited leftist celebrities? Shouldn't everybody be invited to observe an election, regardless of political affiliation?

Sure, but there are big differences. International election-monitoring teams spend months, sometimes years in the country looking at possible fraud in voting registration procedures, violation of campaign spending limits and other forms of vote-rigging that may have taken place long before election day. Plus, they are independent: They pay for their own trips and hotels, and they don't have a stake in the outcome of the vote.

Jennifer McCoy, the head of the Carter Center's election observation program in Venezuela, explained Friday that ``the model of observation that we, the OAS, the EU, the United Nations and others have been developing over the past 15 years is an independent observation of an entire electoral process, not just election day.''

My translation: Next Sunday, the OAS and the Carter Center will try to do election-monitoring. De Bonafini, Pérez Esquivel, Menchú and the others will do electoral tourism.

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