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Venezuela: The Road to the Referendum

By Coordinadora Internacional Venezolana

Washington D.C. – May 31, 2004 - The democratic tradition of the majority of Venezuelans prevailed over violence during the three-day recall referendum signature rectification (reparo) process that took place from Friday, May 28 to Sunday, May 30. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans endorsed the constitutional, democratic, pacific and electoral solution to the political crisis by attending the convocation to confirm or withdraw their signatures to recall President Hugo Chavez Frias, despite daunting threats and obstacles. Projections from the Coordinadora Democrática as of Monday, May 31, confirm that the opposition collected more than 640,000 signatures, which represent more than 100,000 signatures of the minimum of 540,912 needed to gather the 2,436,083 established in the Constitution to organize the recall referendum.[1]

International observation led by the OAS’s Secretary General Dr. Cesar Gaviria and the Carter Center’s Nobel Prize and ex-President Jimmy Carter, praised the democratic event and stated that they expect the results of the process to be announced before June 4th as agreed and established in the National Electoral Council’s regulations (CNE in Spanish). Yet, there are several cries for new revisions of the process expressed by pro-government leaders and ambiguous declarations by the CNE’s President, Francisco Carrasquero.

Unfortunately, many obstacles and antidemocratic behaviors took place during the event trying unsuccessfully to thwart the will of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans that attended the reparo process. Among some of the many cases are the following:

· Representatives of the National Armed Forces (FAN in Spanish) committed excesses by unlawfully intervening in the reparo process instead of playing its constitutional role of guarding the process;

· CNE’s representatives following instructions of President Francisco Carrasquero (given in a press conference in the morning of Sunday May 30) tighten regulations to delay the flow of voters in the reparo centers;

· CNE’s inspectors showed up in centers with new documents requesting the invalidation of signature of alleged dead people who later came to the centers to ratify their signature, and proving their were still alive, contradicting the inspector’s documents;

· The political police DISIP, illegally seized information centers of the opposition detaining oppositions representatives;

· Pro-government supporters near reparo centers attacked several journalists.

The most emblematic situation that occurred during the second and third day of the process was the search for false identification documents – ID called Cedulas. The DISIP found people carrying multiple IDs mainly in Caracas, which triggered several seizures of opposition sites. These procedures significantly increased during Sunday and prompted condemnation from opposition leaders who claimed that the DISIP was planting false evidence during the seizure procedures (many of them were captured by TV cameras). Declarations from CNE’s President and pro-government leaders are using that situation to create “reasonable doubt” that could eventually be used to delay results, create additional obstacles and create a “grey zone” during the final stage of the reparo process. In fact, on Monday evening, the day after the reparo processes ended, several centers have yet to submit their results (acts) to the CNE as expected.

Obstacles to the constitutional right to the recall referendum started weeks before the reparos took place. Public servants were pressured to withdraw their signatures by supervisors through direct calls and official letters sent in several ministries and other national and regional public entities. The same was applied to government contractors, loan and social plans beneficiaries who were threaten with an interruption of their loans and benefits respectively.

Finally, the role of the OAS and Carter Center, international observers accepted by both the government and opposition through the May 29th 2003 Agreement, has been challenged by both the pro-government Comando Ayacucho and the three pro-government CNE board directors.

What to expect during the next days

The bumpy signature revision process and the state of affairs that preceded the reparos and that evolved during the last three days of the reparo process indicates that caution and alertness is required during the next few days. The following are some of the most likely scenarios:

1. The certainty that enough signatures were collected to convoke the recall referendum will increase tensions. Pro-government supporters would unlikely concede to the will of the majority of voters.

· Recent CNE regulations establish that the reparo does not include a new revision process (so called muerte súbita) and that the results should be made public by no later than June 4th.

· Pro-government leaders (Comando Ayacucho) aided by CNE’s pro-government board directors, could try to create a “grey zone area” in the reparo process using the ID fraud accusations and allegations of signatures of dead people, against opposition leaders. With that excuse the pro-government CNE Board of Directors could try to delay the decision increasing uncertainty and provoking chaos.

· Special attention should be provided on the possibility on delays and manipulation of the reparos’ act, as the National Armed Forces, under the command of the government, are in charge of transporting and securing these documents. On Monday May 31 there were delays that prompted public declarations from President Gaviria and Carter as well as from the Coordinadora Democrática, who expressed their concerns that these delays could undermine the process.

· Pro-government supporters could challenge the CNE decision at the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

· Opposition and pro-government supporters will fill the streets anticipating the expected CNE resolution, which in turn could create a climate of violence and a new human rights violation episode similar to what occurred last February 27th during the G15 summit.

· Pro-government supporters and the pro-government CNE board directors could try to discredit both the Carter Center and OAS reports on the process and requesting their departure from the country. CNE President Francisco Carrasquero , in turn, could try to replace these international observers with others invited by the CNE

· Illegal detentions of opposition leaders and arbitrary seizures of opposition sites by the DISIP will increase during this week. It is expected that SUMATE leaders, Maria Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz, journalist Patricia Poleo, and a second opposition mayor from Primero Justicia, Leopoldo Lopez, will be detained soon. (Recall that Henrique Capriles, mayor of the Caracas Municipality of Baruta, was arrested by the DISIP on May 11).

2. Irrefutable evidence of the existence of signatures to start the Recall Referendum could prompt President Chavez to concede on the results of the reparo process and to call on his supporters to prepare for the August 8th referendum event. This could be a useful strategy that would help the government during the OAS General Assembly meeting in Quito Ecuador next week.

· Under this scenario, political tension would decrease and the new focus will be on the CNE organization of the Referendum.

Contact information – Call 703-256-0350

[1] The reparo is part of the recall referendum process scheduled after difficult negotiations between the Coordinadora Democrática and the CNE. During three days in late November 2003, the opposition gathered 3.5 million of signatures, which represented over one million of the minimum of 2.4MM required by the constitution to organize the referendum. A 3-2 CNE majority ruled that only 1.9 MM signatures were valid, introducing new rules in the middle of the process that sent to the “rejected to be repaired basket” about 1.2 million of signatures. Both the OAS and Carter Center missions in Venezuela questioned the CNE’s resolution, considering that it introduced new rules in the process that are against international electoral standards. After long discussions, problems with the CNE’s data, disagreements among the opposition factors and negotiations between the CD and the CNE (pro-government board members) both parties agreed to go to the reparo process that took place from last Friday May 28 through Sunday May 30.

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