Skip to main content

Chavez clown prince of a decaying society

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 10:00 AM EDT, Tue October 9, 2012
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT