Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan Election
8:00 AM, Oct 14, 2010 • By VANESSA NEUMANN
“Before we get off the plane, I might ask you to take my laptop and cell phone through the airport for me,” said my traveling companion. “In case I get arrested upon landing.” “Ok,” I answered hesitantly. “No problems.”
The laptop belonged to Diego Arria, a former governor of Caracas, former Venezuelan ambassador to the U.N., former assistant secretary general of the U.N. and current outspoken critic of President Hugo Chávez. When Chávez mocked Arria on national television and then expropriated his farm, Arria tweeted, “I’ll see you in The Hague, Chávez.”
I flew with Arria to our homeland for the parliamentary elections there on September 26, when all the seats in the National Assembly were up for grabs, as they are every five years, in accordance with the new constitution passed under Chávez. At stake was Hugo Chávez’s absolute control of the National Assembly, a consequence of the opposition boycott of the 2005 congressional elections. The opposition claimed that since those elections were rigged, their participation would only help legitimize Chávez. However, the boycott wound up empowering the president by giving him nearly unlimited power to pass any law he likes and to rule by decree. The opposition did not intend to make the same mistake with the September 26 elections, widely considered a test for the 2012 presidential elections.
If they are, Chávez should be worried — his United Socialist Party (PSUV) lost the popular vote. Although last year’s new and unconstitutional electoral law ensured that he would retain a majority of the seats, Chávez has taken a serious blow: The new National Assembly that will be sworn in on January 5th will no longer be his puppet, as it has been the past five years. With Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution now facing its counter-revolution, Venezuelans are celebrating what they’ve come to call “the end of fear.”
Going into the elections, voters had three issues on their minds: The soaring crime rates that give Caracas a murder rate four times that of Baghdad; a crumbling infrastructure that results in regular food and water shortages and electricity outages; and finally the new electoral law that heavily favored the PSUV by giving disproportionate representation to the smaller states that are renowned chavista, or Chavez supporter, strongholds. Proportionally, the tiny and economically insignificant Delta Amacuro (which is chavista) with 106,000 voters, should get 2 reps; it gets 4. By contrast, the opposition stronghold of Miranda, with nearly 1.9 million voters, should get 17 reps but instead gets 12. Even under Chávez’s own revised constitution, the new law is patently unconstitutional, but was still passed by the current National Assembly that is under his near-exclusive control. The law means that even if Chávez were to lose a majority of the popular vote, he could retain a majority of the National Assembly.
Chávez’s opponents charge that none of the elections held while he’s been in power have been truly free and fair. The electoral process is anything but transparent, with the National Electoral Commission (CNE) registering 7 million, mostly chavista, voters to a roster of 11 million in 11 years. Critics claim that many of these newly registered voters are dead or never existed. With paranoia running high, there are even claims that some of them are terrorists from FARC or Hezbollah, given refuge by Chávez. What is clear is that Chávez has flouted campaign laws by using public funds to favor the PSUV, such as by forcing all nine national TV networks and their 159 affiliates to broadcast at least four hours a day of Chávez speeches. On top of all this is Chavez’s intimidation of his opponents, but Arria gave no signs of concern.
Traveling from New York by way of South Florida, Arria was recognized by supporters at La Guardia and Miami airports. “You are a hero and a symbol, my brother,” said one of his fans. “If there’s trouble,” a woman in a pink shirt told him as we boarded the second flight, “my friends and I will surround you. We won’t let you be arrested.” Waiting in line at Caracas’s Simón Bolívar International Airport, someone ahead of me turned excitedly and asked: “Is that Diego Arria? It looks like Diego Arria.” I shrugged my shoulders in feigned ignorance and looked away while I watched him be interrogated by the immigration agent who finally allowed him into the country. Thankfully, he got to hold on to his laptop and phone, but a day later Arria caught a government intelligence officer outside his home.