Monday, August 6, 2012

New Voting Machines Arouse Suspicions in Venezuela

As Venezuela prepares for the October presidential elections, concerns abound over the fairness of the contest between President Hugo Chavez and opposition politician Henrique Capriles Radonski. On Sunday, the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE) held a practice run of the elections at 55 voting centers across the country. Instead of voting for a political candidate, Venezuelans who chose to participate selected their favorite from a list of Olympic sports.

While the practice poll was likely meant in part to inspire faith in CNE’s methodology and institutional integrity, many remain skeptical. The focus of much criticism has been the adoption of new voting machines, which require voters to scan the fingerprint before placing their vote. While Venezuelans have had to scan their fingerprints in order to enter polling places in previous elections, the fact that this will now take place directly at the ballot has some worried that the government will record the identities of opposition voters. As the AP reports, these fears could cause some Capriles supporters to skip voting altogether.

The wire service also notes that, although members of the Capriles campaign have vouched for the security of the CNE’s new voting machines, such caution is not unwarranted in Venezuela. In 2004, pro-Chavez lawmaker Luis Tascon obtained a list of all the Venezuelans who had signed a petition calling for a recall election, and subsequently released their identities on the internet. Many of these individuals claim to have been fired from their jobs or harassed as a result, and the legacy of the “Tascon List” has haunted the opposition ever since.

Fears of a pro-Chavez bias in the CNE gained further traction last week when its director called on Capriles to stop wearing his trademark baseball cap featuring the colors of the Venezuelan flag. Although electoral authorities say the hat violates a law against politicizing national symbols, Caracas Chronicles points out that politicizing Venezuelan nationalism has been a hallmark of the Chavez administration.

News Briefs
  • In other Venezuela election news, President Chavez received a boost from longtime ally Sean Penn on Sunday. The actor and director appeared alongside Chavez at a rally in the city of Valencia yesterday, where he “fist-bumped and hugged” the president but did not make a public statement, according to Reuters.
  • While acid attacks against women are mostly known to occur in parts of Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the Washington Post’s Juan Forero has a striking investigative piece on their rise in Colombia. Victims’ advocates say more than 100 such incidents have occurred so far in the country this year, and the number is expected to rise above last year’s total of 150. In the rare instances where the perpetrators are caught, they often receive little or no jail time because the disfiguring attacks are treated as minor assaults.
  • With the Supreme Court trial against members of the administration of ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva underway, EFE reports that Attorney General Roberto Gurgel slammed a close ally of Lula’s. In testimony on Friday, Gurgel said Jose Dirceu, Lula's former chief of staff, “devised and directed" the payment of monthly bribes to lawmakers. For a helpful overview of the trial, see this Q&A by the BBC.
  • The New York Times profiles the work of Brazil’s truth commission, which has documented evidence of widespread human rights abuses committed against current President Dilma Rousseff and other dissidents by the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The piece also provides a short history of Rousseff’s transformation from urban guerrilla to mainstream politician, noting that despite the imprisonment and torture she endured in her youth, she has refused to “play the victim,” rarely speaking about the truth commission in public.
  • The Honduran Congress has approved a law banning the public possession of firearms in the Colon department, which has been wracked by violence in recent years. Americas Quarterly notes that the province is home to a violent land conflict, which has led to 78 murders in the last three years.
  • La Prensa and the BBC report that Honduran journalist Jose Chinchilla is seeking political asylum in the United States after unidentified gunmen opened fire on his home in the northern city of El Progreso on Friday, injuring his 24-year-old son. No word yet from US officials on whether they will grant the request.
  • The Economist takes a look at Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur, and asks whether the body used a back-door method for the move. Mercosur requires unanimity among its members to approve a country’s entrance, and Paraguay had blocked Venezuela’s admission in the past. However, Paraguay’s temporary suspension in response to the recent coup opened up a loophole for Venezuela, according to the magazine.
  • Guatemala’s first Olympic medalist, Erick Barrondo, hopes that his silver medal in the men’s 20-kilometer race walk in London will inspire youth in his country to reject violence. "I hope that this medal inspires the kids at home to put down guns and knives and pick up a pair of trainers instead. If they do that, I will be the happiest guy in the world," Barrondo told Reuters.
  • The more than 70,000 indigenous Guatemalans who speak Kakchiquel will now be able to use Facebook in their native language, thanks to a joint initiative by American software engineers and the Wuqu' Kawoq Maya Health Alliance.