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Referendum in Venezuela: An Eyewitness Account of a Historical Home Run

Sunday, August 1, 2004

By Alejandro Kirk*
August 22, 2004

CARACAS: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is the result of systematic erosion of democratic system in the country over a period of 40 years, which enabled a few economically influential groups to control immense wealth generated from oil exports.

Coming out of the jail for staging a failed coup in 1992, Chávez was elected president in 1998, in the wake of a political earthquake that ended the two party-system led by the social-democratic Acción Democrática party and Christian-Democratic Copei. On Sunday, Aug 15, Chávez voluntarily went through the hardest test ever faced by a head of the state in office. Venezuelans voted in a referendum on whether to recall President Hugo Chávez or allow him to complete his term in office. Chávez was adamant to include the provision of referendum in the Venezuelan constitution - and passed with honours. Facing a mid-term referendum after a coup and two national strikes have worsened an already bad economic situation, is not the kind of test any leader would happily go through, let alone win with 1.6 million more votes than in the first election.

Many opposition followers truly believe that defeat was impossible and hence Chávez's win must be a gigantic fraud. While queuing at a subway ticket booth, I met Slava Zambrano, a clerk in Caracas. He said "At first I could not believe the results. How could we lose when we are the majority? There must be a fraud. But then reviewing the statistics I realized that we are many, but not the majority."

This has much to do with media. Out of the country's 420 radio stations, the government controls just 50 and just one of six nation-wide TV stations. Journalism is, perhaps, the first victim of the Venezuelan political crisis. The private media took the lead in opposing Chávez and none of the electronic media and very few of the printed media, had any pretensions of providing balanced information. Each side listens and believes in what it wants to hear! Media Watch, an independent association of journalists, concluded in their recent study that the state-owned Venezuelan National Radio, the best placed medium providing balanced reporting, rates just 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 5.

Opposition leaders correctly believe that Chávez would probably have lost the elections had the poor been less numerous and less poor. But, as it happens, some 80 percent of the country's 25 million people live in poverty. And the overwhelming majority of them seem to trust their 'populist' President more than the IMF officials and economic 'experts' who disdain pouring resources on emergency social programs, known here as the 'missions', and instead promote austerity for the poor. Chávez's 'missions' have brought some 14,000 Cuban doctors, teachers and sport coaches to the slums. They have provided subsidized food and medicines to the poor and expanded micro-credit programs for small entrepreneurs. These missions have not only produced immediate results, but also a renewed wave of political support for Chávez. Even the opposition was forced to promise their continuity, had they won the referendum!

For those who declare class struggle dead, a tour around Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, might shatter their views. Nothing more could be telling, perhaps, than the well dressed middle class woman shouting at a quiet, smiling -- but poorly dressed Chávez supporter this past Monday: "This country is mine, you're not going to take it away from me." She was with a group of about 100 women who had gathered in front of the huge and unfinished Melia Caracas hotel in downtown Caracas. Inside, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and secretary general of the Organisation of American States, Cesar Gaviria, were holding a press conference to support the official results of the presidential referendum, which they had observed, backed by a huge number of experts.

The women felt betrayed. Their eyes and strident voices reflected their anger. Both Carter and Gaviria were widely viewed as being biased against the President by both Chávez and the opposition. The opposition had explicitly and repeatedly declared that it would accept the referendum results only if Carter and Gaviria would. And so had the United States. The government's position was that the election results in a sovereign country cannot be decided by international observers. After the referendum, however, both sides changed their stance.

Washington honoured its commitment. The Venezuelan opposition and the private media didn't. Carter and Gaviria suddenly became irrelevant, untrustworthy, naive, and simply blind to the obvious -- a massive and sophisticated fraud staged by Chávez. Despite intense pressure from the opposition leaders, Carter and Gaviria stated on Tuesday, August 17, evening that they had no reason to doubt the transparency of the process. After the United States, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Portugal and many other countries congratulated Chávez on his victory, and after Carter declared that "there is no evidence of fraud and any allegation of fraud is completely unwarranted," the observers were ignored by the private television stations and 'fraud' became the leading issue

The observers agreed to conduct a second auditing of ballots, one that would, Carter said, dissipate any remaining concerns about the process. The auditing would be conducted, he said, in the presence of the autonomous National Electoral Council (NEC), with observers from both sides and OAS and Carter Centre's officials under an agreed procedure. But the opposition leaders pulled back and now claim a new form of fraud secretly conducted by 'chavista' experts on the machines and software used for electronic voting. Never mind these machines were handled by a foreign company, Smartmatic, and data was transmitted by CANTV, a private telecommunications company which is led by a prominent opposition leader. And all this could happen under the eyes of international observers and opposition witnesses. Electronic vote, the opposition now declares is less accurate than manual counting!

