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Hugo Chavez’s Voting Machine

Where reality collides with reality TV in the increasingly strange universe of Venezuela politics

Jorge Ramos

STORY TOOLS

The bitter arguments over accusations of vote-buying and illegal media spending that have engulfed Mexico since the recent election must seem laughable to Hugo Chavez. Venezuela’s president does all that and more, and he offers no apologies for keeping a tight grip on power for 13 years.

This year, faced with a tightening race in Venezuela’s October election, Chavez has launched a new campaign tactic that is gaining traction: Housing giveaways, televised weekly. In an article published in July, William Neuman, a correspondent for The New York Times, described how Chavez’s government is broadcasting a sort of reality TV show every Thursday in which officials—including sometimes Chavez himself—hand over furnished houses or apartments to impoverished Venezuelans. The lucky recipients are always (surprise!) big Chavez supporters who gush about what a great man he is.

Unfortunately, this show fills many Venezuelans with the hope that one day they too can win a house if they dutifully support their president—never mind that Chavez has done little to ease Venezuela’s endemic poverty or its dreadful housing situation. This housing lottery is nothing more than a blatant ploy to keep him in office.

Chavez not only controls most of the Venezuelan government and the army, he also manipulates the courts into rubber-stamping his efforts to intimidate and silence his critics.

The same is true of much of Venezuela’s media, and Chavez generally requires every radio station and television channel to broadcast his campaign events, a luxury that Henrique Capriles, the candidate from Venezuela’s united opposition, certainly does not enjoy.

In a report released on July 17, Human Rights Watch denounced Chavez’s government and its political machine. Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, wrote: “For years, President Chavez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda.” (By the way, Vivanco was expelled from the country in 2008, when he last compiled a similar report on Venezuela.)

Chavez’s style of political bullying has also spread to the Internet. You can see this firsthand if you write something negative (at)chavezcandanga (Chavez’s handle) on Twitter: Soon many Internet trolls and Chavez supporters will attack you online. That’s understandable—Chavez rules Venezuela by force, and that’s all he and his supporters know. But after 13 years in office, Chavez is showing signs of weakness. He has been hobbled physically by a cancer, and also politically, due to his failure to deal with the nation’s most pressing problems year after year. The opposition is drawing huge crowds, leading analysts to speculate that this may be the closest election in Venezuela in decades.

What Chavez does excel at, of course, is talking. At a July news conference—which lasted five hours —Chavez declared himself cured of cancer (as he did last year, only to have it return) and vowed to launch an energetic new campaign offensive.

Francisco Urreiztieta, a Univision correspondent, asked Chavez about his new ideas. What would he offer to Venezuelans if re-elected?

Chavez couldn’t answer, and instead attacked his opposition. “I could stay here talking until the break of dawn about the new things,” he said. “But what new things will the bourgeoisie offer? Go ask the bourgeois candidate. What’s new? Nothing.”

There is no doubt that Chavez will only continue to undermine democracy and human rights in Venezuela.

And if he wins re-election on Oct. 7, it will be with the help of his political cohorts, who operate a giant voting machine designed to further oppression rather than to produce fair democratic results.
Capriles, the opposition candidate, knows that the odds are stacked against him—he is at a disadvantage both in terms of funding and media coverage.

But he and his supporters have decided to stay on the campaign trail. They have to. If they fail to oust Chavez this year, what little is left of Venezuela’s democracy will likely disappear.•

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