A recently published book is focusing on an important subject. In ”The Dictator’s Learning Curve – inside the global battle for democracy,” William Dobson writes about the Arab Spring, but also about Venezuela, Russia, Iran and others. We have got used to dictatorships being totalitarian, controlling the inhabitants through brutality. The standard image of a dictator is a military coupster with epaulets on his shoulders. But the last 20 years that type of dictator has been in the minority.
Most authoritarian countries today celebrate elections, and make an effort to appear democratic. This is in and of itself nothing new; ”Tiden” (a Swedish social-democratic political magazine) wrote about these electoral dictatorships already in the 1930’s. Back then they existed in Europe, including the Baltic states, and the model was Nazi Germany, a country that aspired to appear to follow the constitution.
A contemporary case that is given a lot of attention in the book is socialist Venezuela and the “Bolivarian revolution,” the term Hugo Chávez uses for the project to unite Latin America under socialism. Already 1999, the same year he took office as a democratically elected president, he convened a Constituting Constitutional Assembly. The assembly consisted of 125 “chaviztas” and 6 others, elected in a rapid election where the distribution of mandates was far from proportional. All the powers were gathered in this assembly, which was not sanctioned by the constitution, and the whole process was legitimized by referenda before and after.
But were those polls free and fair? The days after June 28, 2009, when Zelaya’s attempt to hold an illegal referendum about convening a constituting constitutional assembly in Honduras had been stopped, the Attorney General found electoral material where the result of the referendum already was tabulated: A huge victory for “yes”. The ballots and the tabulation sheets came from Venezuela. What is the term to use when the tools of democracy are used to overthrow the constitution? And with support from a foreign power? There is no doubt that the procedure in Venezuela in 1999 was unconstitutional. It was a coup d’état sanctioned by the Supreme Court.
Early in 2002 Chávez announced changes in the popular state-owned oil company PDVSA. It provoked a strike, which got popular support. On April 11 a million-strong demonstration marched to the presidential palace, where they were being shot at. Both sides accused the other. The end result was that Chávez was forced to resign, but General Baduel had him reinstated after 3 days.
The shooting of the unarmed demonstrators became a water divide. In 2003, democratic organizations gathered 3.2 million signatures demanding a referendum for recalling Chávez. After many obstructions the regime was finally forced to hold a recall referendum on August 15, 2004.
Based on opinion polls and exit polls it was universally expected that ”yes” would prevail, but the election authority unexpectedly announced that ”no” had won, and Chávez could remain in office. Seven peer-reviewed articles about the referendum have since been written in two scientific journals (International Statistical Review, and Statistical Science), and the conclusion is clear: Chávez’s presidency would have been revoked if it hadn’t been for fraud in the vote-counting from the electronic voting machines, which were used for the first time on that occasion.
One of the article authors, Guillermo Salas, describes how an electoral dictatorship has to succeed with four things in order to achieve democratic legitimacy:
- create an electoral system that allows for fraud,
- create faith in this system,
- create an expectation that the regimen candidate will win, and
- get a ”seal of quality” on the result.
According to Salas the strategy has been implemented in the following way:
- electronic voting has been introduced,
- the opposition assures that the process is transparent,
- opinion polls show that the regime will win, and
- either the opposition accepts defeat, or an international election observer approves the result.
A complementing strategy is to occasionally allow the opposition to win, but only in cases where it doesn’t matter, such as governors and parliaments without power.
On October 7 the next presidential election will be held. The opposition has united behind Henrique Capriles, a 40-year old bachelor and governor for the second most populous state. While Chávez is suffering from cancer and moves with difficulty, Capriles is radiating health and youth. As a way of compensating for the total domination of the media on the part of the regime, Capriles has travelled around the country holding election meetings, in spite of assassination attempts. Politically he is close to social democracy, just like Carlos Andrés Pérez, called CAP, the president that Chávez tried to overthrow in a military coup in February of 1992.
The election campaign of Chávez is predominantly negative. He calls Chávez an “adulating wretch,” and has threatened with civil war “if the opposition wins.” Venezuela’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Diego Arria, said in an interview September 7 that Chávez’s words about “civil war” in effect was a veiled threat to carry out a massacre, since only one side in the conflict is armed. This is the first time in Latin America that the executive has threatened the citizens, he said, and compared it with Hitler’s threatening of the Jews, Milosevic’s of the Muslims, and Kaddafi’s of the opposition. (Arria was a witness against Milosevic in the war crime tribunal, and chairman of the UN Security Council when it condemned Libya for the bombing over Lockerbie; Chávez would refer to Kaddafi as his “brother.”)
Chávez accuses the opposition of being “ultra-right”. When Chávez calls the social democrat CAP “ultra-right” it says more about how far left he himself is ideologically. Although he, during the election campaign in 1998, replied “no” on the question whether he was a socialist, in 2007 he stated that he is a Trotskist, and Fidel Castro has said that Chávez politics “of course” is communist.
As it turns out, Fidel Castro of Cuba is namely behind Chávez’s power grab in Venezuela, according to a new book by General Carlos Peñaloza, former head of the army in Venezuela. Already in 1984 he identified Chávez as an infiltrator in the army, and in December of 1989 he had Chávez (who by then was serving in the presidential palace) arrested on suspicion of planning to murder the president. However, the president (CAP) didn’t believe the accusations, and allowed Chávez to continue to serve. The rest is history.
Peñaloza’s book is called “El Imperio de Fidel” and deals with Fidel up to 1967. The follow-up will deal with Chávez’s role as Fidel’s “successor”. One could also call Chávez Castro’s quisling, considering how the Cubans have plundered Venezuela since 1999: a large part of Cuba’s revenues come from Venezuela. Venezuela is also the bridgehead of influence in Latin America for the Cuban dictatorship. There is therefore very much at stake for the Castro brothers on October 7.
According to political consultant and analyst Eric Ekvall, who for 30 years has been based in Venezuela, Capriles now has an advantage of 15 points after correction for a systematic error in all opinion polls (due to fear of being registered as having anti-regime opinions). Fearing a huge electoral loss the regime has taken new illegal actions. The electronic voting machine is now equipped with a fingerprint scanner. The same system first checks the voter’s identity using the social security number; then decides whether the person should be allowed to vote; and finally records his or her vote. The regime is in total control. There is no possibility for the opposition to manually verify if it’s the right person who is voting, or if the same physical person is voting multiple times. The fingerprint is in effect not used, but the scanner has a psychological effect. According to a poll commissioned by the opposition, 63% of voters do not trust that the vote is secret.
Scientific research has shown that electoral dictatorships can survive only because the opposition has more to win from losing than from winning. The iron grip of the regime can only be broken if there is a strong third force. Nobody can know today how strong the popular resistance is in Venezuela. Unless the election is canceled, the regime will probably declare itself the winner, the people will take to the streets, and then we’ll find out how the militias and the military will react.