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electoral controversy in Venezuela: can elected officials campaign? (part 3b)

October 26, 2010

[This is the seventh installment of this article. You may wish to read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 2b, Part 2c, Part 2d, and/or Part 3a before proceeding.]

(Note: All of the English translations that follow are my own. My knowledge of Latin American legal terminology is suspect, so please let me know if I made any poor decisions. The Spanish text, of course, is taken from the official documents.)

The law that most directly regulates the use of media during Venezuelan elections is the Fundamental Law of Electoral Processes Regarding Electoral Propaganda (Reglamento N° 6 de la Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales en Materia de Propaganda Electoral). In their allegations of PSUV infractions, Súmate has pointed specifically to articles 17 (in Francisco’s response to part 2) and 33 (in this press release). Here is the full text of article 17:

Artículo 17: “Los funcionarias y funcionarios en general, están al servicio del Estado y no de parcialidad política alguna, en consecuencia, les está prohibido:

  1. Actuar, en ejercicio de la función pública, orientadas u orientados por sus preferencias políticas, a favor o en detrimento de cualquier Organización con Fines Políticos, Grupo de Electoras y Electores, comunidades u organizaciones indígenas, o candidatura alguna;
  2. Hacer publicidad y propaganda electoral en sus sitios de trabajo y demás dependencias públicas, inclusive mediante el uso u ostentación de la misma por cualquier medio;
  3. Usar los locales donde funcione una dependencia gubernamental con fines de proselitismo político;
  4. Utilizar o permitir que otra persona utilice bienes del patrimonio público en beneficio de cualquier Organización con Fines Políticos, Grupo de Electoras o Electores, de las comunidades u organizaciones indígenas, o candidatura;
  5. Utilizar su cargo para favorecer o perjudicar electoralmente a una candidata o candidato, Organización con Fines Políticos o Grupo de Electoras o Electores y de las comunidades u organizaciones indígenas;
  6. Aprovechar las funciones que ejerce, o usar las influencias derivadas de las mismas, para obtener ventaja o beneficio económico u otra utilidad, para cualquier Organización con Fines Políticos, Grupo de Electoras y Electores, comunidades u organizaciones indígenas o candidatura.”

Article 17: “Officials in general, are at the service of the State and not any partiality, as such, they are prohibited from:

  1. Acting, in the exercise of public duties, guided by political preferences, for or against any Political Organization, Electoral Group, indigenous communities or organizations, or any candidate;
  2. Campaigning or displaying electoral propaganda in the workplace and other public dependencies, including by means of the use or display of the same by any means;
  3. Using locations where a government dependency operates toward the end of political proselytism;
  4. Using or permitting another person to use goods belonging to the public heritage to benefit any Political Organization, Electoral Group, indigenous communities or organizations, or any candidate;
  5. Using their position to electorally favor or damage a candidate. Political Organization, Electoral Group, indigenous communities or organizations;
  6. Taking advantage of the duties they exercise, or using influence derived from the same, to obtain advantage or economic benefit or other utility, for any Political Organization, Electoral Group, indigenous communities or organizations, or any candidate.”

Article 33, meanwhile, is from the section of the document that lays out penalties for infractions, so it actually only states that anyone who breaks article 5 will have to pay a fine. As for article 5, it’s a long list of prohibitions. (So long, in fact, that I’m going to place the text and translation at the end of this post, instead of within the body. So scroll down if you want to read it.) Among the prohibitions, the three that I suppose are meant to apply to the PSUV are: not identifying the sponsors of campaign advertising (5.5); using national or regional symbols or the colors of the Venezuelan or a regional flag (5.10); using public funds other than those specified in law (5.14).

As for the flag, Chávez did often wear a jacket with the colors of the flag during his campaign appearances. According to one article I read, he acknowledged this and agreed to stop using it, though I’m not sure if he ever did. Clearly, however, his jacket is a lesser concern than the use of state media outlets for multiple hours of uninterrupted campaign coverage, which, I agree, would constitute using public funds unlawfully.

As article 33 spells out, these infractions are punishable by fines ranging from 5,000 and 7,000 “tributary units” (unidades tributarias / UTs). [A tributary unit, as I understand it, is a denomination used in Venezuelan law that allows taxes and fines to remain constant, relative to one another, even as the value of the currency fluctuates due to inflation and other factors. In essence, it keeps them from having to update the laws every year.] In January of this year, the UT was raised to Bsf. 65. At the official exchange rate (second tier) of Bsf 4.3 to 1 US dollar, the fine ranges from $75,581 to $105,814.

