For the past thirteen years Venezuela has been moving away from a market economy towards a socialist economy under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. And now the future of Venezuelan socialism hangs in the balance. Or does it? A few days ago I spoke with Eric Ekvall, an American political consultant who has lived and worked in Venezuela since that country’s 1982 presidential election. Ekvall has helped with the election campaigns of such notables as Venezuela’s Jaime Ramón Lusinchi in 1983, Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias in 1985, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva in 1993. I asked Ekvall about the ongoing re-election bid of Venezuela’s ailing Hugo Chavez, especially as President Chavez has been in power for thirteen years and continues to build socialism there. Given the downgrading of the country’s economy, how could Chavez possibly expect to win yet another election?
The answer, according to Ekvall, is that Chavez cheats. “The first election we know he fixed was in 2004.” Ekvall explained. “One fifth of the population basically signed a petition to put a recall referendum on the ballot. This was delayed and delayed and the government used all kinds of mechanisms to push this back long enough for them to be able to purchase millions of dollars of electronic voting machines which had never been used in Venezuela before; we [in Venezuela] have always done paper balloting like most countries in the world…”
The significance of the electronic voting machines will be apparent to any who remember Stalin’s words from 1923: “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this – who will count the votes, and how.” The quote comes from The Memoirs of the Former Secretary of Stalin, written by Boris Bazhanov after his defection in 1928. It is one of the earliest accounts of Soviet-style political methods, showing how power may be consolidated by a dictator. According to Ekvall, Chavez’s government was also “told by their Cuban advisors to rush in a series of major welfare programs: free education programs, free food programs, appealing to lower income people to boost their sagging popularity ratings.” And how well did this work?
According to Ekvall, “Come August of 2004 the recall referendum took place … and about 75 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote and there was euphoria in the streets … that [President Chavez’s] mandate was going to be revoked …. Veteran political pollsters from the U.S. showed that the recall referendum passed 59 to 41, but to everybody’s surprise the government official figures came out 59 to 41 – but as a loss, and this raised a hue and cry among opposition politicians who basically called ‘fraud’ on the election process.” Over the years social scientists have studied the Venezuelan election of 2004, showing that 22.5 percent of the ballots had been modified. Last year six studies appeared in Statistical Science, confirming the earlier studies. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that Chavez has falsified the results of every Venezuelan election since 2004.
And now, eight years later, Chavez’s popularity has continued to fall. To counter this, an increasing number of Venezuelans have been put on the dole – to no avail. As Stalin also said, “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” Unfortunately for Chavez, the Venezuelan people are not dogs. “According to reliable polls,” noted Ekvall, “opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is ahead; so we have a very tense situation in Venezuela right now.” Capriles is an attractive, likable candidate – a political “rock star,” according to Ekvall. “Chavez is literally on the ropes.” – So how does Chavez get away with stealing the election this time? Will straightforward electronic vote fraud do the trick?
“This time, this year the government has come up with … a ‘hide in plain sight’ approach to vote fraud,” said Ekvall. “The vote fraud … is right in the polling booth. When you go in and vote in the elections this time, you are going to be confronted by an array of technology the likes of which no voter anywhere in the world has ever seen. First of all, you are going to have to punch into an interactive biometric apparatus, and punch in your national I.D. number, and then put your thumb print over a scanner … and your name will pop up … and you will be told that you can move two feet to the right, where there’s an electronic voting machine, and you can cast your vote with a touch-screen machine.”
And how does this translate into fraud? Ekvall replied: “The not-very-subtle aspect of this system is that the biometric system is visibly hooked up by a cable to the voting machine, giving rise to legitimate concerns that your vote is not going to be secret.”
The significance of secret balloting in a welfare state may be understood from recent Venezuelan history, Ekvall underscored. “During the petition drive in 2004 the government got the names of all five million people who signed the petition. They were immediately placed on a black list. “And five million people found themselves … at a disadvantage when it came to welfare credits, jobs from the government, when it came to loans, student loans, anything. If you had signed the petition to recall the president you were automatically a second class citizen. Some people have called this Venezuela’s ‘Political Apartheid.’”
Here is a slick way of intimidating voters. According to Ekvall, “People have every reason to fear….” Here is a country where the welfare state is used as a carrot, but only for those who consistently support the government. If readers wish to understand what socialism signifies, and whether socialism is consistent with liberty, they should study the Venezuelan election process. Not only have the socialists ruined Venezuela’s economy, the socialists have corrupted the voting system and the voters themselves.
Will Venezuela free itself from socialism in next month’s elections? Nobody knows for sure, but Ekvall is worried. And for the rest of us, Venezuela is not the only country on the road to serfdom.