Most of the news and opinion pieces about Venezuela that appear in the U.S. press paint an overwhelmingly negative picture of the country’s political landscape. But Venezuela’s October 7 presidential elections have generated a flurry of articles with a different take on the situation there, such as this piece in the Guardian, this one in the Independent, and this previously referenced New York Times/ International Herald Tribune op-ed penned by CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot. More recently, a few high profile individuals from the U.S., who monitored these and past elections in Venezuela, shared their impressions of Venezuela’s electoral process, and the implications of Chávez’s victory.
On Tuesday, a lengthy piece by Danny Glover, called “Why Chavez Won Again”, appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus. Glover, who worked in community development before becoming an actor, was an electoral monitor on the day of the elections and describes how he was “greatly moved by the extraordinary civility and enthusiasm of voters from across the political spectrum.” But, he says:
the most important moment of my trip was the day after the election when I met with local leaders and activists from the Afro-Venezuelan community of San Jose in Barlovento (…)Youth leaders described the educational missions and government programs that provided them with unprecedented access to higher education. Members of workers' cooperatives discussed new state cacao processing factories co-managed by managers and workers that had helped lift the local economy and offered fair prices and social support to poor farmers. Other representatives of the community explained how new health and education missions were addressing the needs of communities that had had little or no access to basic services.
According to Glover, the Venezuelan government’s social development agenda, and its “proactive effort to promote democratic engagement and citizen control over local conditions and possibilities” explain in part why Chávez was re-elected with an 11-point lead over his opponent. He noted that
Venezuela’s Afro-descendents – among the most under-educated, marginalized, and impoverished people in the country – were becoming pro-active citizens under the Chavez government, increasingly participating in political decision-making at the local level and claiming a voice in regional, national, and even international affairs.
Citing social and economic indicators that point to significant progress under the Chávez administration, Glover admonishes the coverage of Venezuela in much of the foreign media, which, he says, “gives the impression that Chavez’s social and economic policies are incoherent, unsustainable, and based on short-term electoral considerations.” Glover adds:
The press also often vilifies Chavez and portrays his supporters—a strong majority of the country—as poor, reverent masses who are blindly manipulated by populist rhetoric and occasional cash handouts. This portrayal is not only false, it is denigrating and injurious to the basic workings of democracy: ordinary people expressing their desires with visions of an improved quality of life, development projects, and a choice of political stewards to achieve their goals. Yet, nearly 14 years after Chávez was first elected, misrepresentations and outright fabrications still prevail in mainstream U.S. papers, television news programs, and in the statements of politicians from both major parties.
On the same day that Glover’s piece appeared, the Boston Globe published an op-ed by former Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. Delahunt, who retired from Congress in early 2009, began traveling with congressional delegations to Venezuela in the early 2000s and played a central role in creating the “Boston Group” that brought together U.S. members of Congress and members of the Venezuelan National Assembly from both pro-government and opposition parties. His goal today is to encourage dialogue between opposing political factions in Venezuela and between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments, as his op-ed, entitled “A New Role for the US and Venezuela”, demonstrates.
Delahunt, like Glover, monitored the October 7 elections and states that “whether or not one agrees with Chávez’s policies, there can be no doubt that he won these elections fairly. There are so many checks and balances in the electoral system in Venezuela that there is virtually no room for fraud.” In contrast with the image of extreme polarization that one encounters in much of the U.S. press, he describes an “atmosphere of peacefulness and mutual respect in the voting centers, where monitors from both pro-government and opposition groups were present.”
But his main message is directed at the U.S. government which he says should respect the electoral outcome and “seek to improve relations in areas where we can agree.” Commercial relations have been “excellent,” he says, and “both countries would benefit greatly from their expansion.” Unlike many U.S. policymakers and Latin America pundits who depict Venezuela as being isolated in the region, Delahunt argues that:
Venezuela will no doubt continue to play a central role in the region’s new multilateral cooperation and consultation mechanisms, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Central American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The United States, which has increasingly found itself isolated in regional forums, would do well to find ways to work with these new groups on important issues such as drug trafficking and energy cooperation. Improved relations with Venezuela would greatly facilitate this task.
Finally, earlier last month an opinion piece by Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), was published by the nonprofit news organization Truthout. SVREP is the U.S.’s largest and oldest non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting Latino voter participation, and Gonzalez contrasts the efforts made by Venezuela’s electoral authorities to maximize voter registration and turnout and the multiple obstacles that his, and other voter advocacy organizations face in the U.S. Gonzalez’s piece – called “Getting Elections Right in Venezuela and the U.S.” – states that “the U.S. may be an economically and technologically advanced nation, but in the area of elections, we could learn a thing or two from Venezuela.”
“Despite our best efforts”, writes Gonzalez, “too many U.S. citizens (millions according to some estimates) may be excluded - through unfair ID requirements, voter intimidation, and other shenanigans like last minute polling place changes - from voting on November 6th.” Meanwhile, over the last 14 years, Venezuela’s independent electoral authority, has:
massively registered new voters and created thousands of new voting centers. As a result, electoral participation in Venezuela has consistently grown and is now among the best in the world. Seventy-five percent of voters cast ballots in the presidential elections in 2006, and 81 percent of voters participated in the presidential elections there on October 7th.
Venezuela’s election authorities have carried out an unprecedented state-backed voter registration drive, says Gonzalez, with the result that “over 96% of the country's eligible citizens are now registered to vote, as compared with only 65% in the U.S.” Furthermore, Venezuela “has established a transparent and sophisticated electronic voting system which former president Jimmy Carter recently referred to as ‘the best in the world.’” Gonzalez, who has monitored previous elections in Venezuela, notes that:
touch-screen electronic voting machines produce paper receipts confirming the voter's selection. These receipts are then placed in sealed ballot boxes that can afterward be counted in order to verify that the electronic results are accurate. At the end of election day, members of both opposition and pro-government parties carry out random audits of over 50% of the boxes carrying paper receipts, a much greater statistical sample than is needed to discount the possibility of fraud. No wonder that even opposition voters had few complaints about the electoral process – other than long lines, due to the massive turnout.
If only we could see the same efforts being made by authorities in the U.S., laments Gonzalez, who ends his piece on a frustrated note:
It's unacceptable that the great American experiment in democracy continues to make it difficult for so many poor and minority citizens to exercise their most basic political right. It's time for our nation to work together to ensure that in every state and in every county, all voting age, eligible citizens can register and vote in an atmosphere free from intimidation and unfair electoral practices.