CARACAS - President Hugo Chavez won his bid for re-election Sunday in the most unscrupulous electoral exercise these commentators have witnessed in 20 presidential contests spanning 56 years. The results: Venezuela lost a chance to return to freedom, economic growth and uncorrupted government; Latin America continues under revolutionary socialist threat; the United States' most important imported petroleum source remains antagonistic.
Venezuela's economic decline under Chavez's 14-year rule has come despite its enormous oil wealth -- production has fallen by one-third. Venezuelans had every right to vote for a change, and they did. But the Chavez regime snatched it from them.
The 54 percent to 44 percent Chavez victory declared by the National Electoral Council, or CNE, numbering four chavistas and one opositor, simply ignored multiple allegations of ghost voter registrations, extensive delaying tactics, dubious voting machine problems and, most of all, outright intimidation.
As early as last February, noted socio-political critic Eric Ekvall wrote persuasively about the illegal registration issue, stating that Caracas voting lists had been grossly inflated, with no substantive action taken by CNE or the opposition United Democratic Movement to correct the situation.
Prior to the election, the consulate in Miami -- home to the largest Venezuelan expatriate community of more than 20,000 -- was simply closed. Expatriate voters were told they would have to travel to New Orleans to vote.
Within Venezuela, Despite repeated assurances by CNE officials and the interior minister that their system was the world's most modern, efficient and thoroughly tested, allegedly faulty voting machines caused lengthy delays in most voting centers. In some cases, the delays were reportedly man-made.
For example, the Colegio Cervantes voting site in Caracas opened two and a half hours late, causing hundreds of voters to wait more than six hours to cast their ballots.
The Colegio de la Epifania center in Maracaibo was closed after 40 chavistas, their motorcycles flying flags of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, surrounded the building and physically threatened people trying to enter. Similar incidents were reported in numerous voting centers around the country.
At the Colegio Cristo Rey center in Caracas, where Norman Pino and his wife, Irma, voted after a 90-minute wait, all six voting machines were working, but CNE workers unnecessarily processed each voter painfully slowly -- an obvious ploy to discourage 500 or more people waiting to vote.
CNE officials in at least three Caracas voting centers refused to permit manual voting, as prescribed by CNE regulations, when backup voting machines functioned improperly, stopping voting entirely for several hours.
At a Montalban polling center in Caracas, chavista thugs fired shots at the building, successfully intimidating voters.
Following expat voting in London, Chavez's ambassador refused to have the ballots counted in public, as required. The same happened in New Orleans.
Following the CNE announcement of the election results, Henrique Capriles made a politically correct, patriotic concession speech -- good for the United States or Canada, totally inappropriate in today's Venezuela.
The man who in four months had come from nowhere to take the electoral lead knew he had been robbed of victory. Despite efforts to offset fears, recent polling found 40 percent of Venezuelans still believed their votes were not secret. Yet Capriles spoke not a word about Chavez's massive fraud-by-fear campaign or the accompanying pay-for-votes program. In avoiding these crucial factors, Capriles tacitly welcomed Chavez to lead Venezuela for six more years of tempest and turmoil, quite possibly jeopardizing his own political future.
No experienced observer considers the elections to have been fair, notwithstanding credulous Associated Press and Thomson Reuters reports. Clearly, the opposition should have insisted on truly fair conditions months earlier. Although late, Capriles could have demonstrated real leadership and sent a message of ongoing, resolute opposition to Chavez. Instead, genuine Venezuelan and Latin American democrats can only hope el comandante Chavez will pass from the active political scene sooner rather than later.
As things stand, however, Chavez continues in defiance of his hero Simon Bolivar, who stated 193 years ago: "Nothing is as dangerous as allowing a citizen to be in power for a long time. People get used to obeying and he to commanding them, which is how usurpation of power and tyranny originate."
Geopolitical analyst and former diplomat John R. Thomson focuses on the developing world. Former Venezuelan career Ambassador Norman Pino De Lion is a frequent contributor to leading Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.