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Referendum Updates, August 15, 2004

By Alexandra Beech,

Caracas, 8.30 PM - Voting has been extended to 12 midnight. At the Monteverde Quinta, where opposition leaders have gathered for press conferences throughout the day, many opposition leaders claim that the opposition Si vote is 20 points ahead of the No, that is 60% of 40%. Furthermore, they say that the opposition reached the constitutional minimum of 3.78 million voters, which was required for the referendum´s success. Around 7 million people have voted thus far. These are not official CNE figures, and are subject to change as more Venezuelans vote. They are based on exit polls such as those conducted by NGO Sumate and others.

Thousands are still standing in long lines to vote, especially in opposition strongholds such as Zulia State. Opposition leaders accuse the government and National Guard of implementing a plan to slow down the process.

Also incidences of violence have been reported today. According to AFP, gunmen fired at voters waiting to cast their ballots just outside Caracas, killing one person and wounding 10 others, according to the capital's fire chief Rodolfo Briceno. In another incident in the Petare suburb, masked motorcyclists fired guns in the air and unfurled the banner of a hardcore pro-Chavez group, causing panic among voters, witnesses said.

A local reporter told me that four people had died in incidents related to voting, including three in Caracas and one in Carabobo state.

Venezuelans voting abroad experienced difficulities today. According to a local opposition group tracking the referendum abroad, hostile pro-government groups attempted to intimidate voters in Chile, Holland, Germany, France, and Mexico. In addition, witness for the Si vote were forced to wait in countries throughout the world to receive their credentials. Personnel favoring the government were placed at voting tables in Italy, Germany, and Austria. In countries with the most voters, the voting process was delayed, while many voters in Italy, Peru, Chile, and the United States appeared as voting in other countries. In Brazil, the material required for voting didn´t arrive on time, while in Austria and Italy, voters were denied the secrecy of vote. In Spain and Israel, voting materials were opened without the presence of Si witnesses, while in Belgium, Australia, and Barcelona, Spain, voting started late. At the time of this writing, three thousand voters in Miami were still waiting to vote.

Caracas, 4:04 pm – As voting proceeds into the evening, long lines are still evident at voting centers throughout the country. Some voters have stood in line up to nine hours, as the fingerprint identification (AFIS) technology used in the first phase of voting has failed in many centers in Caracas and in the states of Anzoategui, Zulia, Carabobo and several others. The AFIS machines, manufactured by US-based Cogent Systems, should have taken up to twenty seconds per voter. However, many voters reported delays up to twenty minutes, with a three minute average per voter, according to Globovision. When President Hugo Chavez voted in the 23 de Enero barrio where he has many supporters, he placed both thumbs on one AFIS machine several times, before moving to another machine. He rubbed his thumbs on his suit before placing it on the new machine, but it was not clear whether that machine had functioned. Later, he acknowledged to reporters that he had experienced problems with the AFIS technology.

In addition, at least sixty AFIS operators failed to show up to voting centers during the morning, creating bottlenecks around the country.

Miranda State Governor Enrique Mendoza, who also leads the Democratic Coordinator, called the fingerprint technology recently purchased by the National Electoral Council for $66 million without the usual bidding procedures, “an element of real sabotage in this process.” Several other opposition leaders, including Causa R Party president Andres Velasquez and former guerrilla leader Pompeyo Marquez, said that the fingerprint technology was used for “Operation Morrocoy”, or “Operation Turtle” which the government was using to discourage voters from waiting in the long lines.

In total, National Elections Council (CNE) director Jorge Rodriguez said that fingerprint technology failures had caused delays at 310 of 2968 centers, though that estimate was low given the complaints that had surfaced throughout Venezuela.

The National Electoral Council board issued several statements calling on those working at the voting tables to set aside the AFIS machines if they caused undue delays. Press conferences on the fingerprint machines varied throughout the afternoon. After pro-opposition CNE Vice President Ezequiel Zamora announced that the machines should be set aside when they caused delays, pro-government director Jorge Rodriguez, responsible for their purchase, said that they should be used after, and not before voting.

Complaints also surfaced at some centers over the printed results of the Smartmatic voting machines. Several voters, including a nun from the Maria Auxiliadora order, said that their print-outs had read “NO”, after they voted “SI”. Both the electoral authorities and Smartmatic president Antonio Mujica dismissed the complaints as “human error” due to indecisiveness, nervousness, or old age. In addition, Mujica said that some may have been attempts to create instability in the voting process.

President Jimmy Carter said that “everything is going quite well” and that it was “very important for everyone to comply with the CNE directives”. In addition, he said that during the fifty elections which the Carter Center had observed, he had never witnessed such a large turnout, signaling that this election could have the lowest abstention rate in Venezuela’s history. In the past few elections, including those that brought President Chavez to power, apathy and indifference were reflected in low voter turnouts.

At 2:50 p.m., pro-government CNE board directors Jorge Rodriguez and Francisco Carrasquero called a bizarre press conference, in which they “denounced” a plot by the opposition to destabilize the referendum. Rodriguez played a CD in which he claimed that someone mimicking Carrasquero announced that the opposition had won the referendum in a televised speech. When CMT television reporter Rafael Fuenmayor approached the directors to inform them that a local reporter had denounced the CD during the course of the past week, National Guardsmen grabbed Fuenmayor and hurled him away from Carrasquero. Minutes later, Globovision reporters revealed that the CD had been on sale by street vendors for days. In addition, former Interior Minister Luis Miquilena said that the CD contained a recording of a Bandera Roja comedian mimicking Carrasquero as part of a comedic skit which took place weeks ago.

During a press conference, Sumate representative Roberto Abdull also said that the delays were due to the fingerprint technology and the unplanned substitution of table members, which took place yesterday. However, he said that the long lines would not affect the referendum results.

The National Electoral Council extended the closing of the voting centers from 4:00 to 8:00 pm, though they were expected to remain open as long as voters were waiting to participate. The CNE also urged the National Armed Forces to create more lines to expedite the process.

CNE President Francisco Carrasquero said that the CNE would announce results three hours after voting if one side emerged so strong that further tallies would not change the results. Both the OAS and Carter Center urged the media and opposition to wait until the CNE announced the final results before providing estimates or exit poll figures.

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