Tag: Venezuela

Chávez’s Electoral Fraud Cushion

The onslaught against Henrique Capriles Radonsky by Venezuelan state-run media has begun after his decisive victory in Sunday’s presidential primary. Capriles is now the nominee of the opposition coalition and he will face Hugo Chávez in October’s presidential election. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the vicious attacks against Capriles include, among other things, insinuations that he was a homosexual and that he is a Zionist agent.

This election will not be a fair one. Not only does Chávez control most of the Venezuelan media, but his government is also dramatically increasing spending on popular social programs. About 8.5 million Venezuelans already receive some kind of permanent income or assistance from the government (4 million of them are public employees). The Chávez regime threatens and intimidates those who receive government handouts and dare to support the opposition. Moreover, since voting is electronic in Venezuela, many people fear—perhaps with good reason—that their votes aren’t secret. The government tacitly encourages these perceptions.

But that’s not the end of the story. Chávez also controls Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. Due to the inability of the opposition to monitor every voting station in the country, the stated results of the vote may not be accurate. The Electoral Council usually takes longer than is necessary to tabulate voting results from electronic systems, which has raised concerns of fraudulent activity.

A main concern is the electoral registry, as documented by Gustavo Coronel in a Cato study back in 2006. Coronel wrote that an independent analysis of the electoral registry found many irregularities:

such as the existence of 39,000 voters over one hundred years old. This is a number equal to that of the same age group in the United States, where the population is 10 times greater. Of these 39,000 people, 17,000 were born in the 19th century, and one is 175 years old and still working! Nineteen thousand voters were born the same day and year in the state of Zulia. There are thousands of people sharing the same address.

So on top of the support of his followers (some enthusiastic, others intimidated), which fluctuates around 45 percent of the population, Chávez can also rely on a margin of error due to electoral fraud if he doesn’t get enough votes for his reelection. I’ve talked to some Venezuelans who say this margin can be as high as eight percentage points. That is, if the election is decided by less than that (very likely the case), Chávez can doctor the results in his favor.

The opposition promises to have people in every single voting station in the country watching the vote. The National Electoral Council will probably bar international observers from monitoring the election. This sets up the potential for conflicting results from the opposition and the National Electoral council. What would happen next is anyone’s guess.

María Corina Machado: A Breath of Fresh Air in Venezuela

Yesterday I wrote that the opposition in Venezuela seems determined to maintain the economic model installed by Hugo Chávez that fosters people’s dependency on government. I should’ve written “most of the opposition,” since there is a remarkable exception in the field of presidential candidates: Congresswoman María Corina Machado.

At a rally yesterday in a working class neighborhood of Caracas, and surrounded by unlicensed street vendors, female small business owners and young followers, Machado launched her political platform called “People’s Capitalism,” under which, she said, “Venezuela will leave behind the entitlement model in order to build true prosperity for its citizens.” This is a breath of fresh air from the usual Venezuelan political discourse that stresses the government’s central role in redistributing the country’s oil riches. In fact, just the use of the word “capitalism” is extremely daring in a nation where free market ideas have been consistently disparaged by President Chávez and his acolytes for over a decade.

In her speech, Machado attacked socialism as a model that perpetuates poverty by demeaning people and creating dependency. She explained that her platform is based on trust in the creative capacity of the individual. As for the role of government, Machado said that it must provide the legal framework that stimulates entrepreneurship and eliminates regulatory obstacles so that people in the informal economy—such as the vendors she was addressing—can join the formal economy. She also offered a strong defense of private property by saying that “if you can’t own the fruit of your labor, then you don’t own your labor and thus you aren’t free.”

Despite being elected to the National Assembly last year with the greatest number of votes in all Venezuela, Machado is a long shot to win the nomination for the Coalition for Democratic Unity. However, her commitment to free market ideas is a welcome departure from the other opposition candidates who seem interested in perpetuating Venezuela’s entitlement culture.

Machado spoke at a Cato Policy Forum two years ago on the failure of social policy in Venezuela. She also recorded a podcast for us on Hugo Chávez’s crackdown on political dissent.

The Opposition in Venezuela Doesn’t Get It

Venezuela is in full campaign mode as six candidates vie for the nomination of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD is its Spanish acronym), the opposition movement that will nominate a single candidate to face Hugo Chávez in the October 2012 presidential election. The MUD primary will take place on February 12.

After 13 years of socialist rule that has crippled Venezuela’s economy, and even created shortages of fuel in the oil-rich South American nation, one would expect the opposition candidates to signal a bold U-turn from the failed big-government policies of Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Let’s look, for example, at Primero Justicia (Justice First), the party whose candidate, Henrique Capriles Rodonsky, is leading in the polls. Capriles doesn’t say much about the economic model he favors. His statements are limited to generalities such as “the only thing I’m obsessed about is that Venezuela has progress.” As governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles likes to compare his approach to that of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva: decent macroeconomic stewardship complemented by generous social programs.

