August 17, 2004; Page A18
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claimed victory early yesterday in his battle to defeat Sunday's recall referendum. The opposition is crying foul, citing a litany of referendum irregularities. They may be right, but Mr. Chavez made it clear some time ago that he is not leaving office. His democratic opponents have few avenues for recourse.
Sunday's vote is a metaphor for the sorry state of Venezuela's "democracy." Mr. Chavez controls the military, the Supreme Court, the Congress, the National Electoral Council (CNE), the state-owned oil monopoly and the intelligence services. There is no balance of power, no transparency, and Venezuela is fast becoming an authoritarian state.
Equally worrying is that when the oil-rich Mr. Chavez claimed victory, he claimed it for all of the Americas, reinforcing his commitment to spread revolution on the continent. With Fidel Castro as his closest ally, Mr. Chavez is a dangerous presence in the region.
Mr. Chavez's claims of a "landslide" victory are not supported by independent evidence of how the voting was going. All day long Sunday, exit polls were reporting a 16 to 20 point margin in favor of removing the president. As the Journal's Jose de Cordoba and David Lunhow reported from Caracas yesterday, the opinion polling firm of Penn, Shoen and Berland Associates had the vote to remove Mr. Chavez at 59% in early exit polls. A number of other exit polls throughout the day showed similar results.
Just before 4 a.m. Monday, Mr. Chavez's hand-picked CNE director announced that Mr. Chavez had won with exactly the opposite result of that indicated by the exit polls. As Dow Jones writer Charles Roth reported, the opposition said the "CNE didn't allow an audit of the paper receipts issued by the touchscreen machines, or allow opposition representatives to be present during its tallying of the vote."
Venezuelan expats in the U.S. say they were turned away even though they had confirmed their registrations in advance. Some Venezuelans inside the country report that they had their polling stations reassigned hours away from their homes. The government expanded voter rolls by more than one and a half million people mainly in areas where Mr. Chavez is supported. The finger-print scanners that were supposed to ensure one-man, one-vote, malfunctioned, creating long lines.
Turnout appeared high but official tallies didn't reflect that fact. Perhaps most suspicious is that the government is claiming that fewer people voted to remove Mr. Chavez in this secret balloting than signed the referendum petition last fall. That one is hard to swallow since signing the petition exposed individuals to government sponsored harassment and job insecurity.
Mr. Chavez has already made it clear that it is his way or the highway for Venezuelans. He said yesterday that "It is absolutely impossible that the victory of the 'no' be reversed."
In recent years Mr. Chavez has praised Middle Eastern terrorism as heroic and lobbed rhetorical grenades at George W. Bush. On his own continent he has given Colombian guerrillas sanctuary inside Venezuelan territory. His survival on Sunday cannot be good for the future of peace in the hemisphere.