Posted on August 20, 2004

The Price of Dissent in Venezuela

Thor L. Halvorssen, WSJ OpinionJournal, Aug. 19

CARACAS, Venezuela — On Monday afternoon, dozens of people assembled in the Altamira Plaza, a public square in a residential neighborhood here that has come to symbolize nonviolent dissent in Venezuela. The crowd was there to question the accuracy of the results that announced a triumph for President Hugo Chávez in Sunday’s recall referendum.

Within one hour of the gathering, just over 100 of Lt. Col. Chávez’s supporters, many of them brandishing his trademark army parachutist beret, began moving down the main avenue towards the crowd in the square. Encouraged by their leader’s victory, this bully-boy group had been marching through opposition neighborhoods all day. They were led by men on motorcycles with two-way radios. From afar they began to taunt the crowd in the square, chanting, “We own this country now,” and ordering the people in the opposition crowd to return to their homes. All of this was transmitted live by the local news station. The Chávez group threw bottles and rocks at the crowd. Moments later a young woman in the square screamed for the crowd to get down as three of the men with walkie-talkies, wearing red T-shirts with the insignia of the government-funded “Bolivarian Circle,” revealed their firearms. They began shooting indiscriminately into the multitude.

A 61-year-old grandmother was shot in the back as she ran for cover. The bullet ripped through her aorta, kidney and stomach. She later bled to death in the emergency room. An opposition congressman was shot in the shoulder and remains in critical care. Eight others suffered severe gunshot wounds. Hilda Mendoza Denham, a British subject visiting Caracas for her mother’s 80th birthday, was shot at close range with hollow-point bullets from a high-caliber pistol. She now lies sedated in a hospital bed after a long and complicated operation. She is my mother.

I spoke with her minutes before the doctors cut open her wounds. She looked at me, frightened and traumatized, and sobbed: “I was sure they were going to kill me, they just kept shooting at me.”

In a jarringly similar attack that took place three years ago, the killers were caught on tape and identified as government officials and employees. They were briefly detained — only to be released and later praised by Col. Chávez in his weekly radio show. Their identities are no secret and they walk the streets as free men, despite having shot unarmed civilian demonstrators in cold blood.

I was not in the square on Monday. I was preparing a complaint for the National Electoral Council regarding the fact that I had been mysteriously erased from the voter rolls and was prevented from casting a vote on Sunday. In indescribable agony I watched the television as my mother and my elderly grandparents — who were both trampled and bruised in the panic — became casualties in Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.

Col. Chávez assumed power in 1999. One need not go into great detail about the deterioration of Venezuelan life since then to understand why a recall referendum has been years in the making. Every aspect of existence has worsened. The only people who are not profoundly affected are those at the highest levels of the government party. Poverty, for instance, is at an all-time high and the country is afflicted, for the first time ever recorded, with malnutrition on a massive scale. This unprecedented suffering has occurred during the greatest oil boom in the nation’s history (Venezuela has oil reserves on the scale of those in Iraq). Col. Chávez and his “revolution” have not only led a ferocious assault on civil liberties, but have also needlessly alienated one of Venezuela’s closest allies, the U.S.

The recall referendum process has been obstructed and delayed at every turn. Dozens of independent polls predicted defeat for Col. Chávez, who did everything — including granting citizenship to half a million illegal aliens in a crude vote-buying scheme and “migrating” existing voters away from their local election office — to fix the results in his favor. One opposition leader was moved to a voting center in a city seven hours away. Another man, Miguel Romero, had for years voted in his neighborhood school in a Caracas suburb. But this time the Electoral Council computer indicated that he was to vote at the Venezuelan Embassy in Stockholm. Thousands of others, like me, were wiped from the voting rolls. Ironically, in the runup to the vote, the embassy in Stockholm, like Venezuelan diplomatic posts around the world, inexplicably ran out of passports. Many Venezuelan expatriates were thus prevented from returning to their country to vote.

In the early hours of Monday, the Electoral Council’s president (who had imposed a gag order on all exit polls until a full audit of the vote had been completed) issued a statement declaring that the computer votes had been tallied and that the government had won the referendum with 58% of the vote. The announcement came in a vacuum, without an audit, with no verification whatsoever from the international observers, and over the indignant protest of two of the five council members, who publicly questioned the result’s transparency.

The opposition, understandably shocked and demoralized, insisted on a hand-count of all computer voting receipts as the only way of settling the dramatic disparity between exit polls that showed 58% to 41% in favor of the recall and the announced result of 58% to 41% in favor of retaining Col. Chávez. Later that morning the most important observer, former President Jimmy Carter, declared that he was shown the computer tally by government supporters and that everything seemed in order. Mr. Carter then left Venezuela, and the opposition groups that had put their faith in him to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Mr. Carter, who was vociferous and insistent about patience, transparency and hand-tallies during the Florida recount, left Venezuela to attend Mrs. Carter’s birthday party.

Many in the opposition are baffled by the inverse relationship between the projected numbers and those reported by the Chávez regime. One possible clue to this remarkable phenomenon lies with the companies hired to supply the voting machines and the software. Smartmatic Corp., a Florida company that has never before supplied election machinery, is owned by two Venezuelans. The software came from Bizta Software, owned by the same two people. The Miami Herald recently revealed that the Chávez regime spent $200,000 last year to purchase 28% of Bizta and put a government official and longtime Chávez ally on the board. After the story broke, Bizta bought back the government-held shares and the official resigned from the board. But not until after the two companies were granted a significant part of the $91 million contract for the referendum. Executives at both Smartmatic and Bizta have denied any political allegiance to the Chávez regime and have issued public statements saying the contract was awarded purely on the merits.

Col. Chávez has publicly stated that the results of the referendum are irreversible and permanent and that the revolution will now intensify. He is firmly in control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; the armed forces; electoral bodies and two-thirds of the country’s economy.

In a free and decent society, it is not a crime to differ with the democratic government. The vast distance between democracy and contemporary Venezuela may be seen in the depth of Col. Chávez’s disregard for Monday’s bloodbath. Blithely ignoring the overwhelming video evidence that a massacre had taken place in his name, he minimized the incident’s importance and suggested that the gunmen were most likely linked to opposition groups. His reactions chillingly indicate the fate that might befall the millions of Venezuelans who oppose him, and who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid political violence in registering their dissent by peaceful protest or by vote.