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Venezuela: The Road to the Referendum

By Coordinadora Internacional Venezolana

Washington D.C. – February 25, 2004 – The National Electoral Council (CNE) in a split 3-2 vote decided last night to send 148,000 signature forms to be considered by the Special Technical Committee to decide on the validity of approximately 1,400,000 signatures of Venezuelans asking for a recall referendum of President Chavez.

CNE board member Sobella Mejías and CNE Vice-President Ezequiel Zamora expressed outrage at the decision because they felt that it was unconstitutional and illegal.

The OAS and the Carter Center made a statement recommending to the CNE that given the volume of signatures being sent to the Special Technical Committee, the CNE should consider using statistical analysis of selected forms to determine the validity of signatures, a technique that has been used in other countries, as a way of determining the validity of all signatures in an expeditious manner. This would allow for the signature defense process ( “reparos”) to be done in a transparent and simple manner following the previously established requirement that the law presumes the good faith on the part of the signer.

Both President Jimmy Carter and the OAS mission in Venezuela, who are acting along with the UNDP as the recognized international observers by both parties under the mandate of OAS Permanent Council Resolution 833, have addressed this situation by stating in February that it would be prudent not to dwell on “excessive technicalities” as a reason to invalidate a signature.

The Coordinadora Democratica responded claiming the decision was “a coup d’etat against the constitution” because the decision did not follow the norms established by the CNE. They also stated that because of the decision they ceased to recognize the institutional, political and moral authority of the government-controlled majority of the CNE board until it rectifies its position.

This decision clearly puts in jeopardy the political rights of Venezuelan citizens. With a 3-2 majority the CNE has been implementing a series of interpretations midway into the verification process that are threatening the democratic will of possibly hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to recall the President as stated in the Constitution.

Consistent with the hard line discourse of pro-government officials, 3 of the 5 CNE directors from the beginning were openly playing tricks by toughening the requirements to verify signatures that violate the Constitution, laws and regulations concerning the electoral process. The CNE created a new category of “questionable” signatures set aside during the first stage of the signature revision process, arguing technicalities and changes in procedures in verifying signatures that places the burden of proof concerning the validity of the signature on the signature bearer. The 3 pro-government directors have created a category called “firmas planas” (similar handwriting) which are forms that share the same apparent handwriting of personal information (name, date of birth, and cedula [identification] number), but not the signature, which is that of the person who signed the form.

With this subtle form of manipulation the pro-government directors are making the assumption that all the signatures are “invalid” forcing the signature bearer to come back to defend their signature in a process called “reparo.”

While the process how this will be done is not yet clear, it may be an administrative nightmare, especially if only a few days are allowed, and if the signature bearers have to travel to Caracas to defend their signature. The CNE claims that they will announce the procedure for the “reparo” sometime today.

Article 29 of the CNE Regulation on the Recall Referendum Process only discusses the requirements for the “signature” with no mention on the need for the individual to also fill in the personal information on his/her signature line. It is a common practice not only in Venezuela, but also in other countries of the Americas, for third persons to fill in forms, and for the individual to sign the form after all information blocks have been filled. This is especially true for the elderly, infirm, or those who may not be able to write legibly.

During the signature gathering phase of the process (November 28 – to December 1, 2003) the Venezuelan opposition gatherer 3,448,747 signatures, which is over 1 million more than the minimum required by the Constitution (2,436,083) to trigger a recall referendum. By applying this standard to all collected signatures, the pro-government faction is attempting to invalidate in excess of 1 million signatures claiming these signatures are part of a “megafraud” not to mention ignoring the requirement of transparency in the process.

At this time we would like to remind the international community that:

* All public statements supporting the OAS/Carter Center/UNPD mission that allows the recall referendum to move forward will help diffuse a very tense situation and provide space for the CNE to make correct decisions.

* Statements should encourage all Venezuelans to seek reconciliation and common ground.

* The split 3-2 decision by the CNE that places form over substance on how to treat “planillas planas,” could potentially disenfranchise over 1 million Venezuelan voters.

* This decision by the CNE concerning the “planillas planas” will derail the process that is seeking a peaceful, electoral and democratic solution to the Venezuelan political crises opening the door for violence in Venezuela.

Given the tense situation, plus the need to preserve Venezuelan democracy for the good of the region, we strongly urge the international community to demonstrate leadership and denounce any decisions that disenfranchises an excessive number of Venezuelans. Given that the Venezuelan people have used every constitutional means at their disposal to resolve this crisis, silence by the international community is tantamount to participating in the death of Venezuelan democracy.

For contact information please call 703-256-0350.

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