For more than a year and a half, election observers, including Atlanta's Carter Center (a private human rights institute headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter) and the Organization of American States (led by Secretary General César Gaviria) worked to encourage Venezuela's dictatorial president to allow a peaceful referendum on his rule. The goal was to end the debilitating standoff between Hugo Chávez and his democratic opponents.
Funded in part by U.S. tax dollars, the negotiations overcame numerous roadblocks the Chávez government threw in the way of national reconciliation. But on the heels of that considerable achievement, both the Carter Center and the OAS stumbled -- badly.
They allowed Chávez to place restraints on monitors and based their reports on what they were allowed to see. They neglected pre-electoral shenanigans that shifted the contest in the president's favor, and accepted a cursory audit that failed to satisfy the opposition's worries over fraud.
The evidence is chilling: Back in May, most polls predicted Chávez would lose a recall. So the government packed the voter registry by awarding citizenship to nearly a half million foreign nationals, in expectation of their support at the polls. In June, witnesses saw election officials in military trucks cruise pro-regime barrios, registering new voters. Meanwhile, registrations were blocked in opposition districts.
Newspapers also reported massive fund transfers from the state oil company to social programs to bolster loyalty among the poor. Government-supported, pro-Chávez gangs harassed the president's opponents in the streets, while government workers who had signed the petition for a recall lost their jobs.
Chávez even alleged attempts on his life. He had his police round up 100 migrant Colombian farm workers, dress them in Venezuelan military fatigues and trot them before television cameras to suggest that foreign mercenaries were aiding the democratic opposition.
In June, it was uncertain whether Venezuela's National Electoral Council would allow any foreign observers to witness the Aug. 15 referendum. But as polls showed Chávez pulling even with the opposition, the CNE invited the Carter Center and the OAS to observe. Still, it limited the number of monitors as well as what they could do and see. The European Union judged these conditions unacceptable and declined to attend.
And as precincts opened, voters in opposition neighborhoods complained their names had been transferred to other precincts, even to voting stations at Venezuelan embassies in foreign countries. Others said their names had been wiped from the rolls altogether.
Due to lengthy lines and equipment malfunctions, many polling stations closed around midnight and only a few electronic counts were compared with the voter-verifiable paper receipts placed in the ballot boxes. Quick counts were based solely on the electronic tallies the machines spat out.
Early on the morning of Aug. 16, the CNE shut out the Carter Center, the OAS and even council members who represented the opposition from a meeting in which it declared the recall had been defeated. Chávez opponents charged fraud.
It wasn't until three days later that the CNE allowed the Carter Center to audit machines and ballot boxes from 150 booths from sites the Council selected. The results of this 1 percent sample were consistent with the CNE's official tally. But it was ironic that the government had insisted on scrutinizing each of 3.4 million signatures on the opposition's petition for the referendum.
In his initial post-election reports, former president Carter described the process as clean and urged both sides to accept the results on "good faith." Instead, he should have noted the restraints on observers, government maneuvers to pack the national voter list, intimidation of voters by the president's supporters and lack of transparency in the polling process and subsequent audit.
Now, experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have identified signs of fraud based on statistical analysis. Instead of healing divisions between Chávez and opponents, Carter's hasty blessing is promoting doubts and giving Venezuela's budding dictator license to constrain adversaries.
Following the referendum, Chávez announced he would no longer recognize his opponents. On Aug. 26, his ambassador proposed amending the OAS Democratic Charter to punish civil society groups that dare to challenge regimes like his.
Without meaning to, the Carter Center and the OAS have set back election observation to the bad old days when Latin American autocrats manipulated votes any way they could and nobody cried foul. Sadly, nearly two years of hard work to help Venezuelans find a peaceful solution to their political impasse have gone down the drain.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire