When the Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez passed away back in March, one notably unctuous commemorative tribute came from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. "Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez's commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen," the statement, carried on the website of the Carter Center, intoned. Carter then praised the "positive legacies" of a man famous for embracing genocidal dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, before ending with a vague plea to Chavez's successors to forge a "new consensus" in taking the country forward.
Three months and one disputed election later, has Carter revised these views? As the Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer discovered this week when he interviewed Carter, the answer is a resounding no.
"Would Carter now approve of the results of Venezuela's April 14 elections, which according to the pro-government National Electoral Council (CNE) were won by Chavez protégé Nicolas Maduro?" Oppenheimer asked. "Would he give some credence to opposition leader Henrique Capriles' claims that the election had been stolen from him?" Carter's responses on these matters were an artful fusion of tired platitudes with flagrant untruths.
"Venezuela probably has the most excellent voting system that I have ever known," Carter began, referring to the electronic voting machines that require voters to select their favored candidate on a touch screen, before collecting a paper receipt which is then deposited in a ballot box. Well, yes, we can all agree that technology is great. But it's what you do with it that matters.
Then there was this gem: "So far as I know, Maduro did get 1.5 percent more votes than his opponent, [Henrique] Capriles," Carter told Oppenheimer, "and that has been substantiated by the recount of paper ballots." And finally, the clincher: "Asked… whether Venezuela's election process was clean, Carter asserted that 'the voting part' of it was 'free and fair.'"
Actually, it was anything but. On election day, opposition monitors recorded around 6,000 violations, including red-shirted Chavista activists shepherding voters into polling booths, threats both physical and verbal against voters deemed to have opposition loyalties, and, most ludicrously, several polling stations in which Maduro's vote was astronomically higher than that achieved by Chavez in the previous, October 2012, election, which the ruling United Socialist Party won by a comfortable margin of 11 points.
Contrary to Carter's claim, there was never a comprehensive matching of the ballot papers to the votes registered electronically. There was, earlier this month, a cursory, partial recount whose sole purpose was to validate the original announcement of a Maduro victory.
Now, it's possible that Carter didn't want to rely on data provided by the opposition in asserting claims of electoral fraud (though he apparently is willing to take the evidence provided by the chavistas at face value). But if that's the case, then the logical conclusion would be to urge Maduro and his cohorts to permit credible and independent observers to monitor the elections, so that reliable field reports are available in the event of a dispute. As Andres Oppenheimer pointed out in the preamble to his interview with Carter, "the Venezuelan government did not allow independent international election observers for the elections. It only allowed electoral tourists from friendly regional groups who arrived shortly before the voting."
There are those who will say that however outrageous Carter's views are, they don't really matter. In fact, they do. Much of the Carter Center's work involves international election monitoring, since, as the Center itself says, "more governments than ever recognize democratic elections as essential to establishing their legitimate authority." What's therefore shocking in the Venezuelan context is that Carter, whose organization didn't monitor the April election, has now issued Maduro with a clean bill of health.
As a result, the chavistas now have even less incentive to admit observers to monitor the forthcoming municipal elections, currently scheduled for December. Given the likelihood that the opposition will attempt to turn this next contest into a referendum on Maduro's rule, we can confidently expect a repeat of the violations of this past April. And we can be just as confident that Jimmy Carter will emerge, once the dust has settled, to assure us that the ballot was "fair," "legitimate," "free" and all the other words that give succor to those autocrats who decide what the result of an election will be before they hold one.