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Hugo [Chavez], Jimmy [Carter] and Colin [Powell]

Editorial The Wall Street Journal

August 26, 2004; Page A12 - Last week's recall victory by Venezuelan strongman President Hugo Chavez is likely to create long-term trouble for American interests in the Western Hemisphere. So it's all the more disconcerting to hear the U.S. State Department anoint what was anything but a fair and transparent election.

On Monday, a Foggy Bottom spokesman declared that, "In order to address those charges of election fraud, an audit was conducted. The audit found that -- did not find any basis to call into doubt the results of the elections."

As "audits" go, however, this was akin to Arthur Andersen scrubbing Enron. The sample for the audit was selected by the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is controlled by Mr. Chavez, and was too small to be considered statistically reliable.

On referendum day, there was no open audit at the polling stations to reconcile the paper ballots to the electronic voting machines, as the opposition requested, because Mr. Chavez would not allow it. There was also no closed-door audit with all of the National Electoral Council members present because the Chavez-controlled Council did not allow it. There was no inspection of the electronic voting machines immediately after the vote because Mr. Chavez would not allow it. And there was no impartial impounding of the election data -- paper or digital -- because ... you get the idea.

We also know that Mr. Chavez sharply limited the number of international observers allowed into the country, something that hasn't been done (outside of Cuba) in Latin America since Manual Noriega used it as a way to steal elections in Panama in 1989. The European Union refused to send observers because Mr. Chavez so severely limited the size of the team and its ability to move about.

That didn't stop Jimmy Carter from bringing an inspection team -- sharply reduced in size per Mr. Chavez's demands -- and the former U.S. President has played a crucial role in blessing the results, as he wrote in a letter to us on Tuesday. So it's worth noting the reasons that Mr. Carter cites for his conclusions, as he recorded in his trip report on his Web site.

"We heard a litany of catastrophic predictions about cheating, intimidation, and actual violence planned by the government for election day," Mr. Carter writes. Yet he saw no cause for concern because "We reported on the assurances we had received from CNE and the military, which answered most of their concerns." He finally signed off on the outcome after he said he was invited "to witness the disclosure of the first electronic tabulation." Mr. Carter's logic seems to be that he could judge the election to be fair more or less because Mr. Chavez's military and election council told him it was fair.

Mr. Carter never did a full audit of the vote, which differed dramatically from exit polling and featured hundreds of polling places with voting machines tallying the same number of yes votes -- a phenomenon that independent statisticians find highly improbable. Nevertheless, after he "confirm[ed] the legitimacy of the CNE returns," Mr. Carter also discloses on his Web site, he "called Secretary of State Colin Powell to report our authentication of results, and he promised to issue a statement from Washington endorsing our findings." Which the State Department proceeded to do.

Our liberal friends keep lecturing us to accept the Chavez result, since anti-American politicians do sometimes win free elections. But this recall was hardly as transparent as, say, Germany's election of Gerhard Schroder in 2002. Mr. Chavez has a record of abusing the rule of law to gather ever-greater political control. He has allied himself with Mr. Castro and is promoting instability throughout the region. A Bush Administration that is fighting for free elections in Iraq ought to have higher democratic standards here in the Western Hemisphere.

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