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The prostitution of Venezuela's electoral system

By Gustavo Coronel

22.05.06 | A few days before the December 2005 Venezuelan legislative elections the voting machines were being tested in a group including international observers and members of the opposition. A mock vote took place and one of the members of the opposition told the observers: I can tell you how each one of you voted. And he did! On that basis the National Electoral Council had to correct, at the last minute, a "faulty design" detected by the opposition, one that allowed the machines to violate the secrecy of the vote. In spite of this correction, the opposition withdrew from the elections and this withdrawal generated a massive abstention of almost 90%. Not even the Chávez followers went to vote! The observers from the European Union could not understand why the opposition had withdrawn "since the faulty design was corrected right away by the National Electoral Council." Let me say this to our good friends, the European observers, who produced a largely fair report and one highly critical of the Chávez regime: If you are playing golf and you see that your opponent changes the position of the ball and only puts it back where it belongs when you call his attention to the attempt at cheating, would you like to play regularly with him? Is he to be trusted? I think not.

The Venezuelan electoral system under the Hugo Chávez regime is a classic example of how absolute power prostitutes national institutions.

The prostitution of the Venezuelan Electoral system started with the naming of the Board of Directors of the National Electoral Council, done in violation of the Venezuelan Constitution. The Board was made up of 5 members, only one of whom was truly independent, the other four being totally servile Chávez followers. This National Electoral Council went on to plague the electoral processes with numerous irregularities, most of which have well documented. As a result of these irregularities, the increasing frustration of the opposition culminated in the massive abstaining in the December 2005 legislative elections mentioned above. The reports of observers to that process from the Organization of American States, OAS, and of the European Union, EU, coincided that the National Electoral Council was not a transparent body and did not enjoy the trust of Venezuelans. They recommended that this Board should be removed and replaced by an impartial group. The Board was removed and replaced … by five new members, four of whom are as shamelessly loyal to the Chávez regime as the previous ones. This farce is little known to international public opinion, too busy watching the critical situations developing in Iran, Iraq or Palestine. As a result of this farce the doors to a transparent Venezuelan presidential election next December have been essentially closed, moving Venezuela several steps closer to a violent solution to its political problems.

What are the two main components of the electoral system that illustrate its corruption? One is the Electoral Registry. This registry is a black box. The National Electoral Council has resisted all attempts by the opposition to have proper access to it. The registry seems to have more than 15 million voters, a statistical imposibility in Venezuela, that has a population of 26 million and at least 60% of this total are younger than 18 years old, therefore unable to vote. Worse still, the registry has increased to this new level in the last three years, a rate of growth 8 to 10 times faster than the historical rate. Who are these "new" voters? No one knows (see "Red Flags on Venezuela's Electoral Roll," by Adolfo Fabregat). Half of the registered voters, denounces Enrique Naime, a leader from the opposition, do not have adresses and cannot be located. No one in his,her right mind would go to vote in these conditions of uncertainty.

The other component of the Venezuelan Electoral system that illustrates its prostitution is the voting equipment, bought from a company called SMARTMATIC, a very mysterious outfit apparently owned by Venezuelans including Antonio Mugica, Alfredo Anzola and Roger Piñate. This company has a very short history since it was created only in 2000. The company was a tiny outfit until an equally small company, also owned by the shareholders of SMARMATIC, Bizta Corporation, received an injection of money from the Hugo Chávez regime to develop a voting machine prototype. Through this money input, the regime became a shareholder of Bizta in 2003, owning 28% of the shares. Orlando Ochoa, a Venezuelan journalist, revealed that the owners of SMARTMATIC and of Bizta are the same persons and that they are very close to the Chávez regime. Journalist Richard Brand ("Forget Dubai -- worry about Smartmatic instead," The Miami Herald, March 27, 2006) mentions that a $100 million contract for the acquisition of the voting machines was awarded to SMARMATIC by the regime. At this point in time, one should ask: is it ethical that the Venezuelan government acquires voting machines from a company where they have or had shares? Is it honest that a huge $100 million contract can be awarded without much competition to a newly formed company without previous experience with voting machines? Is the ownership of SMARTMATIC well known? Can Venezuelans reasonably expect that a company having partial government ownership and having close ties with the regime can be impartial and transparent in its management of the machines? As late as 2004, a member of the Science Ministry in the Chávez regime, Omar Montilla, was also a member of the Board of Bizta, the company receiving the "loan" from the government. This total lack of transparency would be hard to accept in any type of government activity but it becomes intolerable when the electoral process is involved. The electoral process has to be built on trust. If the electoral officers cannot be trusted, if the voting machines cannot be trusted, if the electoral registry cannot be trusted, how can we have transparent elections in Venezuela? This is a question for the OAS and for the European Union, entities that still have much to say regarding the venezuelan political process. This is no longer a question for The Carter Center, organization which became, through cowardice or indifference, an accomplice of Hugo Chávez in the process of prostitution of the Venezuelan electoral system.

After contributing to the prostitution of thre Venezuelan electoral process SMARTMATIC is extending its tentacles into the U.S. Due to inexplicable ignorance of the Venezuelan tragic electoral situation, several cities and counties in the U.S. have hired SMARMATIC to conduct their electoral processes. They did it in Chicago, and they are trying to do it in Pittburgh, Florida and Colorado. In several of these places SMARMATIC and its new acquisition SEQUOIA have run into major problems of transparency and conflicts of interest. Edward Burke, a member of the Chicago City Council has referred to the Chicago performance of SMARTMATIC as "part of an international conspiration organized by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, to undermine the electoral processes in the United States," ("Asocian con Chávez a fabricante de máquina de votar usada en EEUU," Casto Ocando, El Nuevo Herald, May 14, 2006). The representatives of the cities and counties retaining these companies should have spoken with the Venezuelan opposition, in order to know what kind of services they were retaining. Michael Shamos, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh found that "the machines of SMARTMATIC-SEQUOIA allowed the machines to multiply a bunch of votes by the thousands" (quoted by Casto Ocando, see above).

Rebecca Mercuri, a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania specialized in direct-recording voting machines flatly says; "They are not auditable." And, adds Matt Zimmerman, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco: "Without the capacity for meaningful audits [direct-recording machines] are unfit for use in actual elections."

In Venezuela Hugo Chávez has structured a fraudulent electoral system. By using this fraudulent and prostituted electoral machinery he pretends to keep title to political legitimacy, in spite of his now obvious ilegitimacy derived from performance. Too many political leaders in Latin America still tolerate him, some in exchange for monetary considerations, some for vague ideological affinities, some out of resentment for the U.S. These political leaders are guilty of nurturing a monster that is not only rapidly ruining his own country, my country, but also threatens to set the whole Western Hemisphere on fire.

© 2006 Gustavo Coronel

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