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Venezuela: No Chávez recall vote coming, official said

By Richard Brand, Miami Herald

Posted on Tue, Apr. 20, 2004 CARACAS - An executive of an Omaha firm that sold voting machines to Venezuela says a top electoral official asked him during a meeting last year whether his company worked for the CIA and predicted there would be no recall referendum against leftist President Hugo Chávez.

''There was a certain amount of paranoia,'' recalled John Groh, president of the international division of Election Systems and Software (ES&S), of the October meeting in a Manhattan hotel room.

The meeting was with Jorge Rodríguez, considered the most pro-Chávez and influential member of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council's five-person board of directors.

''I took an hour explaining to him that we were not part of the CIA, that I didn't have a military background,'' Groh told The Herald.

'We said that we understand you have an election coming up where there will be a presidential referendum, and . . . Rodríguez said, `That election will never take place,' '' Groh said.

The electoral council, with three pro-Chávez directors and two who favor the opposition, has temporarily dismissed one million of the 3 million signatures the opposition collected demanding a recall vote on Chávez.

At the time of the meeting, ES&S was seeking a $20 million contract to dust off the 7,500 ES&S Model 100 optical scanners, which read paper ballots, that the firm sold to Venezuela for the 1998 elections.

Instead, the electoral council awarded most of a $91 million contract in February to Boca Raton-based Smartmatic Corp., a tiny company whose touch-screen voting machine has never been used in an election anywhere.

''Smartmatic came out of the blue,'' Groh said in a telephone interview from Omaha. ``It's a very small, very new, storefront business that should never be considered for a project of this size.''

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