Bland to the bone

Carter CenterThe Carter Center has just published a sprawling, 118-page report on the 2013 Presidential Elections in Venezuela (see PDF here in Spanish). It goes through what happened in that dramatic election using the scrupulously impartial, non-controversial tone of an organization trying to remain an honest broker between the two warring factions.

Now, normally I would pass this off as simply one more foreign organization unable to grasp the real problem in Venezuela, but the Carter Center is different – its knowledge of Venezuela is too deep for us not to care about its blasé position.

For instance, it describes in flat, studiously non-judgmental terms the way the Supreme Tribunal not only refused to hear Henrique Capriles’s extensively documented “impugnación,” but actually went on to fine him, and urged the Prosecutor General to jail him just for having the temerity to complain.

Think about that for a moment.

The report describes this outrageous event as though they think punishing and harrassing people for filing a lawsuit is just something that normally happens, and that one must be careful to evaluate even-handedly.

It’s hard to see what the Carter Center thinks can be achieved with this approach.  Can it really be that they don’t grasp the way in which, by this point, studied impartiality bleeds more and more into complicity?

The report goes through the whole story of the death of Chávez, the designation of Maduro as Interim President, and the election, including the campaign. They detail the complaints from the MUD, as well as the shots fired back from the TSJ and various government organisms. They emphasize how the machines are OK, and how the fingerprint scanners work pretty decently. They lament the fact that the audits are not done in the presence of both sides – confidence in the system seems to be the thing that most worries them.

Towards the end of their pusillanimous brick, Carter Center lays out its recommendations, which include pretty much everything: clean up the electoral registry, limit the cadenas, control this, do that, etc.

The whole thing sounds very reasonable … until you realize exactly what they are saying.

After documenting in minute detail the many ways in which rampant abuse of power was in full view throughout 2012 and 2013, their reaction is to turn to the same guys who did the cheating, look at them sternly, and say “well…do better next time.”

It’s a 118-page monument to guabineo: sure, on the one hand one-side-has-all-the-power-all-the-incentives-all-the-opportunities-all-the-ideological-reasons-all-the-guns-and-all-the-money-to-cheat-and-there’s-plenty-of-evidence-that-they-cheated-because-just-between-you-and-me-they-did-cheat but, on the other hand, they say they didn’t cheat. Who are we to say one way or the other?

It’s like their alarm bells have been disconnected.

For example, they “respectfully” suggest that Venezuela “ensure greater equality in the campaign.” Now, “insufficient equality” may be technically correct, but it is a useless euphemism for an electoral environment that anyone with still firing neurons can see is deliriously unfair. Even the Carter Center can’t quite restrain itself from making that much clear between the lines. Because, to be clear, it’s all in there: the abuse of cadenas, the use of public resources for party-political purposes, the use of the army, the militias, PDVSA’s checkbook, even the routinization of advertising for government candidates inside voting centers themselves. All that is in the report.

So it’s not that they’re somehow not aware. It’s that there’s something almost catatonic about the recommendations the Carter Center puts forward to counter the devilish mass of abuse of power they’ve just laid out. “Venezuelans would be better served if elections were more equal.” Gee, thanks.

The report also goes on to say that the “quality of the voting experience” needs to improve. This language would be appropriate if we were discussing, say, re-designing airline VIP lounges. Instead, we’re talking about voting in Mamera and Antímano, places where multiple witness statements describe gun-toting chavista paramilitary gangs on motorbikes forcibly removing opposition witnesses from the centers. I have been to these voting centers, and I have seen the coercive environment in which the vote takes place here.

These are the voting centers the MUD focused on in their complaint. These are the places where they asked for a full audit, including the voting notebooks, to see if the number of votes reported by those brilliant machines the Carter Center loves matches the number of people who actually showed up and signed. None of these issues have been answered – not by Venezuelan authorities, and not by the Carter Center.

Complaining about the “quality of the voting experience” in a context like this is a bit like complaining that Jim Jones’s Kool-aid recipe has an unpalatable whiff of bitter almonds about it.

But what does the center recommend to enhance the “quality” of the voting experience?

Train CNE personnel so that witnesses can remain in their post. Train voting center members on the appropriate ways of dealing with “assisted voting.” See what can be done about the rules regarding electoral publicity in voting centers.

Really, Carter Center … training? Examining the rules on publicity in voting centers? The best thing they have to suggest for dealing with paramilitaries removing opposition witnesses or chavista activists forcing people to vote for the government – is better training! And the issue of massive government publicity in voting centers – why, they just need to re-think the rules about that!

It’s not an issue of a government grossly bending the rules in their favors, or captured institutions systematically and self-consciously looking the other way – why, putting it that way would be…inelegant. Undiplomatic. Un-Carter-Center-y. Nah, it’s nothing a bit of training or rule-tinkering can’t change.

A civil war is looming in Venezuela, but if the state didn’t bend the rules in its favor all the time, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. But the Carter Center doesn’t do urgency. In shunning the dramatic, in watering down the urgency of the problem, it paints a picture of an entirely different country.

The report does go out of its way to lionize the technology used in the vote. They claim that “opinion polls” and the fact that people vote en masse show that voters trust the electoral machines used. They also point out that post-election audits of the fingerprint scanners show that a minimal amount of multiple voting occurred.

Focused on the trees, they miss the proverbial forest. No amount of praises for the machines used in our elections hides the fact that countries all over South America vote with pen and paper, and their elections are not controversial. Furthermore, the issue of the secrecy of the vote being compromised in the minds of voters unaccostumed to the technology simply goes unmentioned.

Look, I get what they are trying to do. They are taking a complicated, incredibly corrupt system, and trying to break it down into parts they can work on. They are desperate to maintain some sort of access to the CNE, militant about not stepping beyond any of Tibisay’s multiple red-lines, and doing their darndest to sound constructive. For that they are using the least offensive language they can think of.

The result is a stultified report seeped in bureaucratic prose that never misses a chance to call a spade a short-bladed agricultural productivity enhancement implement.

The place where the Carter Center could have played a constructive role in Venezuela’s elections is now buried under the accumulated weight of years of circumlocution. It’s had all the air sucked out of it by now over a decade of studiedly inoffensive statements used to describe the patently offensive.

No amount of minute bureaucratic phrase-parsing can hide the fact that the violence in the streets of Venezuela is a direct consequence of an election that made a consistent mockery of the “free and fair” standard along almost every axis, and elevated abuse of state power from occasional hobby to central pursuit of the incestuous, wildly-illegal PSUV/PDVSA/FANB/Gobierno electoral juggernaut that claimed victory in April 2013.

The point of suggesting “training” and tinkering with the rules as a solution … was passed some 44 bodies ago.

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