So let’s suppose the CNE and/or the courts did investigate and decide that the PSUV had benefited from unacknowledged and illicit public funding. They would have been and – as far as I can tell – should have been fined. Maybe even the maximum fine for each of the 8 caravans broadcast, meaning they would have paid roughly $850,000. That would definitely sting. But would it go any further? Would it prove that the whole electoral campaign had run afoul of the basic norms of democracy and should be annulled? Would it show that Venezuela is any more dictatorial than other countries in the hemisphere, including the US, where shady campaign funding is on the rise? I think the answer to those questions is “no”.

Moreover, article five may raise some thorny issues for the opposition parties themselves, since it states that campaign propaganda can be funded with neither foreign money (5.15) nor undeclared private money (5.16). I already discussed the public debates about the role of foreign money in opposition campaign, but I’ve never heard the argument – which seems plausible to me – that pro-opposition media outlets, such as Globovisión, provide free airtime and propaganda for opposition candidates. I do not mean that covering them heavily or even positively is necessarily illegal, and article 11 of the Electoral Propaganda law makes it clear that:

Artículo 11: “La participación de las candidatas o candidatos y dirigentes de las Organizaciones con Fines Políticos, de los Grupos de Electoras o Electores y de las comunidades u organizaciones indígenas, en programas de opinión e informativos
de radio o televisión, o en los medios de comunicación social impresos, digitales u otros medios de información masiva, no se considera propaganda electoral.”

Article 11: “Participation by candidates and leaders of Political Organizations, Electoral Groups, and indigenous communities or organizations, in opinion and informational programs on radio or television, or in print, digital or other mass media, will not be considered electoral propaganda.”

Still, the line between an opinion or informational program and outright propaganda is never clear and, perhaps, getting fuzzier. Perhaps this argument would hold no water, but I suspect that an analysis of Globovision’s coverage of the latest elections might end up with a compelling set of arguments for invoking article 5, section 16. Of course, opposition parties are more likely to convert Bolivars to Dollars at the the parallel rate, which was about 8.2 as of this writing. That would make for a much more palatable fine of between $39,634 and $55,488.

This line of argument is only fortified by articles 12 and 14, which read as follows:

Artículo 12: “Los medios de comunicación social, públicos o privados, y los productores independientes, no podrán efectuar por cuenta propia ningún tipo de difusión de propaganda tendente a apoyar a alguna candidata o algún candidato, ni a estimular o desestimular  el voto de la electora o el elector a favor o en contra de alguna de las candidaturas.”

Article 12: “Social communication media, public or private, and independent producers, will not execute on their own any type of diffusion of propaganda tending to support any candidate, nor to provoke or suppress the vote of the electorate for or against any of the candidacies.”
(Same as Article 79 of Fundamental Law of Electoral Processes)

Artículo 14: “Los medios de comunicación social públicos y privados darán una cobertura informativa completa y balanceada de las informaciones relacionadas y sin tergiversar la realidad de la campaña. A tal efecto, observarán un riguroso equilibrio en cuanto al tiempo y espacio dedicado a las informaciones relativas a las actividades desarrolladas por las candidatas o los candidatos.”

Article 14: “Public and private social communication media will provide complete and balanced informative coverage of information related to and without distorting the reality of the campaign. Towards that end, they will observe a rigorous balance regarding time and space dedicated to information relative to the activities carried out by the candidates.”
(Same as Article 81 of Fundamental Law of Electoral Processes)

These are not two particularly obscure articles – in fact, article 12 and 14 are exactly the same, word for word, as articles 79 and 81 of the Fundamental Law of Electoral Processes (Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales).  Perhaps there’s a reason that Súmate doesn’t point to these two articles in their press releases? Perhaps because they would invite the realization that, whether or not public media outlets are promoting the PSUV, it would be possible to argue that “private social communication media” like Globovisión, are certainly not providing “complete and balanced” coverage and they might even be found to have diffused opposition propaganda and provoked votes against PSUV candidates. [Articles 12 and 14 are also punishable by fines of 5,000 to 7,000 UTs (as per articles 36 and 38).]

On the other hand, maybe Súmate is just a bit careless, because they should have at least pointed to articles 18 and 19, which I find to be the clearest examples of PSUV / government infractions:

Artículo 18: “Los organismos públicos nacionales, estadales o municipales no podrán realizar publicidad y propaganda electoral, y en tal sentido, no podrán difundir mensajes destinados a promover, auspiciar o favorecer determinada candidatura u Organización con Fines Políticos o Grupo de Electoras y Electores,  y comunidades u organizaciones indígenas, así como todo aquello que promueva o tienda a promover la imagen negativa de alguna candidata o candidato, Organización con Fines Políticos, Grupo de Electoras y Electores y comunidades u organizaciones indígenas.”

