Carter will irk both sides in Venezuela

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 08:32 AM

When I interviewed former President Jimmy Carter on a wide range of issues a few days ago, I was especially interested in his views about Venezuela's two-month-old political crisis.

In the past, Carter, whose Carter Center is known among other things for its international election monitoring missions, has drawn the fury of Venezuelan oppositionists by giving his blessing to several elections that were officially won by Hugo Chavez, the late president and former coup plotter.

Would Carter now approve of the results of Venezuela's April 14 elections, which according to the pro-government National Electoral Council were won by Chavez protege Nicolas Maduro? Would he give some credence to opposition leader Henrique Capriles' claims that the election had been stolen from him?

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 is a big difference: While international observing missions monitor the entire election process over months, including how much television time candidates are given during the campaign, the visiting teams invited by Venezuela only observed the voting itself.)

After the elections, Venezuela's electoral commission announced that Maduro had won by 1.5 percent of the vote.

Capriles denounced widespread irregularities, including outdated tallies that allowed multiple voting by government sympathizers, and said that if fraudulent votes were nullified, he would be declared the winner by 400,000 votes.

Asked during the interview, which is to be aired on CNN en Espanol on Sunday, whether Venezuela's election process was clean, Carter asserted that "the voting part" of it was "free and fair."

"Venezuela probably has the most excellent voting system that I have ever known," Carter said, referring to the touch-screen voting machines and the paper ballots that are used there.

"So far as I know, Maduro did get 1.5 percent more votes than his opponent, Capriles, and that has been substantiated by the recount of paper ballots."

But Carter added that Venezuela's electoral commission "has not yet fully addressed" several questions raised by Capriles concerning the accuracy of voters' lists, intimidation of voters, questionable use of fingerprinting machines and other irregularities.

"My own belief is that the Central Electoral Commission should go ahead and investigate Capriles' allegations, to see if they are justified or not," Carter said.

"In the meantime, of course, Maduro is assumed to be the president, pending a final decision."

He added, "I don't know what the final result will be, but I do wish that Maduro would reach out to the other 50 percent, roughly, of the people in Venezuela and say, 'You are part of my administration, of my government.' "

Asked whether the overall election rules were fair, Carter said that Maduro had more campaign funds and enjoyed a "tremendous advantage" in television time during the campaign. Maduro followed Chavez's practice of "mandating" that television stations "follow his long speeches when his opponents are deprived of that right," he said.

He added that Venezuela's elections badly need public financing for all candidates' campaigns, and that "the equalization of access to public and private radio and television would be a very good step in the right direction."

My opinion: I have to confess that I have a soft spot for President Carter. When I was a student opposing the right-wing dictatorship in my native Argentina in the 1970s, he was the first U.S. president who sided with pro-democracy activists and human rights victims, rather than with oppressive governments.

But I'm intrigued by his failure in recent years to be equally supportive of pro-democracy activists and victims of government abuses in Venezuela and countries where presidents, once elected democratically, usurp near absolute powers and hold questionable elections.

Is it fair to call "the voting part" of an election "free and fair," when the opposition's claims of irregularities have not been fully investigated? Is it fair to separate the "voting part" of an election from the entire electoral process, when a president has a more than 10-1 advantage in television time? And if the election was clean, why didn't Venezuela allow credible international election observers?

To his credit, Carter is requesting an investigation into Capriles' complaints, and that Maduro reach out to the opposition.

I would only suggest to him that if he says that "the voting part" was "free and fair," he should also say in equally explicit terms that the entire electoral process was one-sided and unfair.