Web Exclusive

Venezuela: Timidity and Sub-Standard Election Observation

The upcoming electoral process in Venezuela is unlikely to have an international observer capable of condemning unfair tactics.
Venezuelans will head to the polls again on April 14. Photo: Guillermo Esteves. Homepage Photo: Romina Hendlin.

Last week, the Human Rights Foundation called on the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, to urge the National Electoral Council (CNE) of Venezuela to invite an OAS electoral observation mission to monitor the upcoming April 14 presidential elections.  An OAS mission—along the lines of what it used to field in the 1990s and early 2000s—would go a long way toward ensuring that the elections are free and fair and smoothing the tensions and distrust within Venezuela.  But so far, Insulza has limited himself to saying that “it would be good for Venezuela to accept” an OAS electoral observation mission.  Meanwhile, Venezuela’s CNE has already signed an agreement confirming that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will “accompany” the upcoming electoral process.

Unlike UNASUR, the OAS is the most experienced organization on the continent when it comes to electoral observation missions. Since 1962, the OAS has implemented around 200 electoral observation missions, both under normal democratic situations and also to monitor transitions from autocratic to democratic regimes.

With the collapse of the Southern Cone military dictatorships in the 1980s, it became a common practice among democratic governments in the Americas to request the support of such missions to ensure the transparency of their electoral processes. However, this trend came to an end when, in 2006, Venezuela decided not to invite the OAS to monitor its presidential elections that year.

From 1962 to 1989, the organization carried out its first 25 electoral observation missions in 11 different countries: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Grenada, and Suriname. During this period, the observation missions were limited to a symbolic presence during electoral processes, without an audit aimed at finding and denouncing irregularities, unfair advantages, or fraud by incumbents.

In 1990, the OAS carried out its first significant electoral observation mission, sending 433 delegates to Nicaragua to guarantee that the election yielded an outcome that was free and fair…and ultimately democratic. These diplomatic initiatives facilitated the peaceful transfer of power from the authoritarian Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega to a democratic coalition led by Violeta Chamorro. When the Sandinista government refused to publicly accept Chamorro’s electoral victory, the OAS Secretary General, Joao Soares, brokered the negotiations that resulted in the signing of a protocol for the transfer of presidential power.

Similarly, an OAS electoral observation mission—headed by the prestigious Guatemalan diplomat Eduardo Stein—played an important supervisory role during the controversial third reelection of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori in 2000. In the face of the numerous electoral maneuvers employed by Fujimori’s government, the OAS observation mission abandoned the country before the vote even took place and submitted a final report concluding, “that the conditions of the electoral process that the Mission has observed would not permit a free and fair contest.”

With the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001, the OAS finally set the legal framework for electoral observation missions. Article 24 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter states that electoral observation missions will be carried out at the request of the state concerned and that, following an agreement with the OAS General Secretariat, the state will guarantee conditions of security, free access to information, and full cooperation with the electoral observation mission. Based on this provision, in 2008 the OAS published an important handbook that specifies the methodology that should be followed by the members of electoral observation missions.

However, the Venezuelan government is not a democratic government as defined by articles 3 and 4 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which establish that free, fair, and transparent elections, as well as a government’s respect for the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of speech, and a pluralistic system of political parties are “essential elements” of a representative democracy.

Sadly, despite the OAS’s democracy clause (articles 18 and 20 of the Democratic Charter) the OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, as well as the rest of democratic nations sitting at the OAS, have been witnessing —wordlessly— the erosion of democracy in Venezuela and other countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Free from international pressure, these increasingly nondemocratic governments have established other organizations such as ALBA, UNASUR, and CELAC, whose only practical purposes have been to exclude the United States and Canada (while praising the dictatorial government of Cuba), support the antidemocratic actions of many of these same governments, and attempt to reduce the role of the OAS and its institutions (including the prestigious Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).

Consistent with this logic, instead of requesting an observation mission from the OAS, on March 9 the president of the CNE of Venezuela, Tibisay Lucena, requested that UNASUR create a merely “accompanying” electoral mission.

By its own bylaws an “accompanying” UNASUR mission does little more than sanction an election.  According to UNASUR an “electoral international accompaniment mission” is to “witness the electoral process in a framework of respect, solidarity, cooperation, for the general know-how and experience in electoral matters, in favor of the electoral bodies of UNASUR member states.”  [Emphasis added.]  In other words not only does UNASUR lack the experience and credentials of independence and impartiality of past OAS electoral missions to exert pressure and play a positive role, they are explicitly there to endorse the electoral authorities.  Such a provision makes a mockery out of the proud history of election observation in countries like the Dominican Republic (1994), and Peru (2000) when the electoral authorities were part of the problem!   

As a result, it is most likely that the upcoming electoral process in Venezuela will not have an international observer capable of condemning the unfair tactics of the incumbent government to prevent a free and fair contest. For example, the special regulation on electoral campaigns for the 2013 presidential elections, issued on March 9 by the CNE, deceptively established that the candidates will be able to broadcast campaign ads for no more than four minutes per day on each television channel, giving the impression that both candidates are being given the same amount of time in the media.

However, the CNE does not mention the fact that the Law of Social Responsibility on Radio, Television, and Electronic Media gives the executive branch an additional seventy minutes per channel per week and the right to broadcast cadenas on all networks for an unspecified number of hours. Last week, Henrique Capriles’ campaign manager, Carlos Ocariz, pointed out that in the first 8 days of the campaign, the State Channel broadcast 1248 and 523 minutes of government information and cadenas, respectively, from government candidate Nicolás Maduro. In that same period Capriles was given zero media time.

Sadly, there is no indication that UNASUR will fulfill the important role of condemning these types of abuses that make it impossible for this election to be considered “fair.”

In fact, Mr. Francisco Távara, the pro tempore president of UNASUR’s Electoral Council, who signed the accompanying agreement with the CNE on March 25, stated that UNASUR's accompanying mission will “witness the process without issuing value judgments.” At the same time, the president of the CNE praised UNASUR by saying that its missions “are innovative and under conditions of equality, respect and support […] we are making the new electoral policy of the South a reality”.

By excluding the OAS from creating an electoral observation mission and inviting UNASUR to accompany the process, the government of Venezuela makes it clear once again that it has no interest in allowing independent international monitoring of its electoral processes.   Perhaps worse than limply pleading with Venezuela to allow it to send a mission, the OAS should break its silence and speak out more broadly on the erosion of democratic institutions and principles that have brought it to this point. 

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: 2013 Venezuelan Elections, Venezuela