Skip to main content

Chavez clown prince of a decaying society

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
October 9, 2012 -- Updated 1400 GMT (2200 HKT)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters after receiving news of his re-election in Caracas on Sunday, October 7. With 90% of the ballots counted, Chavez, who has been president since 1999, defeated Henrique Capriles Radonski with 54.42% of the votes, according to an National Electoral Council official.<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/03/americas/gallery/venezuela-election/index.html' target='_blank'> Photos: Venezuela's presidential vote</a> Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters after receiving news of his re-election in Caracas on Sunday, October 7. With 90% of the ballots counted, Chavez, who has been president since 1999, defeated Henrique Capriles Radonski with 54.42% of the votes, according to an National Electoral Council official. Photos: Venezuela's presidential vote
HIDE CAPTION
Chavez wins Venezuela election
Chavez wins Venezuela election
Chavez wins Venezuela election
Chavez wins Venezuela election
Chavez wins Venezuela election
Chavez wins Venezuela election
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has won; his system of rule suspect, sinister
  • He says Venezuela election fraud system evident in rigged media, vote-buying, police threat
  • He says robberies and eavesdropping routine, economy in awful shape under Chavez
  • Frum: Did Venezuelans really vote for this? Hard to say in a society like it

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

(CNN) -- Venezuela's authoritarian president Hugo Chavez is a villain out of a Batman movie: buffoonish and sinister in equal measure.

Sunday's vote result powerfully exposes both sides of his clown-prince system of rule.

Read more: Survivor and Venezuela's long-serving president

For weeks before the vote, Chavez signaled a willingness to surrender power, should the result go against him. On Election Day itself, he gave the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal a quote indicating he foresaw the possibility of defeat.

David Frum
David Frum

"Let's get ready to recognize the results, whatever they are," he said..

And yet just a few hours later, Venezuela's Election Agency showed Chavez winning massively, by nearly 10 percentage points. Is the result legitimate? That's hard to say. Venezuela has not invited any international election observers since 2006 and anomalies have been observed in past votes, especially the 2004 referendum to recall Chavez from the presidency

Yet it should also be said: In Venezuela, the most important forms of vote fraud happen well before Election Day.

First, the Chavez regime systematically controls and manipulates the mass media, especially television. Francisco Toro, founder of the indispensable Caracas Chronicle blog writes in the New Republic:

"Three minutes per day per broadcast outlet. That's how much advertising each candidate is allowed in Venezuela in the weeks leading up to a presidential election. That's six 30-second spots, no more. To long-suffering TV watchers in U.S. battleground states, that must sound like paradise. There's a catch, though. While each candidate's campaign is allowed no more than three minutes, the government can run as many 'institutional' ads as it wants to promote its work. And in Chávez-era Venezuela, such ads are generally indistinguishable from the official campaign ads, down to using designed-to-look-alike logos."

What's next for Venezuela?
Chavez challenger: 'Do not feel defeated'
Hugo Chavez claims victory
Hugo Chavez wins re-election race

Apart from campaign ads, however, the president himself can commandeer as much TV time as he wishes, although in the case of the long-winded Chavez, such appearances may not be vote-winners. More relevant to the success of the president's messaging is the regime's habit of seizing TV stations that broadcast journalism of which the authorities disapprove.

Along with state media control goes massive government vote-buying.

News: Six more years with Chavez

The Los Angeles Times reports: "Chavez in recent months has solidified his support base with massive giveaway programs, including one that aims to build 200,000 housing units for Venezuela's poor. Another, called Mi Casa Bien Equipada, or My Well-Equipped House, has donated Chinese-made household appliances to tens of thousands of poor families."

The use of state oil funds for this kind of electioneering is driving Venezuela's budget deficit for the year to the astounding level of 20% of GDP, an incredible figure for an oil-exporting economy at a time of very high oil prices. (Context: The U.S. budget deficits that have so alarmed people during the Obama years never reached as much as 9% of GDP.)

Venezuelan politics is distorted most of all by a pervasive mood of threat.

I visited Venezuela in 2010. My visit began with a briefing at the U.S. Embassy. "You've been to Afghanistan?" Yes. "You've been to Iraq?" Yes. "Well, congratulations. This is the most dangerous place you've ever been."

Venezuala, with a population smaller than Canada's, suffers more homicides than the United States. Robberies at gunpoint -- "express kidnappings" as they are called -- are regular occurrences in middle-class neighborhoods. And if middle-class neighborhoods evince any disaffection from the regime, they lose what little police protection they have, or even discover the police suddenly abetting and aiding the criminals that prey upon their community.

Property is seized. Businesses are arbitrarily nationalized. Conversations are eavesdropped upon. The Internet is policed, at least to the best of the (very limited) ability of Venezuela's not very competent security forces.

Hugo Chavez has laid Venezuela's economy to waste. One of the world's great energy producers must turn its streetlamps off at night. One of the world's wealthiest exporters cannot afford to import enough food. One of the world's energy superpowers is seeing its production slowly dwindle away because of chronic under-investment in the oil fields and the loss of access to technology as foreign companies are harassed and expropriated.

Did Venezuela vote for more of the same? Chavez does have a militant populist constituency, and it's not impossible that the final result does reflect what the voters actually did. But then, Vladimir Putin wins elections, too, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won at least one. It is not elections alone that make a free society -- and a free society is what Venezuela long ago ceased to be.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT