Caracas, Venezuela – As Katiuska Correa-Guia heads to vote in Venezuela, comments from a senior US official questioning the fairness of the country’s electoral system have left a sour taste in her mouth.
Roberta Jacobson, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told a Spanish newspaper that “it will be a little difficult” for Venezuela’s elections to be “clean and transparent”.
Correa-Guia said that is absurd. “We still don’t know who really won the US presidential vote in 2000 because of problems with the counting in Florida,” the lawyer and supporter of Venezuela’s socialist government told Al Jazeera. “These statements from US officials are nothing new, but we are a sovereign country and the world needs to acknowledge the transparency of our electoral process.”
Sunday’s election follows the death of populist President Hugo Chavez in March and pits interim Socialist Party leader Nicolas Maduro against opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.
Most polls predict a victory for Maduro, who pledges to continue building “21st-century socialism” in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
Attempt to discredit
Relations with the US have been rocky since Chavez was first elected in 1998, even though 40 percent of Venezuela’s oil still flows to Uncle Sam.
“Capriles could be a very good president,” Assistant Secretary Jacobson said in the interview with El Pais newspaper last month, “but we don’t have a favourite”.
We had at least 17 audits carried out on the electoral system in which technicians from the various political parties take part ... The process is transparent.
The comments angered electoral authorities who see them as clear support for one candidate in Venezuela’s domestic political race.
“Statements from US officials are part of a long campaign to discredit Venezuelan institutions,” a senior official with the National Electoral Council (CNE), Venezuela’s voting authority, told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.
“We had at least 17 audits carried out on the electoral system in which technicians from the various political parties take part,” he said. “They test the software and the ink. The process is transparent.”
‘Best process in the world’
Venezuela uses automated machines to tabulate votes, rather than hand-written ballots. During the last presidential election in October 2012, the Socialist Party won by more than 10 percentage points.
The Carter Center, an election watchdog led by former US president Jimmy Carter, has praised Venezuela’s balloting system. “Of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world,” Carter said last year.
Venezuela’s opposition, however, believes the process is organised to favour the ruling party. “The electoral authorities are partisan towards the government,” Jorge Millan, a spokesman for the First Justice Party and Capriles’ campaign manager in Caracas, told Al Jazeera. “They created new voting booths in certain areas [where government support runs high]. The phone company is owned by the government and it transmits data from the elections.”
Electoral authorities scoff at these suggestions. “Henrique Capriles is the current governor of Miranda state,” the CNE official told Al Jazeera. “The system is good when you win but not when you lose?”
Shady dealings on both sides
While many observers say the voting process is perfectly fair, state resources, especially from the national oil company PDVSA, are widely believed to be used by the Socialist Party for its own political ends. Company buses ferry workers to pro-government demonstrations, and many employees say they are compelled to attend.
There are other cases where public funds seem to have been used for party functions. The Argentine football star Diego Maradona was reportedly paid $2m to attend Maduro’s closing campaign rally, and critics insinuate he was paid with state resources.
In her critique of Venezuela’s election process, Jacobson said a fair vote includes “a free press, which we have not seen so much in recent years in Venezuela”.
Before Sunday’s vote, the opposition lodged a formal complaint with the CNE alleging that state broadcaster Venezolana de Television (VTV) was violating election rules by broadcasting“biased political content”.
|Nicolas Maduro during his swearing-in ceremony [Reuters]|
“It is unacceptable that an official channel breaks the rules,” Capriles’ campaign team said in a statement calling on election authorities to take quick and decisive action.
“The opposition gets money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI), USAID and these various US-backed NGOs.”Government supporters, meanwhile, say much of the media constantly critiques the Socialist Party in favour of the opposition. And they allege that Capriles receives campaign money from the US. “The PSUV [Socialist Party] is financed by the contributions from its members; I fund them when I can,” Adan Gonzalez, a pro-government media analyst, told Al Jazeera.
The opposition has historic ties with the United States. An employee of American Airlines in Caracas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal, said Capriles usually flies to Washington a few weeks before each election to plan strategies with US officials. The claim could not be independently verified.
A translator responsible for guiding a Capriles focus group – organised by Washington political consultants – in rural Venezuela said the opposition’s message and even the body language of its candidate are carefully choreographed by high-priced Beltway strategists. Again, the translator asked to remain nameless because of the issue’s sensitivity, and claim could not be independently confirmed.
In recently released diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks reports the US strategy in Venezuela involves: “Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.”
The US has spent millions of dollars interfering in Venezuela’s political process with the “desired effect of pulling them [government supporters] slowly away from Chavismo”, the diplomatic cables reveal.
Meanwhile, pro-government militia have been accused of intimidating residents of low-income communities who actively support Capriles.
“There have been acts of violence targeting the opposition in different parts of the country, making it difficult for us to run a normal campaign,” Millan, the First Justice Party spokesperson, said.
Members of armed, pro-government gangs told Al Jazeera they would resort to violence if Capriles wins the election by a small margin.
Venezuela steps up security ahead of Sunday polls
Victor Mijares, professor of political science at Simon Bolivar University, is seen as a centrist political analyst. “The US makes these sorts of statements under a certain sense of national interest, to be sure,” he told Al Jazeera. “But it’s not only a political warning; it has some basis.”
The ruling party, he said, has been using state resources for its own benefit, adding that “advantages and irregularities are problems faced by all democracies, to greater and lesser extents”. He said relations with the US will improve after this election, regardless of who wins.
Others, however, say US “hypocrisy” towards Latin America has been on full display with the recent comments from the State Department.
“The CIA has been trying to destabilise Venezuela,” Gonzalez said. “They want us to pump more oil so prices will be lower. They have no moral capacity to make statements about our democracy.”
The US quickly congratulated Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto after his election in 2012, despite widespread accusations of fraud, including ballot-stuffing, and well-documented cases of voters being given grocery vouchers in exchange for voting for Nieto’s party.
Sunday’s vote in Venezuela comes 11 years after an attempted coup against the democratically elected socialist government, organised by pro-business lobby groups and supported by some sectors of the security forces. The US supported the putsch. Loyal soldiers and demonstrators eventually returned the elected president to power.
For voters such as Katiuska Correa-Guia, US double-standards – criticising a country’s electoral system while backing unelected usurpers – represent one more reason to cast a ballot in favour of the “anti-imperialist” Socialist Party.