The June 3 concession by Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez that his opponents had collected enough signatures to trigger a recall referendum on his rule might seem miraculous. But a fair vote is far from certain, and Chávez may still destabilize Venezuela and create havoc for neighboring nations.
To preserve regional stability, the United States and other Western democracies should help defend what remains of Venezuela's battered democracy and discourage the growing internal conflict that Chávez has inspired. The United States and fellow Organization of American States (OAS) member-nations should insist that impartial outside observers be allowed to monitor and report on the vote. But the democratic community must also be ready to declare Venezuela's democracy broken if Chávez continues to manipulate the electoral process and consolidate his power.
Why a Recall?
Over the last two decades, oil-rich Venezuela became heavily indebted and its population impoverished because of runaway social spending and the unwillingness of elites to let ordinary citizens compete in commerce or politics. In 1998, voters elected Hugo Chávez-a cashiered army officer who once tried to overthrow a president-to lead their nation, clean house, and reduce poverty.
A throwback to the military strongmen who once ruled Venezuela, Chávez fashioned a more concentrated version of the welfare state that already existed. He promoted a new constitution to enhance his tenure and powers and began to constrain the business community, civil society, and rival politicians.
When massive public protests erupted in April 2002, Chávez reportedly ordered troops to fire on marchers. Top generals convinced him to resign and replaced him temporarily with a makeshift junta of businessmen. Two days later, loyal officers brought Chávez back. Since then, growing numbers of opponents have sought to remove him using the recall provisions in Chávez's own constitution.
In June 2002, the government invited former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and later the OAS to broker talks between the administration and the opposition, leading to an agreement to allow a binding referendum. Meanwhile, Chávez loyalists packed the National Electoral Council (CNE) with cronies and applied hazy criteria to disqualify the signatures being collected for a recall. After the CNE allowed an official period for gathering names, it changed the rules and then dragged out a review process.
In May 2004, under pressure from the OAS and Carter Center, Chávez allowed re-examination and reconfirmation of nearly a million signatures previously thrown out by the partisan CNE. As a result, petition organizers had more than the 100,000 names needed to trigger a recall vote.
Rocky Road Ahead
While the government has set an August 15 date for the recall, a number of hurdles remain:
On May 18, a slim majority of pro-Chávez deputies in the National Assembly passed a law expanding the Supreme Justice Tribunal from 20 to 32 justices and made it possible to approve nominees and remove incumbents by simple majority vote. A subsequent "packed" court could concoct reasons to stop the recall or allow Chávez to manipulate the results.
The CNE-designed ballot appears to favor President Chávez. According to the Miami Herald, it asks voters if they think their popular and democratically elected leader should "leave office early," with a "no" box placed above "yes."
Fraud is possible with the government's purchase of electronic voting machines from a company of which the government is now part-owner. The decision to replace the old system was reportedly made in a secret meeting of the three pro-Chávez CNE members. Similar paperless machines have come under fire in the United States for software that can be rigged and weak audit trails.
Unfair distribution of identification cards could deflate the number of opponents who can vote while increasing the ranks of Chávez supporters. Electoral officials reportedly have delayed or denied new credentials to voters who signed the recall petition, while credentialing teams in military trucks circulate in neighborhoods where Chávez is popular.
Chávez continues to intimidate opponents. Government police claim they found fake ID cards, computers, and printers in raids on offices of an opposition party this month, but witnesses say they saw the police carry in suspicious bundles. The government has charged referendum organizers with conspiracy for accepting a grant from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, even though the Chávez administration has accepted thousands of doctors, teachers, and intelligence officers from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Chávez commands huge state resources. He has earmarked $1.7 billion to spend on the poor. Oil income has been diverted to an account in a state-owned bank where it allegedly funds the president's campaign. Chávez can command radio and TV stations to broadcast his speeches without equal time for opponents. And in June, he revealed plans to enlist millions of "patriotic" electoral patrols to surveil neighborhoods, under the authority of a campaign committee made up of high government officials.
Curbing a Budding Dictatorship
Before the referendum is held on August 15, the Bush Administration, allies in the OAS, and the "Group of Friends of Venezuela" (foreign ministers of Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, and Spain convened by the United States last year to encourage the Venezuelan leader to follow his own constitution) should press President Chávez to allow a vigorous international observer presence to guard against an unfair campaign, fraudulent referendum, and shenanigans in any resulting presidential election. Criteria for a fair contest should include
Freedom of all voters from partisan intimidation;
Equal party representation among poll workers and local observers;
Fair access to broadcast and print media by all sides;
Equal access to draw on state resources for the campaign;
Freedom for observers to monitor and openly report on all aspects of the electoral process; and
An independent audit or paper trail for any machines used in the contest.
Moreover, they should consider a June 2004 report by the international organization Human Rights Watch that is critical of Chávez's attempt to pack the Supreme Court. It called on the OAS to invoke Article 18 of its Democratic Charter to consult with Venezuela to reverse the measure. And it advocated suspending World Bank loans supporting justice sector projects in order to persuade the government to halt the consolidation of power in the president's hands.
In fact, the United States should encourage the World Bank to suspend all loans to the Venezuelan government unless it abides by democratic principles, while Latin American allies should invoke Article 20 of the OAS Charter authorizing the body to take steps toward suspending Venezuela's membership in the event of an alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs democratic order.
Although tragic for most Venezuelans, the situation would have little consequence for the United States and hemispheric allies except that Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil producer and President Chávez has given behind-the-scenes support to Colombia's largest rebel group and other leftist movements in the hemisphere. He opposes the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas and would like to unite Latin America in a campaign against U.S. policies, following the lead of his mentor, Fidel Castro.
To give Venezuela's citizens a chance to determine their own future and reduce the chances that Chávez will inflict damage on neighboring countries, the United States and its hemispheric allies must help guarantee broad suffrage by insisting on comprehensive electoral observation by international bodies, by developing criteria for what constitutes an unfair referendum and follow-on election, and by taking steps to suspend Venezuela's international privileges if its democracy finally runs off the rails.
Steven Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.