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Venezuela: four months away or the dialogue of the deaf

By Sol Maria Castro,

Four months after the signatures petitioning a recall referendum against the mandate of President Hugo Chávez (December 19), and four months to the date established by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court as the moment in which President Chávez has completed the first four years of his mandate (August 19), two of the directors of the National Electoral Council, CEN, announced at midnight last night the approval of the Repair procedure, its dates and general premises.

The opposition umbrella group, Democratic Coordinator, is yet to announce whether they accept to go to the Repair procedure under these new rules, but some of the members of the negotiating team, Felipe Mujica and Alberto Quirós Corradi have expressed their satisfaction with what was achieved after almost two months of conversations. It is always disheartening to have to rain on the opposition’s parade, but that satisfaction seems totally out of place considering they express it without fully knowing the Repair Norms, which will only be delivered to them at noon today (another one of those promises by the directors that usually takes days or weeks to fulfill), as will the final data. The only aspects known in terms of the data is that 1,192,914 signatures were deemed valid; 375,241 were annulled or eliminated for irregularities, and 1,910,965 signatures were placed under observation, and will need to be ratified during the three days of repair in order to be later validated.

It is difficult to see how anyone could be satisfied when the very few items announced last night seem to contradict what the CD negotiators were pushing for. Let’s list what they were and analyze the rest of the Norms that has been leaked somehow. The points the CD considered crucial for the Repair procedure included the scheduled dates, the conditions and logistics of that procedure and the number of signatures.

The negotiating team had requested the repair procedure would start with the PRR petition first before the one that corresponds to both opposition and pro-government legislators. The dates announced last night reflect this part of the deal was not accepted since the repair procedure for the legislators’ mandate recall petition will be held May 20 through May 24, with the first and last day for installation and dismantling of the repair center (three days for effective repair), and May 27 through May 31 for the PRR petition repair, under the same conditions specified above (effective repair will be May 28-30). To make matters worse, the “sudden death” concept agreed upon in early negotiations, that is, totalizing the numbers on a daily basis, was eliminated from the new Norms, and now the results WILL NOT BE MADE PUBLIC while the procedure is in effect, but only three days after the last day, after which there will be “no revisions and no re-counting”. It is almost impossible not to be suspicious of this “censored period” given the experience of what happened with the data collected in December and its treatment. Could it be the CNE will need those 72 hours to make sure the numbers do not add? With these conditions accepted, we will have to wait until June 4 to find out.

Based on the studies conducted by Súmate, the negotiating team had been against the use of the computers in the Repair Centers since only one computer would not be enough to process the data of the signers/”ratifiers” and would only become a bottleneck in the procedure. Early agreements seemed to indicate that the procedure would be manual with as many as ten notebooks in some repair centers depending on the number of “ratifiers” to attend. Yesterday’s announcement sees the presence of computers as a crucial part of the process again, with its number depending on the number of people to ratify their signatures in each center, matched with the number of notebooks. In a repair center with fewer than 1,100 people expected, only one computer and one notebook will be required while in centers with over 2,100 people expected, three computers and three notebooks will be used. It is obvious by the number of computers equaled to the number of notebooks that the procedure will be both automated and manual somehow, or is there another purpose for the computers to be next to the notebooks in which the undersigned will register their signature and fingerprint to ratify or withdraw their will, especially considering that the numbers will not be revealed until three days later?

In a press conference this noon, Jorge Rodríguez explained the number of centers which fall into each of the categories, and how the CNE will need to hire 11,820 people with the same number of alternates to manage the centers (tables and computers) during the Repair procedures. It may be needed to point out here that in order to conduct the repairs in the scheduled dates, the Executive (Council of Ministers) will have to approve an additional credit for over Bs. 2 billion according to Rodríguez.

As to the number of signatures, according to what both Francisco Carrasquero, president of the CNE, and Jorge Rodríguez, director and president of the National Electoral Board, JEN, announced, the numbers reflect that only some 83,000 signatures could be recovered and placed as valid when the CD had evidence through Súmate that the number was closer to 2.1 million, not including the so-called assisted signatures (876,017), which were expected to be validated by complying with a sentence from the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court. Again, it is difficult to see how recovering 83,000 signatures, with a State power (electoral) that openly and flatly refuses to comply with a firm sentence from its superior (according to the Constitution, Art. 297), the corresponding Chamber at the Supreme Court, could be a reason to celebrate. In order for the presidential recall referendum, PRR, to be activated, 20% of the Permanent Electoral Registry, REP, must sign the petition, that is, 2,436,083 valid signatures must be collected so the PRR is convoked by the CNE. If the numbers announced by the directors last night are accepted, it means 580,231 valid signatures must be ratified during the three-day period with not one signature withdrew. However, it is well known, the pro-government Comando Ayacucho, has persuaded a number of public employees and contractors with the State to withdraw their signatures as the only way to keep their jobs or contracts with the State, get payments, etc. The number the Ayacucho Command announces, as exaggerated as it may sound, amounts to 250,000. There are also others that will probably withdraw their signatures given the decisions the regime has implemented as a policy for those who signed: NO identity cards or passports renewed or issued, NO dollars from CADIVI authorized, NO SENIAT solvency certificates, necessary to buy and sell property, NO loans from government agencies, NO attention from social security, among others, for those who signed or their immediate family members.

Only after the final database is delivered, will Súmate and the CD be able to know if those who are to ratify their data will be able to do so. If what has been leaked is true, those sent to Repair will be located mostly in distant and pro-government controlled areas, or will be included in the itinerant forms, which makes it difficult or almost impossible for them to return to the center. The idea of the itinerant forms was precisely to facilitate the process to those who, because of age, handicaps, working or living conditions, could not go to the center on their own.

We have yet to see the final draft of the Repair Norms to read the small letter, which you can bet is there (Right now it is only a rumor that the CNE will allow Immigration and Identification officers to be present in the centers to attach forged ID cards or make sure the photos match the person holding the card). Until that moment, it is irresponsible and terribly disrespectful of the will of the people, who have risked not only their jobs, but their lives, to jump with joy and “congratulate themselves for their negotiating skills,” celebrating that the directors took 123 days (4 months) to respond to the petition addressed to them by 3,475,200 people on December 19, 2003, and violating the Norms they approved themselves in September and November 2003, and a recent firm sentence from the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court when finally doing so. They should, instead, be studying how to shun the obvious trap the opposition has again fallen into. The interview published April 15 in The Miami Herald in which Jorge Rodríguez affirms in 2003 there will be no presidential recall referendum should give them a hint.

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