December 4, 2003

CNE: Rediscovering the institutional wheel
(or, more email from Alan)

On Wed, 3 Dec 2003 22:53:28 -0400, Alan said:

> Francisco,
> If I understand correctly, what you're essentially saying is that five
> individuals, all appointed by Chavez, the majority of whom have
> demonstrated marked sympathies for the regime's policies, are in fact, in their heart
> of hearts, impartial arbiters whose first, and only, commitment is to uphold
> the rule of law.
> This in the face of what I expect will be a most brutal exercise in
> political arm-twisting and intrigue -- including the time-honored Venezuelan
> practices of attempted blackmail, outright threats of violence, physical
> coercion and, of course, the crossing of palms with industrial quantities
> of silver --in recent history.
> It's conceivable that, despite all this pressure, the CNE will nonetheless
> Do The Right Thing  -- because the OAS and the Carter Center are watching,
> and because somehow institutions will work this time (even though they've
> been systematically subverted in the past) because the whole world is
> watching and you can't "tapar el sol con un dedo", so to speak -- and that a
> month from now we'll learn that we can expect elections sometime next
> spring. Let's hope so.
> I do agree with you that it's important to publicly give the CNE the benefit
> of the doubt, and egg them on in the right direction, as Teodoro and
> others are doing. They're going to come under more pressure than they've ever
> known in their lives, and they need to know that at least one side of the
> political equation expects them to live up to their institutional
> mandate, and will support their eventual (we hope) courageous decision to defend
> the rule of law.
> But what's at stake for Chavez and his hard-core supporters makes it
> unlikely, in my view, that we will get to fair and free elections any time
> in the foreseeable future. The CNE may prove to be an extraordinary
> surprise, and in this most important decision of its history come down on
> the side of transparency. But you can be sure that Chavez, Cabello and
> Rangel will deploy absolutely every trick in the book and then some
> between now and early January to discredit and torpedo the outcome.
> Let's assume they can't get to the CNE. Or let's assume they beat a
> tactical retreat and figure it will be easier to fix an election (no paper trail)
> than strong arm the petition certification process. After all, vote
> tampering and election fraud is not unknown in Venezuela (hah!), and
> Chavez has used it before (just ask William D?vila and the Cura Calder?n). In
> fact, electronic vote fraud is alive and well all over -- just read Paul
> Krugman's last article on the burgeoning scandal involving the backdoors in
> Diebold's voting machine software which in practice allow one to fiddle the vote
> tally in real time, as the returns are coming in (see
> Krugman's NYTimes editorial on Diebold)
> If the Repubs in the U.S. can do this -- as one could easily surmise
> after reading the immense body of research on the Diebold scandal -- under the
> eye of the FEC, well, hell, it would be a lead-pipe cinch to do the same in
> Venezuela under the Plan Republica, especially when all the CNE
> informatics are in Chavista loyalist hands.
> No, Francisco, the stakes are too high for Chavez to play by the rules.
> Venezuela subsidizes Cuba to the tune of $2 million a day, with 82,000 bpd
> of essentially free petroleum. Fidel can't afford to take a chance on
> democracy, no way. He's not going to let what's left of the life of his
> revolution stand or fall on the whims of Venezuela's electorate -- and
> Venezuelan oil is the only thing propping up his dictatorship today.  And
> do you really think that Chavez's hard core supporters, the ones who depend
> on him for their own political legitimacy, since without him they would be
> nobodies, are going to choose to fight fair instead of resorting to
> badass skullduggery, fraud and even violence, to stay in power? They're in too
> deep. Some of them, the real sleazebags, know the only future they have
> without Chavez covering for them implies jail time, exile or the
> meathook.
> If the OAS airlifted in a complete voting system infrastructure and
> 10,000 well-trained international observers, supported by a U.N.peacekeeping
> force, stood watch over the elections, I'd say Venezuela could expect free and
> fair elections. Otherwise, in the current state of play, nope.
> Let's wait until the fat lady sings. I'll be glad to give you a bottle of
> Santa Carolina if the petition-counting process comes off without a
> hitch. But I'll bet you a Marqués de Caceres Reserva Especial that Chavez will
> "win" the eventual electoral contest.
> Alan


If I sit down and look at the situation coldly and analytically, using past patterns to forecast likely future events, then I have to agree you're right. I mean, everything you write checks out with the nation's sad historical experience. It sucks, but it's true. And if the past is any guide to the future, then granted, your analysis is probably dead on.

My point is that we may just be facing one of those unique situations where real society-wide change can take place; where, uniquely, the past ceases to be a useful tool for predicting the future. Having been pushed to the very edge of survivial, democratic institutions are either shocked into adaptation or they perish. My hunch is that CNE has been well and truly shocked and now it's adapting. The dynamics at play from here on out will be fundamentally different from the dynamics we're used to.

I know, I know, I know. Such starry-eyed idealism probably goes against everything your political gut has taught you over the last 25 years. But if not now, when? If not us, who?

The thing is, Alan, the opposition has learned. The politicians have gotten their Ph.Ds from the school of hard knocks. The country has learned. Things are different.

It may be that the society is undergoing the traumatic process of rediscovering the institutional wheel. Venezuelans are now coming to understand what every society must realize anew every couple of generations - that if one partiality within the political scene attempts to turn 51% popular support into 100% power, with no respect for institutions or the honor of the minority, the resulting system is chaotic and unstable. And, as Venezuelans have found out, if that once-majority becomes a minority but continues to pretend the other side doesn't exist, then the situation can become disastrously unstable.

From this point of view, the rebirth of CNE doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the personal qualities of the five board-members - though surely their character and integrity has been destructively and needlessly maligned over the last few weeks. What's important is not that CNE members have hearts of gold. What's important is that they understand that impartiality and adherence to the rule of law is the most pragmatic, in fact the *only* workable solution to the problem at hand, the only option that holds out a reasonable prospect of stability in the coming months and years.

One thing I'll say, though: the nice thing of debating with you is that the positions stated are always falsifiable! No arcane theoretical speculation here, just testable hypotheses, damn it - like that time in mid 2001 you told me Chavez had six months left, tops! ;)

Four months from now, we'll know conclusively who won that bottle of wine. For my money, a Santa Carolina goes much better with dulce de lechoza than a Marqués de Caceres Reserva Especial. (Though, from the tone of my last few posts, I'll be washing down that dulce de lechoza with a refreshing tossed salad of chrysanthemums, orchids and sunflowers...)


ps: it really is fun!But it's very important to get it right this time. Comeflores al rescate!