My CNN column describes the devastation inflicted on once prosperous Venezuela by strongman President Hugo Chavez.
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.
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.
"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 referendumto 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 Chronicles 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."
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.
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.)