The auditing is "unacceptable" to the radical in the opposition who are calling for a manual count of over ten million votes, one by one, or preferably replace that tedious procedure with revolt against Chávez by Army officers who have been subjected to an intensive campaign of phone calls and emails. Rewarded with accusations and opposition's anger, after months of hard work, president Carter left Venezuela on August 18, to celebrate his wife's birthday in Atlanta. He didn't say if and when he will be back.

Maria Auxiliadora Leiria is only 65, but looks much older. Three rotten teeth is all what's left in her mouth, her body is fragile and undernourished. It is hard to imagine what she has lived through. On the day of the election, she stood in front of the National Electoral Council (NEC) along with hundreds of other Chávez supporters, protesting because they had official registry letters but were not allowed to vote. They had been removed from the electoral lists. Leiria told me that she had stood in the line for over six hours since 4:00 am and then told to complain to the NEC because she wasn't listed. She then took a bus from Caricuao, her neighbourhood, to the NEC. She was upset that no one wanted to listen to her, that she had not eaten all day and that the election hours were passing and president Chávez needed her vote!

Another demonstrator said "I'm here to protect myself. This is not about Chávez, but about poor people for if these people (the opposition) win, he'll take a plane to Cuba and will be fine, but they will come after us in the slums." The poor have good reason to fear. In February 1989 a popular uprising against the adjustment measures, advocated by the IMF and implemented by president Carlos Andrés Pérez, was curtailed by sending in army troops into the slums, with orders to shoot and kill. The count of the dead is not known, with human rights groups estimating over 3,000 dead or missing people.

This crime sealed Pérez's fate in the medium term. The army officers sent to repress the poor, Chááz among them, swore to never be used to kill their own people. After a failed coup attempt by Chávez -- then commander of an elite commando regiment in 1992 -- Pérez was thrown out of office on corruption charges in 1993. The former president now lives in Miami and has called for a 'violent' strategy to get rid of Chávez, whom, he said, he would like to see "die like a dog." It is not hard to imagine what would happen to the fervent supporters of Chávez if Pérez's dreams were realized.

Such dreams are not short of attempts to make them come true. Instead of doing systematic political work to unseat Chávez through elections, the opposition has been busy scheming for a coup since 1998. In April 2002 they managed to imprison him and install a regime, whose first decree suspended all freedoms and guarantees, abolished the constitution and dissolved the country's National Assembly and the Supreme Court. But Chávez returned to power 48 hours later on the shoulders of millions of supporters and his loyal army officers!

Later that year, the top echelon of the powerful state-owned oil company, PDVSA, joined a general strike, paralysing vital oil production and exports, which caused losses of some nine billion dollars. They almost succeeded. A minister told me that at one point the Treasury had just 2 billion dollars to pay the whole country's bills. But Chávez managed to retake control of the oil industry and defeat the strike. Both events allowed Chávez to gain more power. After the coup he purged the army and removed enemy officers, and after the strike, he changed the hostile management of the oil company and dramatically reduced its operational costs.

Chávez is now accused of using oil revenues to fund his social missions, which appears to be a sensible move to any independent observer. Even the New York Times reported in its editorial on August 18, that this is "understandably appreciated by the millions of Venezuelans who have felt like the neglected stepchildren of the country's oil boom."

Opposition voters are not just startled, but are angry with their leaders, many of whom were elected as mayors, governors and parliamentarians running on Chávez platform and later changed sides. One prominent opposition editor told me: "the only one revoked here is the Democratic Coordination, the opposition coalition, for its incapacity to conduct a decent campaign and later to defend our votes against the fraud." With state and local elections due by the end of September, some opposition leaders, like the governor of the western oil-rich Zulia state, Manuel Rosales, have chosen to immediately start campaigning rather than waste time and resources in challenging results already sealed by all relevant parties.

But some opposition members are threatening to boycott the elections. No doubt, they fear the elections in which Chávez is likely to repeat or even increase his electoral power base. Within the opposition, however, some also fear the internal strife. Unlike the Chávez supporters, who united around their leader when the referendum menace surfaced, the opposition is fragmented with a new spokesperson every day, mirroring a savage internal power struggle.

Referendum in Venezuela was about democracy. Voters on both sides took the referendum seriously. They started queuing in the early hours of Sunday and waited for 10 hours and more -- the turn out being the most impressive of any election in the Venezuelan history -- a lesson in democracy for the whole world. Chávez has doubtlessly won but the country remains divided. He may have the support of most Venezuelans, but remains isolated from the middle class. According to the New York Times, the challenge now for Chávez's foes is to prove their commitment by building up "a more realistic and effective opposition." Vice-president José Vicente Rangel, a veteran politician and defender of human rights said Tuesday that Venezuela needs an effective opposition, partly because he fears the authoritarian element within Chávez's military followers and partly because, as he said, "there is more to Venezuela than pro and anti Chávez".

* Alejandro Kirk, a Senior Fellow at The Oakland Institute, is the Latin America Regional Director of the Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency which produces independent news and analysis about events and global processes affecting the economic, social and political development of peoples' and nations, especially in the South.

Alejandro is based in Uruguay and can be reached at [email protected]

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