Article 18: “National, state or municipal public organizations will not create electoral publicity and propaganda, and in that sense, will not diffuse messages aimed at promoting, backing, or favoring a particular candidacy or Political Group or Electoral Group, and indigenous communities and organizations, as well as anything that promotes or tends to promote the negative image of any candidate, Political Organization, Electoral Group and indigenous communities or organizations.”

Artículo 19: “La información concerniente a las obras de gobierno, los mensajes y alocuciones oficiales, no podrán tener contenidos y símbolos publicitarios o propagandísticos de naturaleza electoral.”

Article 19: “Information concerning government works, official messages and speeches, will not include electoral content or symbols of a publicity or propagandistic nature.”

PSUV caravans on state TV are a clear example of a public organizations diffusing messages aimed at promoting an “Electoral Group” and thus violate article 18. Meanwhile, Chávez’s statements of support for PSUV candidates during his official presidential speeches are a clear violation of Article 19. If I were working for Súmate, these would be among the first laws I would point to. Of course, they are only punishable by fines of 500 to 700 UTs (as per article 41), or one tenth of the other infractions, so might not seem as juicy, but they also carry the potential for a “proportional arrest” of one day per UT – that’s between 16 and 23 months. It’s hard to imagine Chávez, however, being sent to jail for two years because he name checked a few candidates in a presidential speech.

In the final analysis, having gone over the major points thoroughly and investigated the pertinent laws, it does seem that the Chávez administration and/or the PSUV have committed punishable infractions. That the CNE and the courts did not investigate the opposition’s claims is a serious and very worrying development that signals unacceptable lapses in democratic governance. The opposition has every right to demand corrective action. That said, there is no evidence that Chávez is wielding dictatorial control over the Venezuelan media system or that the elections themselves were harmed significantly enough to merit annulment. Unfortunately, this is not the conclusion one would arrive at based on mainstream English language press accounts.


Article 5 of the Fundamental Law of Electoral Processes Regarding Electoral Propaganda (Reglamento N° 6 de la Ley Orgánica de Procesos Electorales en Materia de Propaganda Electoral) reads as follows in Spanish:

No se permitirá la propaganda electoral que:

  1. Se produzca fuera del lapso de la campaña electoral establecido por el Consejo Nacional Electoral;
  2. Atente contra el honor, vida privada, intimidad, propia imagen, confidencialidad y reputación de las personas;
  3. Promueva la guerra, discriminación o intolerancia;
  4. Promueva la desobediencia a las leyes;
  5. Omita los datos que permitan la identificación de la promotora o promotor de la propaganda electoral y el Registro de Información Fiscal (R.I.F.);
  6. Sea contratada o realizada por personas naturales o jurídicas distintas a las autorizadas de conformidad con el presente Reglamento;
  7. Desestimule el ejercicio del derecho al voto;
  8. Contenga expresiones obscenas y denigrantes contra los órganos y entes del Poder Público, instituciones y funcionarias o funcionarios públicos;
  9. Que utilicen la imagen, sonido o la presencia de niñas, niños o adolescentes;
  10. Utilice los símbolos nacionales o regionales de la patria o de los próceres de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, o los colores de la Bandera Nacional o Regional;
  11. Utilice la imagen, nombres o apellidos de cualquier ciudadana o ciudadano, así como colores y símbolos que identifiquen una Organización con Fines Políticos o Grupos de Electoras y Electores, sin su autorización;
  12. Violente la normativa establecida en la legislación en materia de protección animal;
  13. Sea financiada con fondos de origen ilícito o prohibido por este Reglamento;
  14. Sea financiada con fondos públicos distintos a los previstos en la ley;
  15. Sea financiada con fondos de origen extranjero;

and in English:

Electoral Propaganda will not be permitted if it:

  1. Is produced outside of the electoral campaign period established by the National Electoral Council;
  2. Threatens the honor, private life, intimacy, self image, confidentiality and reputation of persons;
  3. Promotes war, discrimination or intolerance;
  4. Promotes disobedience to the law;
  5. Omits information permitting the identification of the sponsor of the electoral propaganda and the Fiscal Information Registry (R.I.F.);
  6. Is contracted or created by natural or juridical persons other than those authorized according to this Regulation;
  7. Discourages the exercise of the right to vote;
  8. Contains obscene and denigrating expressions against organs and entities of Public Power, institutions and public workers;
  9. Utilizes the image, sound or presence of children or adolescents;
  10. Utilizes national or regional symbols of the homeland or of the national heroes of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, or the colors of the National or Regional Flag;
  11. Utilizes the image, first or last names of any citizen, as well as colors and symbols that identify a Political Organization or Group of Electors, without their authorization;
  12. Violate the protective norms established in the legislation regarding animal protection;
  13. Is financed with funds of illicit origin or prohibited by this Regulation;
  14. Is financed with public funds other than those foreseen in law;
  15. Is financed with funds of foreign origin;
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