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Chavez's Latest Tool for Voter Intimidation - Commentary

With two months to go before Venezuela’s election on October 7, the regime of Hugo Chavez is exploring ways more foul than fair to secure a fourth term in office for the Comandante.

For the first time this year, the fingerprint scanners used in the past to verify voter ID will be connected to the electronic voting machines themselves. Because voters will have to press down a thumb in order to activate the ballot system, there are justified fears of an electronic record of every individual vote. For tyrants who occasionally allow the public a trip to the polling station, knowing who the dissidents are is both a nasty weapon and a powerful one; in the early 1980s, Chavez’s close friend Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, punished the rebellious voters of Matabeleland with a campaign of violence, public executions and enforced famine.

If the Chavistas are trying to sow fear in the hearts of Venezuelans tempted to vote for his arrival, the moderate leftist Henrique Capriles, they appear to be succeeding:

“If the thumbprint makes the machine work, how do you know it doesn’t end up being recorded who you voted for?” asked Jacqueline Rivas, a 46-year-old housewife.

Experts say there is no evidence the system has ever been used to reveal voters’ preferences, and most opposition leaders, who stand to suffer if supporters don’t vote, have been eager to assure that the system is safe.

But worries have persisted. Many government opponents say they see a pro-Chavez bias in the National Electoral Council and remember a previous scandal in which the names of Venezuelans who petitioned to recall Chavez in 2004 were publicly leaked. Hundreds of people alleged they were fired or suffered discrimination after their names turned up on the “Tascon List,” named after a pro-Chavez lawmaker who released it.

The thumbprint method may be a more efficient method of continuing the strategy that Chavez implemented in 2006, when he defeated Manuel Rosales in that year’s presidential election. As a State Department report noted, there were “concerns over abuse of government resources used to support the Chavez campaign, voter intimidation tactics, and manipulation of the electoral registry.” Thanks to his 2006 election victory, Chavez was able, the following year, to pass an enabling act that permitted him to rule by decree for the next 18  months. During that time, he nationalized the telecommunications and electricity sectors, and gained far greater control over the country’s petroleum industry, allowing him to sell oil to his communist allies in Cuba at a 40 percent discount.

The National Electoral Council, which is supervising the installation of the voting machines, is packed with Chavez supporters. Jorge Rodrigues, the former head of the council, is now Chavez’s campaign manager. It’s hard to imagine a team more qualified to engage in — for the moment — subtle voter intimidation, particularly at a time when the Capriles campaign is claiming a lead in the polls.

Capriles, meanwhile, has embarked on an energetic house to house tour of the country pressing his case. Given how the electoral process is stacked against him, and the domination which Chavez exercises over the Venezuelan media, he has few other alternatives. In undertaking this marathon, Capriles isn’t exactly short of campaign messages to deliver on the doorstep: he can tell voters that his plan to end preferential oil deals will save the country $6.7 billion per year, and he can ask them to consider what the bizarre, disturbing anticsat the Venezuelan embassy in Kenya, in which the acting ambassador was found murdered following a battle for his job, says about the cronies who surround Chavez. He might even promise them they will never be subjected to Sean Penn’s idiocies again.

Most of all, Capriles can argue that Chavez has yet to give a convincing explanation of his health woes, which look suspiciously like advanced stage cancer. If that’s the case, Venezuelans may decide they will no longer live with Chavismo after Chavez departs this world.

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