Shadow Government

Venezuela’s grim election prospects

Despite what you read in the newspapers, don't expect Venezuela's Sept. 26 legislative assembly elections to provide a check on President Hugo Chávez's growing dictatorial powers. Although opposition candidates have decided to participate this time (in contrast to their 2005 boycott), the deck is stacked against them. Media control, gerrymandering, and monopoly of resources could help the governing party maintain or actually increase its legislative majority, despite polls that show widespread dissatisfaction.

Absent a fair contest, the election will be another step toward a one-party state in which more levers of control are in the hands of a capricious dictator accountable to no one. And despite a recent calm in the ugly rhetoric that Chávez has been hurling toward Colombia, the fiery leader could once again aim his sights against democratic neighbors to shift attention from growing problems at home. Leaders of nearby countries should not be complacent, but rather prepare for post-election troublemaking.

Since coming to power, Chávez has limited space for opponents to communicate their views to mass audiences. In 2004, the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television permitted the state to close private media for vaguely defined offenses. Since then, the government has shuttered the country's most popular television network and cable system, closed dozens of commercial radio stations, and threatened cable providers who refused to halt programming to broadcast his frequent, lengthy speeches on all channels. Meanwhile, the state has built up its own network of television and radio stations to disseminate official propaganda.

As in the United States, redistricting is a political tool for determining the distribution of legislative representatives. But in Venezuela, it has also become a means of restricting competition. Last January, the Chávez-dominated National Electoral Council announced it would expand districts where support for the president is strongest and merge precincts favoring opponents into pro-Chávez zones. If that doesn't assure a victory for pro-Chávez candidates, then fraud conceivably could be an option through software manipulation in the regime's voting machines.

Chávez also enjoys broad influence over the electoral process. He controls billions of dollars in social welfare programs, reminders of which are in abundance on election days. Chávez supporters reportedly have used military vehicles to cruise neighborhoods in campaigns to register voters. In prior elections, workers in state industries have been led to believe they would be fired if they voted in favor of the opposition. Candidates he may dislike have been disqualified through administrative procedures without due process of law. Even if strong sentiment against Chávez emerges, it would have to be overwhelming to make a difference.

Regardless of whether Venezuela's leader reaffirms or loses his hold on the National Assembly, dissatisfaction could continue to build. According recent statistics, Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere, with a murder rate comparable to Colombia's at the height of its internal conflict. To make up for Chávez's land and business expropriations, about 70 percent of Venezuela's goods are now imported, contributing to shortages. Then there is government incompetence-last spring a state food distributor reportedly left 1,200 shipping containers to rot in warehouses. Despite petroleum riches, this Andean nation now has one of the lowest performing economies in Latin America with inflation soaring at 25-30 percent and a gross domestic product shrinking at about 5 percent.

How long this man can dominate the national narrative in such a way that a majority will think they are better off than before he took power is debatable. Likely not long, unless he invents an external crisis as a distraction. Without picking a fight, the region's democratic leaders need to signal that they will be keeping an eye on his new stockpile of Russian weapons and alleged support for Colombian guerrillas. So far, few outside of Colombia and Peru have made concerted efforts to do so.

Since Chávez came to power in Venezuela, elections have been used to cover up a rotting social contract. They disguise manipulations that have been used to gradually dismantle a peaceful democracy. And if they don't serve that purpose this time, history tells us that this resourceful despot will find a way to neutralize the result and shift attention elsewhere.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama's freedom agenda

The freedom section of President Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause -- two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, it was also a long overdue statement; Obama's relative silence and inaction on such issues until now has been a major disappointment. Whatever the reasons may have been for the prior reticence -- an immature "Anything But Bush" reflex, a relative disinterest in foreign policy, an enervated and miscast "realism," -- they have now been supplanted. With this speech, the historically bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting liberty and human dignity abroad has returned, and on the world stage of the United Nations General Assembly.

Why not three cheers? While presidential rhetoric matters, to have enduring meaning it must be backed up by action. As strong as it was as a statement of principles, President Obama's speech did not point to a policy course going forward. Tellingly, the first third of his speech in the "what we have done" section reviewing his first two years contained not a word on the cause of freedom. It was only in the looking ahead, "what are we trying to build" section at the end that he turned to human rights and democracy.