However, Primero Justicia’s platform seems to be a little more specific in its views on the role of government in society. It claims to support a “social-humanist state” that stands between the “social bureaucratic state that provides inefficient social services in a monopolist way and the minimalist neo-liberal state that gives up on its social responsibilities.” As for the economic model that Primero Justicia favors, the platform says that it “stands against the socialist planned economy and … the [classical] liberal tendencies that turn the market into a dogma.” In simple terms, Primero Justicia sees itself as a Third Way alternative between Hugo Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” and what it claims to be the “neo-liberal dogma.”

I believe that Venezuela needs a decisive rupture from the failed big-government policies of the past, and not just a lighter version of socialism. Nonetheless, a modern social democratic party is certainly a far better alternative for the country than Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, on the campaign trail Primero Justicia’s officials seem eager to out-compete Chávez in promising more government handouts to Venezuelans. For example, the daily El Universal published a statement [in Spanish] yesterday from Primero Justicia’s chairman Julio Borges where he lambasted Chávez for not spending enough on social programs. He said that his party would use oil revenues to create a Social Security Fund that would give pensions “to all Venezuelans, regardless of whether they had formal employment or not, and even to housewives.”

Any observer of Venezuela’s modern history would say, “Here we go again.” For many decades, Venezuelan politicians, either in government or in the opposition, have seen the government (and particularly oil revenues) as an infinite source of wealth that simply needs to be distributed among all Venezuelans. As Borges previously stated, “every family would have 1.6 billion bolivares [approximately $375,000] if oil resources were distributed fairly.”

Henrique Capriles will formally launch his presidential candidacy tomorrow. Venezuelans have other pressing concerns besides the economy that will play a major role in next year’s election, such as the staggering rise in crime (Venezuela stands now as the most violent country in South America) and the steady erosion of civil and political freedoms. However, Capriles is ill-advised in thinking that he can beat Chávez by playing the populist card of offering yet more government handouts to Venezuelans.

Venezuelans deserve a real alternative to Chávez. They deserve not only a candidate that promises a return to democratic rule of law, but also someone who pledges to break their dependency on government. The election in October 2012 should be something more than choosing a distributor-in-chief at Miraflores Palace.

Après Chávez, le Déluge?

Rumors abounded this weekend about Hugo Chávez’s apparent critical health condition. The Nuevo Herald reported that the Venezuelan president could be suffering from prostate cancer. On June 9, while visiting Cuba, Chávez fell ill and was treated for a “pelvic abscess.” Since then, the loquacious caudillo, who for over a decade has flooded Venezuelan airwaves with endless TV addresses, has been conspicuously out of sight. All we have is a picture released to the media showing a frail Hugo Chávez holding onto Fidel Castro (aged 84) and his brother Raúl (aged 80).

Speculation increased on Saturday after Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Relations Minister, said that Chávez was waging a “great battle for his health” while admitting that he wasn’t doing well. But perhaps the most ominous statement came from Chávez’s older brother, Adán, governor of the state of Barinas, who warned yesterday that supporters of the president should be ready to take up arms to defend his revolution. “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” said the elder Chávez.

This is where things can get extremely ugly. Nobody knows what could happen to chavismo without Hugo Chávez. Many people expected Chávez to resort to violence next year in case he lost his reelection bid (a real possibility given popular discontent due to rising food prices, food and energy shortages, and increasing crime). This is why he created a socialist militia with tens of thousands armed civilians bent on “defending the revolution” no matter what. Also, Chávez promoted General Henry Rangel Silva as head of the Armed Forces after Rangel stated that the army would not allow the opposition to win the presidential election in 2012. However, in all these scenarios, Chávez was always the one calling the shots.

If Chávez passes away or is permanently incapacitated, the question becomes: Who will take over Venezuela and his political movement? The Constitution requires the Vice-president Elías Jaua to be sworn it as president. However, it is very likely that Chávez’s absence will open a fratricidal struggle within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government power. During his 12 years in office, Chávez has diligently made sure that no apparent successor takes the spotlight. Caudillos don’t have real VPs, a situation that could lead to chaos if the caudillo dies while in office.

A historical parallel can be drawn with the passing of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina in 1974. His wife, Isabel, was his Vice-President and she took over the presidency after Perón’s death, as required by the Constitution. However, her tenure was marked by the increasing violence of the “Montoneros,” a radical left-wing terrorist group that claimed to uphold the leftist legacy of Juan Domingo Perón. The situation reached a critical point when the Armed Forces deposed Isabel Perón with a military coup in 1976 and led a “Dirty War” against left-wing elements of society that resulted in the killing and disappearance of approximately 30,000 people in 7 years. Perón’s death and lack of a viable successor led to chaos and slaughter.

