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Reflections on Venezuela's Referendum

By Sol Maria Castro,

Today the weather seems to reflect people’s mood; the cast skies over Caracas have cleared to give way to a sunny day, much the same way, this weekend’s results have given way to a sunnier disposition. For the first time in months there seems to be a peaceful, democratic and electoral way out to the crisis Venezuela has been experiencing for the last three years. It has not been easy.

People have tried to seek this solution three times before only to have the regime-controlled institutions reject each and every one of those efforts based on some technicalities, Or they have changed the rules in the middle of the game.

The first signatures, 1,506,372, were submitted on November 4, 2002 to petition a non-binding consulting referendum on President Hugo Chávez’s permanence in office. At the time, MVR legislator Luis Tascón argued 120 of them were fake, that is, 0.0079% of the total. On December 3, the National Electoral Council, CNE, at the time, authorized the referendum for February 2, 2003. Two weeks to that day, on January 21, the Supreme Court of Justice in its Electoral Chamber ruled that referendum or any other electoral process could only take place if the CNE had five main directors, or in a revised ruling, if decisions were made unanimously, i.e., with the favorable votes of the four remaining directors; thus suspending the referendum altogether. It also ordered the CNE not to know of any electoral act until all of the Council had been elected. It would take the Constitutional Chamber six more months to appoint a new CNE when it was clear the National Assembly would not be able to get the two thirds needed for each candidate.

On the day the consulting referendum would have been held, February 2, 2003, the Democratic Coordinator, CD, with the help of Súmate and the civil society organized a signature collection drive known as El Firmazo. This time, the will of 3,236,320 petitioners was mocked when the new appointed CNE, without even bothering to consider the signatures submitted on August 20, 2003, deemed them invalid based on the legal report that claimed the signatures were collected in an untimely manner, and that there were faults with the heading of the forms in which the signatures were collected. It would take another three months to have the new CNE organize the third attempt at collecting signatures to activate a presidential recall referendum.

This time in what was known as El Reafirmazo, 3, 475,200 signatures were collected from November 28 to December 1, 2003 following very strict guidelines from the CNE to include security paper, numbered forms, and CNE and pro-government witnesses. Along the way, three of the directors impeded the possibility of Venezuelans abroad to sign arguing the CNE had no capacity to control it and changed the Norms the directorate passed in order to change the verifying criteria repeatedly (from the five originally drafted in the Norms to 38 criteria actually used. These go from Error Type 0 with the cryptic name of “Description pending” which invalidated 197,477 signatures for no apparent reason, to Error Type 38, torn form which invalidated 249 signatures). Those criteria included a coined category known as “assisted forms” for those who had only signed and stamped their fingerprints but had had their personal data be filled by the CNE appointed agent. The CNE would reject 876,017 signatures based on that criterion alone, and would not comply with the sentence by the Supreme Court in its Electoral Chamber which ordered them to count them as valid. Instead, the CNE told 1,192,914 people their signatures were under suspicion and would have to be ratified to be counted as valid. 375,241 were not as lucky. Alleging errors on the part of the signature collection drive agents or a number of other criteria not imputable to the undersigned, their signatures were rejected without the right to make amends. Only 1,910,965 signatures were considered valid of the 3,4 million collected, 525,118 short of the necessary 20% Article 72 of the Constitution demands to activate a presidential recall referendum (the 20% needed of the National Electoral Register, REP, amounts to 2,436,083).

And so, we get to this weekend of May 28-May 30 when again, in the presence of both OAS Secretary General César Gaviria and former president, Jimmy Carter, some 712,000 people went to the repair centers to ratify their signature and make their will known that they do indeed want to activate a recall referendum against the mandate of President Hugo Chávez. As in every terror movie of this regime, the three-day Repairs process did not lack any of the effects they are so fond of:

* Government ministers and legislators in every state pressing public employees to withdraw their signatures; something that only worked in three states: Mérida, Delta Amacuro and Amazonas where the signatures to exclude outnumbered those that were included. In total, some 91,121 signatures may have been excluded nationwide. A complete fiasco, considering the Ayacucho Command had cross-matched the list of people enjoying benefits from the government’s different missions, and only there they allegedly “visited” 270,000 people who were found as signatories of the presidential recall referendum.

* Slow-down tactics in the centers and intimidation by bikers in red berets around the repairs centers, some including using tear gas, bats and stones.

* 28 raids in political houses and private homes that were being used as information centers.

* Fumigation in centers.

* Temporary close-downs of centers

* Labels preventing ratification on 15,374 signatures, allegedly not in the REP (although the signatures had all been checked by the committee)

* Mega-markets and special health and identification services in main avenues and across from repairs centers, and offers of food, money, construction blocks, and scholarships to those willing to withdraw their signatures.

* Cloned id cards

* Attacks to the press and prohibition to enter the centers.

* Border close-down despite denial by CUFAN the day before.

* Close-down of all local airports to obstruct the arrival of Acts from the provinces.

* 26 people arrested; most of them Súmate volunteers or political party activists. (3 in Cojedes, 6 in Zulia, 11 in Carabobo and 6 in Bolivar State).

* A dozen people injured (8 in Zulia State, and 4 journalists in Caracas).

This time, having learned from previous experience, risking a fine or even arrest, Miranda State Governor Enrique Mendoza hinted at how many signatures were ratified during the three days. Last time, the CD respected the norms and did not disclose the results which allowed the CNE two months to invent 38 criteria to reject or disqualify signatures. This time we all know how many signatures there are and the CNE and the pro-government campaign command, Ayacucho, know we know. So do the international observers who have so cleverly reminded the CNE they have to honor the deadline of June 4. Off the record we have been told both Carter and Gaviria may remain in Caracas until they do so. Too many eyes watching this time.

This Monday hundreds or maybe even thousands will have received notices they have been fired because they refused to withdraw their signatures or actually ratified them. Some yielded to the pressure. In one case reported by a member of the Education Assembly, you feel the pain of a person forced to deny what his will is. He walked in the center and asked the pro-government officials to identify themselves and to look at him. No one dared. The man then said, “Look at me! I have six children. I did sign; I cannot lose my job, so I’m here to withdraw my signature.” When he stamped his fingerprint, the last of the process, he only managed to say, “May God forgive me.” Yet, thousands decided to follow the fired employees of PDVSA, and PDV Marina, the Metropolitan Subway, active military officers, and public employees who have placed their principles and their dignity over a safe salary repeatedly.

As George Bailey finally understands at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, Venezuelans understood that every single person counts, and every single one can make a difference, and each did.

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