The best election money could buy

Por Venezuela Real - 8 de Diciembre, 2006, 13:04, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Mary O´Grady
Wall Street Journal
December 08, 2006

As midday Mass at the Cathedral on Plaza Bolivar drew to a close on Sunday, the celebrant issued a plea for peace: The winner of the presidential election must be respected, he told the congregation, but so too the loser, who is also a Venezuelan in this land blessed by God.

I gazed at the crucifix behind the altar and pondered the admonition. It was only 1 p.m., far too early to call a winner in the race between President Hugo Chavez and the challenger, Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales. But the Church was already signaling concern -- as it has been for the past eight years under the Chavez government -- about the end of tolerance in a nation that is supposed to be a democracy. There was good reason.

The words from the pulpit echoed in my mind that evening, when some 20 loudly rumbling motorcycles passed in front of the car in which I was riding near Plaza Altimira, where anti-Chavez Venezuelans have been known to gather. Each bike carried two helmeted men in military garb, armed with riot shields and long rifles.

It was nearly 6:30 p.m. and darkness had fallen. I remembered that Chavez supporters had more than once shot and killed unarmed civilians with impunity and I thought about heading back to my hotel. But I wanted to see whether the opposition would rally on its own turf. So I continued around the square. What I saw next was truly frightening.

The flowers growing in the plaza were drooping under a tropical shower as members of Mr. Chavez's feared National Guard poured out of a military vehicle on one side of the street and armies of informal government enforcers known as chavistas gathered on the other. A red truck was blaring revolutionary music. A bus carrying about 10 chavistas, their heads wrapped in the signature red of the Chavez campaign, drove menacingly up and down the street. It honked its horn and pulled wild U-turns as its passengers, at least one of whom was naked from the waist up, leaned out the door and windows pumping their fists and shouting angrily into the evening air.

Mr. Chavez's metropolitan police and the military ignored their lawlessness. A 23-year-old woman driving past the plaza later that night says she was set upon by chavistas wielding baseball bats and that her car windows were smashed. I wondered why, if the president had won re-election, he needed to turn his goons on the civilian population.

I never believed that Fidel Castro's Venezuelan "mini-me" would be defeated on Sunday even though there is scant evidence that a majority of Venezuelans back his socialist revolution. Instead, I expected that a Chavez victory could be had "legally" through a combination of coercion, manipulation and the liberal use of state funds.

This seems to be what happened. The National Electoral Council (CNE) says that Mr. Chavez got about 61% of the vote versus 37% for Mr. Rosales; no one in the opposition is challenging his victory. Nevertheless, it is difficult to judge the race fair.

Among the irrefutable complaints from the independent electoral watchdog group known as Sumate (literally "Join Up") is the charge that the government would not allow an independent and reliable audit of the electoral registry; in the two years and three months since the recall referendum, voter rolls grew more than 30%. This left a lot of Venezuela wondering who these new voters were but the government refused to release the full registry (including addresses) or post local lists at polling stations, as required by law.

Economic intimidation also played a role. It may be true that the poorest voted heavily Chavez. I don't know. But one economic step up from the most destitute, I have found palpable distrust of this president. In the struggling municipality called Caricuao, 30 tiny medical clinics and a number of larger ones have opened in the past year. I visited three clinics there on Monday, all of which are staffed by Cubans and decorated with anti-American propaganda. Yet this huge state effort to ideologically capture a barrio seems to have delivered only mediocre results.

A local woman I interviewed told me that her neighborhood was politically divided. Many dislike Mr. Chavez greatly, she said, but believed that the electronic voting machines and the fingerprint tracking machines at the polls would allow the government to know how they voted and that they would lose their government jobs if they went against him. Such fears are not irrational. It is well documented that the government has created enemies lists and fires dissidents.

Perhaps the working poor dismiss Mr. Chavez because they see so many apparatchiks getting fat off corruption while they get only crumbs. A new report by former Venezuelan oil company director Gustavo Coronel, published by the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, finds that during the past eight years government oil revenues and revenue from issuing new debt total at least $175 billion and that this windfall has been accompanied by a sharp drop in transparency. "For example," Mr. Coronel writes, "the state-owned oil company ceased publishing its consolidated annual financial statements in 2003, and Chavez has created new state-run financial institutions, whose operations are also opaque, that spend funds at the discretion of the executive."

Unaccounted for state funds could have been used to finance Mr. Chavez's re-election in more than one way. According to Goldman Sachs emerging-market analyst Alberto Ramos, "if you include imports, car sales are expected to almost double this year to about 300,000, many of them luxury models." If you have the right politics, you too might join the fun.

Yet trouble is looming as expectations rise and delivering on promises becomes more difficult. Mr. Ramos notes that "serious macro imbalances are emerging in the economy," including "accelerating inflation, sharply depreciated black market exchange rate. . . and the gradual atrophy of the non-oil sector." It is worth worrying about what Mr. Chavez will do to maintain power when the money runs out. The Church may have some reasonable fears.

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