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Why Progressives Should Defend Venezuela’s Democratic Elections

On Sunday December 6th, Venezuelans will head to the polls in parliamentary elections. I want to make the case that progressives in the United States should care about these elections and oppose any attempts by the US government and corporate media to delegitimize them. The popular sectors in Venezuela are the natural allies of those struggling for social and economic justice in the United States. They, like us, aspire to build a new world where people’s needs, not private accumulation, drive social and economic policy. Most important, it is up to the Venezuelan electorate to decide the outcome of the parliamentary elections– not Washington, not the media, and not the Organization of American States.

There is a common editorial theme that generally runs through the corporate media narrative on Venezuela, from the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998, to the December 6th parliamentary elections tomorrow: cast a pall over the Bolivarian revolution and a sympathetic light over the right wing opposition. This does not make for balanced reporting, and it has done its damage to the image of the Bolivarian cause. Consistent with this theme, we read in the Washington Post that “anything other than an opposition win is likely to produce charges of fraud.” Really? And what about the journalistic responsibility to ask whether such charges are well founded? Journalist Eva Golinger, who does ask such questions, documents other similar threads in the mainstream press, including in the Guardian and the Financial Times. Golinger herself has recently had an article censored by CNN when she declined to include suspect language that was critical of the electoral process in Venezuela.

The US State Department has issued a nuanced statement on the elections suggesting that there is a campaign of intimidation of opposition supporters and it links the killing of opposition politician Luis Manuel Diaz to this alleged campaign. An investigation by Venezuelan authorities, however, suggests that the killing is linked to organized crime, not the election. The Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, has written Venezuela’s National Electoral Commission (CNE) to complain that “the conditions in which people will vote … aren’t right now as transparent and just as the (electoral council) ought to guarantee.” Such an unsubstantiated allegation further erodes the fading relevance of the OAS in hemispheric affairs. These statements, along with the perfect harmony of the media chorus, sustain the narrative of the most extreme right wing elements inside Venezuela who insist that any substantial loss for the opposition candidates of the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) at the polls, or even an insufficient win, would be inconsistent with national polling data and therefore indicate electoral fraud. The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has published a study that shows how such an inference would be erroneous given the “potential for significant disparity between the popular vote and the distribution of seats among the opposing parties and coalitions,” a disparity that can happen in US elections as well.

The parliamentary elections are being conducted by Venezuela’s CNE, which has a solid track record, having directed 19 clean elections over the past sixteen years. While the Venezuelan government will not allow an official OAS observer mission (just as a number of other countries, including the US do not allow such missions) an impartial Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) observation team is accompanying the elections, as well as domestic observers from the competing political parties. So far the routine audits and equipment testing have gone off well. And that should not be a surprise. This electoral system has been called “the best in the world” by Jimmy Carter in 2012 and remains state of the art today.

For some anti-Chavistas, even a win for the opposition would be looked upon with suspicion! Moises Naim,  writing for The Atlantic, argues that should “the government let the opposition win,” (let them win?!) President Maduro would find ways to resume his “dictatorship.” Now let’s pause here. Never mind that Maduro was democratically elected president in a close presidential contest in April 2013 and that Article 72 the 1999 Constitution provides that offices filled by popular vote are subject to a recall referendum after the office holder has completed half of the term in office. Such details would sully the narrative. To continue the scenario, one of the things Naim fancies that Maduro might try, should the opposition win big, is to admit defeat, but then move to “stealthily undermine the effectiveness of the opposition with filibusters and delaying tactics.” Sound familiar? Filibusters and delaying tactics may be troublesome, but there is no need to hide them, nor do they necessarily constitute an ingredient of dictatorial power.

Like other elections in Venezuela since 1998, there has been a great deal of political polarization during the campaign. The Maduro administration has continued investment in the social missions that have lifted millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and increased access to education, housing, and health care, despite the fall in oil prices. But the Maduro administration has been taking a hit in the polls on account of public dissatisfaction with shortages of basic commodities, rampant crime, and out of control inflation. This dissatisfaction has been viewed by the opposition as an opportunity to make inroads with the disaffected and independent electorate. The MUD, however, while emphasizing that it stands for change and free market oriented reforms, has arguably not presented a unified, coherent, alternative that clearly projects a theme of social and economic inclusion. The Bolivarian revolutionaries do not seek mere inclusion in a capitalist system whose inner logic fosters growing social and economic inequality, but rather the transformation of that system into a democratic socialist one that overcomes such inequality. Finally, the proven ability of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to rally the their electoral base, even in times of adversity, cannot be discounted.

The elections also have important regional implications. Over the past sixteen years, Venezuela has led the way towards Latin American—Caribbean integration and independence as well as the promotion of a multi-polar world. This continent wide Bolivarian trend has been on a collision course with Washington’s strategic goal of spreading neoliberalism throughout the hemisphere as the only acceptable model of governance. A parliamentary victory for Chavismo would also likely get in the way of efforts to gain universal regional acceptance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that is expected to become a corner stone of the Obama legacy.

The dominant media narrative today generally leaves out an important feature of elections in Venezuela over the past two decades. Despite a purported commitment to liberal democratic procedures, the counter-revolution has episodically resorted to extra -constitutional tactics when the ballot box has failed them. For example, in April of 2002 there was a short lived right wing coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez that was reversed by a popular uprising. During the short-lived coup, the opposition did not have to worry about a National Assembly. It was immediately dissolved by the golpistas! In the aftermath of the April 2013 presidential election and again after significant losses in the December 2013 municipal elections hard line elements of the opposition resorted to violence when elections failed them.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of such violence, President Maduro has signed an agreement with the CNE, pledging to accept the results of the parliamentary elections. The coalition of Chavista parties in the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) signed the pledge too, while the opposition parties of the MUD have declined.  The government has also beefed up security at more than 14,000 polling stations throughout the country to ensure that the nation’s electorate may exercise the right to vote in peace. Despite the deep political divide, the majority of Venezuelans support constitutional means for deciding political contests and they oppose violence. Let us hope that message gets through to Washington and the mainstream media.

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Frederick B. Mills is a professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University.

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