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Elections in Venezuela

Recently, Venezuela held elections for a Constituent Assembly. The constitution of Venezuela permits the calling of a Constituent Assembly for the purposes of drafting changes to the constitution. This body is drawn from those elected from the general public as well as having sectoral delegates from the trade unions, farmers, indigenous peoples and others. The body can draft changes to the constitution in almost exactly the same way as our own Citizens’ Assembly, after which the changes must be put to referendum.

The move to call the assembly was vehemently denounced by the US government and this was echoed by the major media outlets including the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times.

The New York Times for instance, in an article entitled “As Venezuela Prepares to Vote, Some Fear an End to Democracy”, wrote:

Now, President Nicolás Maduro is pushing a radical plan to consolidate his leftist movement’s grip over the nation: He is creating a political body with the power to rewrite the country’s Constitution and reshuffle — or dismantle — any branch of government seen as disloyal.

The new body, called a constituent assembly, is expected to grant virtually unlimited authority to the country’s leftists.

The claim that this body has the capacity to dismantle branches of government could equally well be levelled at Ireland’s own Citizens’ Assembly. The necessity to return to the public to ratify any constitutional changes is omitted. Further, the claim that the body will give unlimited power to the country’s leftists is confusing. Since the body is elected, this would mean that leftists are winning the elections, in which case it is right and proper that they be endowed with such an authority.

This type of biased appraisal was not limited to the New York Times. The Guardian had an article entitled: “Venezuela heading for dictatorship after ‘sham’ election, warns US amid clashes”. The elections were claimed as a sham before they even occurred.

Colombia stated it would not recognise the results of the elections prior to election day. The United States expressed grave concerns about the likely outcome but refrained from saying they would not recognise them. Subsequent to the elections, however, the US State Department declared:

The United States considers the Venezuelan National Constituent Assembly the illegitimate product of a flawed process designed by the Maduro dictatorship to further its assault on democracy.

How, precisely, the process was flawed was unfortunately not made clear in their statement. It is possible that specific problems with the vote may arise, however, as we have heard from Adrian Kane, a SIPTU organiser from Ireland who took part in observing the elections, the process had an audit trail which could be checked if there are legitimate concerns. No such process was undertaken before the United States rushed to claim the vote illegitimate.

Rumours have flown around the vote count despite the audit trail, most importantly by the CEO of Smartmatic, Antonio Mugica, who said that vote totals had been inflated by about a million votes. However, Antonio Mugica did not provide any corroborating evidence. Further, there is reason to believe the company itself is not entire objective. Lord Mark Malloch Brown, former Minister of State in the UK, is Chairman of Smartmatic, and has claimed that a transitional government is needed in Venezuela.

The State Department statement also levels the serious charge that the country is a dictatorship. Maduro is serving his constitutionally determined term after having been elected by a popular majority. Perhaps ironically, the current State Department is under the direction of a US president who failed to achieve this.

Perhaps most bizarre is the claim that the elections are an affront to democracy. It seems that it would be crucial to determine that the elections were not legal or coerced before such an extreme statement could be made. Yet the most widely reported coercion appears to have been the attempts by the opposition to block polling stations or transit to them.

In order to understand the motive behind the bias, it’s important to remember that the US has specific interests in the region. Part of those interests are directly related to removing the advances made under the PSUV. Specifically, the United States is interested in undoing the nationalisation of the oil fields, the largest such fields in South America. They would additionally like Venezuela to join the list of countries which are now more compliant with the US in the region than during the period of the “Pink Tide” in which Chavez rose to prominence, Evo Morales took the presidency in Bolivia, and the Workers’ Party led the government in Brazil.

Venezuela is undoubtedly suffering a severe economic malaise, one which has hit the poor particularly hard. This has led to a much lower popularity for the Bolivarian process locally than existed under Hugo Chavez. The social advances that took place during Chavez were impressive, with poverty reduced drastically, public homes being built for hundreds of thousands, and education spreading far beyond the narrow section which had access to it previously. However, with oil dropping from over $100 a barrel to under $50 a barrel, Venezuela was hit very severely.

