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.

28 thoughts on “Bland to the bone

  1. And then they wonder why people complain of appeasement by spineless bureaucrats. Here is all they proof they need.

    Makes you want to puke. Excuse my French.

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    • I don’t see any “French” in what you wrote!

      This, however, IS “French”: Carter Center needs a kick in their gonads to wake the fuck up

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      • “Excuse my French” is an old anglophone catchphrase meaning “Excuse me for using profanity or obscenity or vulgarity”. All such verbiage being considered “French” as France was regarded as the home of vice and decadence. It’s a 19th century meme.

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  2. JC, I enjoy your prose and description of the sissy position the Carter Center is in!
    Thanks, I wonder if they are getting some kind of retribution for this paper or the “observation”.

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  3. BTW a few weeks ago there was a beautiful letter to the Center posted by Daniel at his blog.stating some of the “details” in their job.

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  4. The Carter Center is a disgrace because the take the easy way out by ignoring the truth.

    You cannot vote in a dictatorship and expect to win.

    It seems that the Carter Center and many in the opposition have the same kind of blind spot.

    What’s the difference between a Democracy and a Dictatorship?

    In a Democracy voting counts.In a dictatorship it doesn’t.

    Voting is just another way to intimidate people in Venezuela, just as are the dialogues.Notice that the protests calmed down quite a bit exactly when the dialogues started.

    People want to ignore reality…there are many reasons for this and that would make a great post post for someone…

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    • Venezuela is not quite a dictatorship. Votes are counted and the opposition does win many elections: AN seats, governorships, mayoralties. Venezuela is a hybrid state where the regime steals just enough elections by indirect means to hold power. In a proper civil polity, this fails because everyone is opposed to stealing elections, and those who try it are cast out, even by their ideological allies. In a corrupted polity, people who claim to be for law and civil order accept election stealing by their own faction.

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  5. Excellent post. Shows clearly the fault lines are transnational and beyond ideology. The world seems to be divided in two camps; one wants to try cooperation, true democracy, tired of wars and abuse; the other is not tired, yet.

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  6. George Orwell: Politics and the English Language http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

    The style used by the Carter Center fits with the trend Orwell denounced way back in the 50’s. It’s main characteristic is making the thoughts in the text more obscure instead of clearer.

    That, and of course the cowardice you’re denouncing.

    – “ensure greater equality in the campaign”: instead of “The National Government should stop using public resources for political proselytizing”.

    – the “quality of the voting experience” needs to improve: instead of “Plan República should prevent paramilitary groups from intimidating voters, witnesses and electoral jurors on election day”.

    Great piece, btw.

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  7. I imagine they are playing it safe with the regime so that they can continue to be given access to the electoral processes in future elections and record in insipid neutral language the abuses they witness thus allowing people adept at reading between the lines what the underlying facts are . If they blared their indignation and condemnation of the abuses they witness they would not be allowed any access to future processes and the abuses would go unreported .

    In a way their access to the process may to some limited extent restrain the worse abuses the govt is capable of perpetrating if no witnesses were present.

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    • What difference does it make if they abuse more or less as long as they hold on to power? Pure PR. No substance.

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  8. There’s also the issue of the quotability imbalance.

    The government can use the report quotes on the awesomeness of the machines as an endorsement of the electoral system, in any TV show, news report, etc.

    The opposition can’t really use quotes from the report for much. “Ensure greater equality in the campaign” and “Improve the quality of the voting experience” are recommendations you could make of ANY voting system, from Afghanistan to Switzerland.

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  9. Juan, you wrote an excellent post. Someone along the lines of PJ or else the MUD or expats in Chile should write an open letter to the Carter Center with cc to the international media explaining basically what you just wrote!

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  10. 1. Caveat emptor: I’ve not read the CC’s report, yet.

    2. That being so, your description could fit almost any serious human rights report I’ve read. (Did you read the recommendations of the latest Amnesty International reports on Venezuela? ). You criticize the acts, make recommendations and pretend you think those you are writing to are capable or willing to act as decent human beings, and mend their ways.

    Yes, it can be frustrating. But, you know what? sometimes it gets results, in terms of liberating prisoners or even changing policies.

    And no, I don’t think it is Orwellian. Orwellian would be saying something that is completely the opposite of what is going on, or pretending everything is as it should be, and no changes are needed. You know, like saying: “Don’t call it water rationing, call it conservation education”.

    So sorry for not joining the chorus.

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    • I read HRW’s report, and I have heard Vivanco’s statements on Venezuela multiple times. The reaction I get from reading them and listening to their statements is wildly different than what I got from reading the Carter Center piece.

      As I make clear in the piece, it’s a matter of tone, of conveying the urgency of the problem. Sometimes, that can be hugely important. HRW does not stop short of calling out the government – in fact, it goes beyond the expected, as when it said that HR abuses in Venezuela were “systematic.” The Carter Center does nothing of the sort in my view.

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  11. Thanks for the comments. One thing I didn’t put into the report: my gut feeling is that the report (perhaps) reflects deep divisions inside the Carter Center group studying Venezuela. There are probably people in the group that thought what happened was outrageous, and there are probably people there who think the opposition is calling fraud on no basis. Since they couldn’t agree, they produced this thing. I think I would have preferred it if the report had taken a position one way or the other.

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    • I think the division is between those who actually care about the abuses, and those who are sympathetic to the regime and hostile to the opposition. The latter group basically don’t want to think about the abuses, minimize them in their minds, and are convinced that Chavismo is glorious and the opposition is all “fascists” or reactionaries.

      Note the many “progressives” who still carry water for Castro.

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  12. Good article. The whole report is a joke. As you said, ignoring all of those situations and trying to remain neutral isn’t the best choice. BTW, how much input has Jimmy Carter on this in the present?

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  13. Juan: truly really excellent well-written well-reasoned post, worthy of being published in the NYT and WSJ editorial pages. It would be interesting, if available, to see the timing/amounts of Venezuelan Government financial contributions to the non-profit Carter Center, starting with the Referendum….

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  14. I think you nailed it with your ref to “quality of the voting experience”. Haven’t laughed so hard in while. What a bunch of goons.

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  15. It is obfuscating, ignorant, irrelevant, ingenue, oblivious to common sense and downright criminal to try to whitewash a totally corrupt and vile government whose record on corruption, human rights and mismanagement puts it up there in the Who’s Who of genocidal dictatorships.

    They can write all they want for money but it doesn’t mean I have to accept that dog turd of a report.

    Carter will be remembered as a good for nothing president that only exceeded his official ineptitude with his later work at the Carter center fof image repair for dictators.

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  16. I really enjoyed your post, in particular the judicious use of the word “catatonic”. How true, in fact Jimmy Carter himself has been “Mr. catatonic” for quite a while now. I know that the Carter Centre is not Carter but it all goes hand in hand.

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  17. I am certainly no fan of Carter Center which is acting like many other NGOs in terms of defending the jobs it provides to some of its workers as well as the limelight it gives to other, namesake included.

    That said, the report contains clear statement about abuses but upon which it is not really the Carter Center’s responsibility to act… It is Venezuelans that need to take the info therein contain and try to exploit it, and not primarily asking the Carter Center to do the job for them.

    For instance, (don’t laugh) have someone on behalf of the opposition filed a copy of the report at the OAS, including a summary of it that more clearly condenses the truth?

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  18. “quality of the voting experience”….

    That is kind of like criticizing a robber because he didn’t start by saying with a smile, “Hi. My name is Juan, and I will be your mugger today.”

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