The Venezuela Factor

As the Democrats brace themselves for further shenanigans on Election Day, a bizarre new hypothetical scenario is unfolding. What if it should be the Republicans that cry foul this time, and not the Democrats? While it may seem unlikely, that’s a possibility that occurred to me as I read a curious article in the New York Times.

The piece discussed how Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, had successfully lobbied the U.S. government into investigating a company called Smartmatic. The firm owns Sequoia Voting Systems, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of electronic voting machines. Sequoia’s voting equipment will be used in the November 7, 2006 Congressional elections in 16 U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia.

The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) a multi-agency panel that approves or rejects foreign takeovers, will handle the investigation. Maloney is the ranking member on the Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Trade and Technology Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over CFIUS.

Could it be, I wondered, that after six long years of Republican rule and electoral shenanigans, the Democrats had finally found their nerve and were going to fight to preserve our electoral democracy?

Then I read the fine print: what really upset Maloney was that Smartmatic might have ties to leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his government.

Demonizing Chavez has become de riguer ever since the Venezuelan leader called Bush “the devil” while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Chavez was prompted to go on his rhetorical offensive after enduring years of strong-arm U.S. interventionist tactics in his nation’s internal politics (for a more detailed explanation of these issues see my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S., published by St. Martin’s Press).

According to the Miami Herald, Maloney expressed concerns regarding Smartmatic’s purchase of Sequoia last year and a possible connection between the Venezuelan government and Smartmatic through the software company, Bizta- which is operated by two of the same people who own Smartmatic.

At one time, the Venezuelan government owned 28% of Bitza. But, Sequoia claims this part “ownership” in Bizta merely added up to collateral for a $150,000 loan that Bizta had received in 2003 from the Venezuelan Industrial Credit Fund, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Smartmatic is owned by three Venezuelans; they are being investigated by the Feds in an effort to ascertain whether Caracas has any control or influence over Smartmatic. Company officials strenuously deny any link, as does the Venezuelan government.

By calling for an investigation, Maloney gets to look tough on the issue of voter technology. Maloney, who voted for the Iraq war in 2002 but who now seeks to redeploy the troops “at the earliest practicable date,” specializes in fishing for safe issues that make her look strong on national security. She recently called for reform of the CFIUS process that allowed Dubai Ports World to acquire a British company that controlled operations in several key U.S. ports.

“Just as the Dubai ports deal was a priority security issue,” she remarked, “any potential foreign influence on our elections system is vital to our national security and deserves at least a look. It doesn’t seem that the deal for Sequoia was vetted by our government, and I want to know why.”

By raising the red flag on Venezuela Maloney gets into the good graces of the mainstream media, which has been condemning Chavez ever since his inflammatory appearance at the United Nations.

CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a nationalist xenophobe, has long been a leading Chavez critic. Not surprisingly he lavished praise on Maloney, remarking on his show that “we have to give just extraordinary credit to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. She focused on this issue, she brought it to the attention of the public, and our hats are off to her.”

Hopefully, the controversy swirling around Sequoia will fade from memory and the federal investigation will establish that the Venezuelan owned company never had any ties to the Chavez government.

But what if, on Election Day, the Republicans suffer a debacle? They could accept their defeat, or contest the result if there are further irregularities with electronic voting machines. One politically shrewd maneuver would be for the Republicans to turn the tables by pointing the finger at Sequoia and accusing Chavez of interference.

Such a scenario, while certainly unlikely, could prove to be a nightmare.

One can easily imagine the media feeding frenzy and fire and brimstone rhetoric emanating from the likes of Lou Dobbs.

Such a nationalist backlash would prove vexing for the Democrats. Over the past few months, the party has sought to distance itself from Chavez. Carolyn Maloney, in fact, is not nearly as strident as some other supposedly liberal members of Congress. After Chavez insulted Bush at the United Nations, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi called the Venezuelan president “a thug.”

In the event that the GOP contests the electoral result or blames Sequoia, trust Pelosi, Maloney and the rank and file to flee from electoral confrontation with the Republicans for fear of being tied to Chavez. Trust the GOP to use the issue as a means to diplomatically isolate the Chavez regime and create further political destabilization in Venezuela.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press).



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NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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