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Six years later, after a failed coup, two devastating but failed general strikes, and an international publicity campaign to paint Chávez as a cruel dictator without support, the Venezuelan opposition to Chávez’ “Bolívarian revolution” has reached the point of no return: a recall referendum-scheduled for this coming August 15th. As a last resort the opposition has thrown its weight behind a constitutional strategy in the hopes that it might accomplish what force and blackmail could not.

Yet it is never so clear-cut with Venezuela’s opposition, and even those who are now sulkily pursuing a peaceful path to recall Chávez are often inseparable from those who have made no such grudging commitment to the constitution. Along with the opposition’s non-violent strategy looms the macabre threat of violence; the presence of Colombian paramilitaries recently discovered in a training camp in Caracas is only the most worrisome example to date.

Opinion polls are coming out on what seems like a daily basis; yet rather than providing insight into public opinion, they are reinforcing both camps of their projected victories. Yet the opposition campaign itself appears to be faltering in the face of unprecedented chavista mobilization, particularly since the launch of their plan for a post-Chávez country was overshadowed by the revelation that it was funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

In effect, they have painted themselves into a corner. Calling for the referendum since day 01 allowed them to site their democratic commitment when they came under fire for supporting military coups, employer lock-outs, and provocateur street violence, but now that it is actually going to happen they are unprepared, or worse, unsupported.

In the wake of potential defeat, opposition strategy appears to be based more on how to lose as little as possible, than on how to win. Since he was first elected in 1998, Chávez has been dismissed by much of the mainstream international media as just another Latin American populist with authoritarian tendencies. If Chávez wins the referendum this August 15th, that characterization will be difficult to sell. With that in mind, opposition strategy aims to check any potential rise in Chávez’ international stock in the event of his victory at the ballot box.

To do so, they are using the media and influential international bodies to prepare the ground for accusations of fraud if Chávez is not recalled. A Chávez victory on the 15th is most dangerous to US neoliberal plans for the region as an example to other countries, thus, the international media has stepped up attacks on Chávez since the date for the recall was announced last June. Paralleling the media-offensive are increasingly vocal accusations by human rights organizations against alleged abuses by the Venezuelan government.

International Media and the Chain of Disinformation

Much US coverage of Venezuela over the past month has focused on controversy surrounding the use of voting machines for the upcoming referendum. In keeping with the time-tested journalistic theory that it is the first 50 words of a story that matter, Juan Forrero and John Schwartz of the New York Times waste no time, beginning: “Touch-screen voting machines...will be used in the recall vote on President Hugo Chávez, prompting his foes and foreign diplomats to contend that the left-leaning government may use the equipment to manipulate the vote.”

They continue, quoting an expert “a fully electronic computer can be programmed to produce whatever outcome the developers - or the people in charge of the developers - want it to.”

But the reality of the voting machines is infinitely more complicated: the voting software is available for public and professional scrutiny, the information will be sent to 7 different locations to ensure that fraud can be located, and there will be a manual count of the receipts printed from the machines.

Human Rights Groups: Recycling Misreportage

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a report criticizing Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan government of threatening the legal rights of its citizens by attempting to tip the political balance of the country’s judiciary in their favor. And they may have a point-the law in question would allow a slim chavista majority in the National Assembly to pack the court with their nominees. But while politicizing the judiciary could have detrimental effects to citizens’ legal rights, it’s also common practice-most noticeably in the US.

The fact that Venezuela has been singled out for criticism, the timing of the report, and the tone and content suggest that HRW’s motives may be less than altruistic. An examination of the report reveals a similar strategy to the national and international media coverage-essentially determined to set the stage for post-referendum accusations of fraud.

- Step 1. Characterizing Chávez as just another Latin American Caudillo The report makes repeated comparisons between Chávez’ speculated court-packing intentions and the success of Carlos Menem in Argentina, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru in “remaking their judiciaries to serve their own interests.” Comparing Chávez to Menem or Fujimori is, perhaps, the report’s most transparent partisan moment.

- Step 2. Laying Blame for Polarization at Chávez’ Feet “The consensus around judicial reforms has largely dissolved as the country has grown increasingly polarized in response to President Chávez’s policies and style of governance.” This argument is a favorite of the opposition, yet, the idea that the country was not polarized on February 27th, 1989 during the Caracazo, for example, when anywhere from 327 (government figure) and 3,000 (independent estimates by journalists) people were killed by the Venezuelan military is offensive to say the least.

- Step 3. Drawing the Parallel Between Court-Packing and the Referendum By pointing out that the final judgment on the August 15 referendum on Chávez’ mandate as President rests with Venezuela’s judiciary, the report explicitly suggests that Chávez has the final say over the results. Accordingly, the report argues:

The prime target of any packing and purging efforts is likely to be the electoral chamber of the Supreme Court....By appointing two new justices to the chamber, the governing coalition will be able to tip the balance its own way.

Thus, it is established that Chávez has rigged the judiciary in his favor, that the country is violently divided due to Chávez’ brinkmanship, and that if the referendum doesn’t go his way Chávez is willing to flex his judicial muscle to make sure an unfavorable referendum result gets overturned.

Using Democracy to Undermine Democracy

In the event of a Chávez victory next Sunday, Venezuela’s only answer to opposition attempts at discrediting the results will be clear, strong statements by the OAS and Carter Center declaring the process free and fair. It is unfortunate that the democratic process in Venezuela rests so precariously on the shoulders of two institutions whose neutrality has been questionable in the past.

The Carter Center’s mandate in monitoring elections is self-limited to the actual electoral process. Thus, in observing the elections in Nicaragua in 1990, or the recent elctions in El Salvador-two processes in which the US exerted incredible pressure to secure friendly (anti-FSLN and anti-FMLN) votes-no mention was made by the Carter Center on the political effect of this pressure.

For its part the OAS has a more open conception of its role in “promoting and consolidating representative democracy,” yet it has also proven unwilling to address the US’ flagrant interventionism in Latin American electoral processes. Thus, both organizations’ independence of US influence is seriously in question.

Recent statements by both the OAS and the Carter Centre suggest that are taking precautions against their statements being used in partisan fights in the wake of the referendum. But, the reality is that if they bow to US pressure the opposition will be given the carte blanche they need to undermine a Chávez victory.

“There is nothing more neutral than what we are doing here,” noted Valter Pecly Moreira, the head of the OAS delegation in Venezuela during a recent interview. “Both sides have many expectations and we know that...our responsibility is enormous. The whole team will be working in a professional and technical manner, without taking sides, as it must be.”

During a recent senate hearing on Venezuela Jennifer McCoy, head of the Carter Center mission in Venezuela noted, "I personally and an entire team, including an engineer and a statistician...went to receive a full presentation of the machines....We were very impressed with the presentation we received, the security measures that were shown to us, and the functioning of the machine that we witnessed. A very important process is having the paper trail, the paper receipt, which are provided by these machines."

Her report received this promising response from Sen. Bob Nelson: “the state of Florida is not even doing that with the paper trail. So maybe Venezuela will teach Florida something.”