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Venezuela’s Referendum: We’re Not in California Anymore...

By Alexandra Beech,

Venezuela stepped into center stage on Tuesday, when the National Elections Council announced that the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez will take place on August 15, 2004. The news appeared in media all over the world, including China, India, Singapore, The United Kingdom, South Africa, and Cuba, among many others. Many news sites published articles by the Associated Press and Reuters. The Associated Press reports that “Francisco Carrasquero, the president of Venezuela's elections council, announced late Tuesday that Chávez's opposition had gathered 2.54 million signatures to demand the recall, surpassing the 2.43 million - 20 percent of the electorate - required by Venezuela's Constitution.” On August 15, the opposition will need to gather more the 3.7 million votes that Chavez received in 2000. In addition, the council decided that the referendum process will be automated. Opposition leader Felipe Mujica accused the elections council of violating a prior agreement that the referendum be held on August 8th. AP reports that “Chávez's government said the extra time was needed to install a new automated voting system.” If Chávez loses the recall before August 19 - the completion of the fourth year of his six-year term - presidential elections would be held within a month.

Venezuela isn’t California - major questions linger about whether the Chavez government will play fair. Among the hurdles the opposition faces:

- The referendum will take place only four days before August 19. A delay of four days or more would leave the Chavez government intact until December 2006. Venezuela’s constitution stipulates that after August 19th, “Chávez's vice president and loyal supporter, José Vicente Rangel, would serve out the remainder of Chávez's term. Opponents fear Chávez would simply rule behind the scenes”. (Associated Press)

- The electoral council also ruled the voting process would be automated, a decision the opposition fears could lead to more delays in the referendum or open up the process to possible cheating. (Reuters) Chavez’s government owns 28% of the company which is manufacturing the elections technology. (Miami Herald) Already, three pro-government elections officials have rejected a proposal that the machines be audited during the referendum process. (El Universal)

- The government controls the national identification system. “It could provide cedulas (id’s) with different names to the same person, who could go around voting at different centers,” said Maria Gabriela Fabio, editor of These so-called “cloned” id’s could pose a threat to the fairness of the process.

- Another concern is “speculation that OAS and other observers who monitored the drive for a recall vote may not be allowed to observe the actual vote.” (Miami Herald) International observers were instrumental in the government’s decision to accept the results of the latest signature drive. Without them, the government could arbitrarily reject or manipulate the results, leaving the opposition with little recourse.

- The government could continue intimidating government workers to vote in its favor.

- Another concern was “acts of intimidation against Chávez opponents.” (Miami Herald). Currently, several opponents are detained.

- The government, which arbitrarily forces television networks to broadcast presidential (and other cabinet level) speeches and events, could use this mechanism to campaign or spread propaganda.

- The government has access to millions of dollars, which it will continue to spend for campaigning. Recently, it withheld $750 million from PDVSA earnings for a “fund.” Former congressional economist Francisco Rodriguez says that “discretionary” spending is almost impossible to track.

- The Constitution doesn’t stipulate whether Chavez can run again if his mandate is revoked. (Reuters) If the Supreme Court (which he has attempted to pack with supporters) decides that he can run again, then the opposition will have to decide on one candidate – or split the vote in Chavez’s favor. Thus far, the opposition has failed to produce one candidate. Therefore, even if his mandate is revoked, Chavez could be elected president again.

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