Venezuela has attempted to dramatically shift its economy to allow for this catastrophic fall in prices. The United States has responded by threatening economic sanctions. Venezuela imports around two thirds of its food and around a quarter of Venezuelan food imports come from the US. Any sanctions from the US would have severe negative consequences for the population.

It’s hard to understand how a typical democratic election could inspire such drastic action. State sanctions are an extreme measure whose consequences for the civilian population will be increased poverty and hunger.

Beyond the overt and public state actions undertaken by the US to punish Venezuela for carrying out the normal activities outlined by the constitution, the US has also had a long history of more covert means to obtain the ends it desires in Venezuela. For years, the US ran a programme under the guise of the Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI) whose goal was to remove Chavez from power. This programme spent $10s of millions to that end. That this was their actual aim was made plain by the leaking of diplomatic cables by Chelsea Manning. Even more directly, US officials encouraged and supported the coup attempt against Chavez, a move which made no pretense of being anything but extra-legal.

All of these moves by the US to intervene in the Venezuelan elections are in striking contrast to the claims of foreign intervention which surrounded the US elections in the media. That the State Department can use their position of power to try to stop, determine or overturn the results of an election just subsequent to this debacle is surprising.

Many feel less inclined to speak up against these extreme actions by the United States due to the unquestionably less popular status of Maduro in the present period than Chavez during the height of the Bolivarian process. That things are not going well cannot be hidden, and indeed there may be reasons to fault the PSUV and Maduro for some of the failures. However, reasoned discussion on alternative economic or political measures which might save the social gains of the Bolivarian process have nothing to do with what we find on offer.

We have also seen in the media repeated accusations of extreme human rights abuses. This discussion often leaves out the full picture. For instance, the Irish Times writes:

Security forces in Venezuela seized two opposition leaders in early-morning raids on Tuesday, intensifying the grave political crisis in the oil-rich South American nation.

The piece only later clarifies:

According to the supreme court, Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, both former mayors of the capital Caracas, were detained because they were planning to flee the country. Both were already under house arrest.

That the Irish Times can claim they were seized in early-morning raids while also being under house arrest is at the very least, surprising. The article did not mention that the two are imprisoned because of their activity in trying to overthrow the government. López was an active participant in the original 2002 Coup plot against Chavez. Ledezma was involved in a 1989 incident in which he directed state troops to suppress protesters leading to around 4000 civilian deaths.

Much is also made of the violence which has taken place, and a great deal of it refrains from discussing how this violence arises, or it attempts to paint it as the exclusive domain of the state under personal direction by Maduro. The opposition are not simply peaceful protestors. Instead they are often armed and makes use of these arms during protests. There was even an attempted grenade attack from helicopter by an opposition leader, on the supreme court. The reality is that the majority of politically related deaths have been caused by the opposition.

In Ireland, in the Jobstown trial, we had a group of protesters leading what was a peaceful protest, in which no one could credibly have said they were in fear for their life. Yet this case led to late night raids and the incarceration of a 16 year old, among others, on charges of wrongful imprisonment. The contrast of the media reporting of Ireland’s own peaceful Jobstown protesters, and the treatment given of the violent, armed opposition, a group intent on overthrowing the government, is stark. It’s hard to understand through any lens save one: Our media simply regurgitates the stories from abroad as they are presented by the US media, which in turn merely amplifies the US State Department’s own narrative.

The spectator, watching from abroad, can be excused for finding the situation in Venezuela confusing. It is, without doubt, a very messy situation, and it could devolve into civil war. What should be abundantly clear however, is that the situation is not made better by the actions which we are being encouraged to support. Namely the rubbishing of democratic institutions and elections and the normalisation and even valourisation of right-wing insurrectionaries which want to overthrow the state, known more colloquially as the opposition. Further, the hand the US has in attempting to deepen the crisis must be taken into account and their motives inspected carefully. The one sided presentation we are getting should be viewed with the same skepticism that we have mustered of the portrayal of events such as the water charges movement and Jobstown protest. We know the media can be biased from our own experience, we should be comfortable in questioning it when it is outside of that experience.

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