The recent election in Venezuela offers an opportunity to improve the US-Venezuela bilateral relationship. On Oc. 7th, President Hugo Chavez was reelected to a new six-year term by a nine point margin. I — along with hundreds of other international witnesses — was duly impressed with the transparency of the electoral process and the enthusiasm of Venezuelans for democracy. Eighty-one percent percent of registered voters went to the polls! This turnout was remarkable when compared to the United States and other “mature” democracies.
Whether or not one agrees with Chávez’s policies, there can be no doubt that he won these elections fairly. There are so many checks and balances in the electoral system in Venezuela that there is virtually no room for fraud. The voter registry, the voting machines, the electronic ballot and the data transmission system are all fully audited by representatives of all the different political parties and independent observers.
Former President Jimmy Carter recently called the Venezuelan voting system “the best in the world.” He noted that the voting machines print out a paper receipt that voters can look at to verify that their selection was recorded correctly, and poll workers check those receipts against the electronic tally.
I was particularly struck by the atmosphere of peacefulness and mutual respect in the voting centers, where monitors from both pro-government and opposition groups were present. In contrast with elections past, the two main candidates manifested a similar attitude. Once the election authorities announced the results, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles rapidly conceded defeat, and he quickly scolded “radical” opposition supporters who insisted on alleging that fraud had taken place, despite no evidence to support their claims. Chávez also behaved gracefully, calling Capriles the following day to express his willingness to work together to mitigate the polarization that divided Venezuelans.
Most of Venezuela’s political leadership — following a tumultuous power struggle, during which a coup d’Etat and violent protests occurred — appear to have accepted to follow the democratic rulebook and be more tolerant of one another. This is an important step forward, and the United States should encourage Venezuelans to continue seeking common ground, rather than support one group over another, as has at times been the case in recent years.
Most importantly, over 55 percent of Venezuelan voters cast their vote in favor of Chávez. The United States should respect this outcome and seek to improve relations in areas where we can agree. Commercial relations between our two countries have generally been excellent, despite political differences, and both countries would greatly benefit from their expansion.
Venezuela will no doubt continue to play a central role in the region’s new multilateral cooperation and consultation mechanisms, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Central American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The United States, which has increasingly found itself isolated in regional forums, would do well to find ways to work with these new groups on important issues such as drug trafficking and energy cooperation. Improved relations with Venezuela would greatly facilitate this task.
Our government will certainly have important differences with Venezuela, particularly in the area of international relations. But we can agree to disagree, as we do with many other partners throughout the world. I am convinced that the Venezuelan government is prepared to respond favorably to such an initiative.
Retired US Representative William D. Delahunt is chairman of the Venezuela-US Friendship Group,