The driving force behind the different forces within chavismo is graft, not ideology. As Gustavo Coronel documented in a paper published by Cato in 2006, corruption is rampant in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and it permeates all levels of government, including powerful elements of the military. It is unlikely that those who have been enriching themselves in the last 12 years would call it quits if their leader passes away. A violent struggle could therefore ensue within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government.

Venezuela’s democratic opposition movement should play its cards carefully. If Hugo Chávez dies or is incapacitated, the opposition should demand that the Constitution be respected and Vice-President Jaua take over until next year’s presidential election. The international community, and in particular the Organization of American States, should also be assertive in stating that Venezuela would face international diplomatic ostracism (e.g., expulsion from the OAS, travel ban for regime leaders, freezing of their bank accounts, etc.) if elements within the government stage a coup or try to stay in power through armed struggle.

We will know the gravity of Hugo Chávez’s health condition by July 5th. He had called for a big international summit that day to celebrate Venezuela’s bicentennial anniversary. If he calls off the jamboree, or if he is absent, it will signal that his health has very likely gravely deteriorated, and speculation about his succession will be overwhelming.

When Che Guevara Met Nat Hentoff

In the new video below, renowned civil libertarian and Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff talks about his meeting with Che Guevara when Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice. (See it also here with Spanish subtitles.) El Che is romanticized by college kids and those on the left as a champion of the oppressed, but he was in fact a main architect of Cuban totalitarianism, a cold-blooded murderer whose defining characteristic was sheer intolerance of those with differing views. The best essay on Che, “The Killing Machine,” was written by Alvaro Vargas Llosa for the New Republic some years ago. 

It is hard to imagine a symbol in popular culture in which the represented ideal is more far apart from the historical reality than in the case with Che. Surely that gap helps explain Che’s appeal among people all over the world with little knowledge of Latin America. Four years ago on a visit to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council I saw pro-democracy activist and Council member Leung Kwok-hung, a.k.a. “Long Hair,” wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt on the floor of the chamber. (Hong Kong is not yet a democracy and its Legislative Council is quite limited in its powers; in practice, the city is ruled by the communists in Beijing, which has ironically upheld the city’s free-market model and rule of law tradition inherited from the British.) Does Long Hair not know that Che despised democracy?

In his classic book, The Latin Americans, the late Venezuelan intellectual Carlos Rangel explained how outsiders, especially Europeans, have since their earliest contact with Latin America idealized the place, projecting their fantasies and frustrations, and promoting ideas there that they themselves would not find acceptable on their own turf. Thus the early inhabitants of the region were “noble savages” despoiled and degraded by the Europeans; the noble savages later evolved into the good revolutionaries, those authentic Latin Americans who fight for everything that is good and reject the imposition of all forms of oppression. Simplistic and wrong, but effective. So it is even in Latin America, where, as Rangel explains, that storyline has served political leaders well as they justify the imposition of any number of restrictions on freedom, from tariffs to censorship. Che’s image still abounds in the region. (For an excellent and eminently relevant video in Spanish of Rangel speaking in Caracas in 1980 about the central problems with Venezuela, see here.) 

Incidentally, another Cato scholar had close ties to Che. The rebel was a cousin to well-known Argentine libertarian and adjunct scholar Alberto Benegas Lynch (Che’s complete last name was Guevara Lynch). In this article in Spanish, Alberto discusses his cousin Che.

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Venezuelans Vote on Sunday to Defend Their Moribund Democracy

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that will test the extent to which democracy still exists in their country. It’ll be the 13th election since Hugo Chávez became president in 1998 (these include constitutional referenda, gubernatorial, legislative and presidential elections, as well as a recall vote).

Some would say that all these elections prove that Venezuela is a true democracy. I would argue that democracy means more than simply voting. It involves separation of powers, constitutional checks and balances, and freedom of the press. None of these exists in Venezuela anymore.

Even the electoral process is deeply flawed. Just as in previous elections, nobody expects the vote on Sunday to be fair: Independent international observers have again been barred from entering Venezuela. Most of the media are owned by the government, and the remaining private outlets must submit to the constant cadenas (presidential addresses) that the government requires private TV and radio stations to air. From 1998 to September 19th, broadcasters aired 2,072 cadenas for a total of 1,430 hours of transmission (almost two months of 24-hour broadcast).

Moreover, prominent opposition figures have been disqualified from running due to technicalities and dirty tricks. Others have been imprisoned or have fled the country. The electoral body is controlled by the Executive and the voters’ registry has not been independently audited in the recent past. It contains such anomalies as 32,000 people older than 100 years, persons registered multiple times, and 2,000 voters that share the same address.

Despite this daunting scenario, the opposition stands a good chance of making significant gains in the National Assembly. However, it remains to be seen if Chávez will allow even a modest voice of dissent in a country where he has long exerted total control over all government institutions. There will be a three-month period between the legislative election and the installment of the new National Assembly. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, after Sunday’s vote, Chávez moves to curtail the powers of Congress, just as he did with the powers of governors and the mayor of Caracas after the gubernatorial elections of 2008.