But it is a welcome turn, and fortunately comes at what could be a propitious time for the advance of liberty. As powerful as the presidency is, it is still in the service of events. George W. Bush did not set out to be a wartime president until September 11th; Harry Truman did not assume office intending to be America's first Cold War president. The challenge a president faces is to read events and respond by seizing the initiative, to steer history's tides rather than merely be swept along.

What of events today? Even a cursory glance around the globe shows a number of nations that are in tyranny's crucible, and whose citizens may find the possibility of freedom within their grasp. Sometimes this grasp can be aided by presidential attention or even a few strategic gestures that tip the scales. Such can be the opportunity for President Obama.

Moreover, he is a president who, no matter how beleaguered at home, still commands tremendous acclaim overseas. Focusing on advancing human rights and democracy offers a chance to direct some of his considerable soft power in a constructive direction, and perhaps even recapture some of the charismatic appeal that has since his inauguration been strangely absent.

Here follows just a few countries that could benefit from presidential attention. The list below doesn't mean to neglect supporting human rights and democracy in strategic yet challenging places like China and Russia, which also merit increased attention. Merely, the course of events may have brought these following places -- for different reasons and representing almost every continent -- to a strategic crossroads during the Obama presidency:

  • Leadership transitions. Though North Korea and Egypt have many differences, they share at least two things in common: both are non-democracies, and both are approaching tenuous leadership transitions. Egypt's presidential "election" next year will be instrumental in identifying President Mubarak's successor, and North Korea's Workers Party conference next week will continue the murky power succession from Kim Jong Il to his chosen heir. In each case, the transition process represents a window of opportunity to press for democratic reform and openings in the regime.
  • Brittle and vulnerable. As Jose Cardenas points out here, and as David Kramer and Damon Wilson argue here, both Cuba and Belarus are brittle dictatorships showing distinct vulnerabilities to external pressure. In the case of Belarus in particular, a renewed U.S. effort to enlist EU support for tightened sanctions on the Lukashenka regime could bring freedom to "the last dictatorship in Europe."
  • In need of a game-changer. While Iran's nuclear program continues to dominate the headlines (when not overshadowed by Ahmadinejad's lunatic rantings), the unfortunate fact remains that economic sanctions alone are unlikely to alter the regime's drive for nuclear weapons capability. Short of military action, the best and perhaps only option for a game-changer in the current stand-off is profound internal reform in Iran -- which means supporting the embattled Green Movement and other courageous dissident voices.
  • Ignored but not forgotten. Eritrea -- a country that doubles as Africa's largest prison -- barely registers in Washington or any other Western capital city. Dictator Isaias Afewerki has thus far not faced significant outside pressure. President Obama could use his significant profile and influence in Africa to marshal a broad coalition of African leaders calling for freedom in Eritrea.
  • Open to influence. The Obama administration is wisely working to strengthen relations with Vietnam, through cooperation on civilian nuclear energy, upgraded military ties, and support for it and other middle powers against China's hegemonic claims to the South China Sea. This cooperation also gives the administration more influence over Vietnam, which remains an authoritarian one-party state. As I have written previously, Vietnam has shown a willingness (in part out of concerns over China's encroachments) to improve human rights in exchange for closer ties with the U.S.

Besides the above regimes, there are others that could be mentioned -- including Zimbabwe, Syria, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Or even Burma; perhaps a component of the new strategic partnership with Indonesia could be a renewed, multilateral push to peacefully end the Burmese junta's reign of terror? In short, there is no lack of opportune places to press for freedom; it is a matter of priority and attention.

What to do? For starters, President Obama could follow the pattern set by President Bush and meet with dissidents in the Oval Office. He should also instruct U.S. ambassadors in authoritarian countries to do the same in their homes and embassies. The State Department should empower assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Michael Posner by ensuring that he is included in high-level bilateral meetings with leaders of authoritarian countries -- and on the Secretary of State's official trips to such places. The administration should ensure that funding for human rights and democracy programs -- an almost infinitesimal portion of the foreign assistance budget -- is increased, not decreased (as was the case with the almost 12 percent cut from FY09 to FY10). It should increase support for international broadcasting efforts, such as the vital work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Finally, as with the UNGA speech, President Obama and his cabinet should continue to speak out on behalf of human rights and democracy -- and in the future mention specific countries, and specific prisoners of conscience.

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