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Referendum Updates from Venezuela

By Alexandra Beech, sixthrepublic.com

August 17, 2004 - On my way to write for my websites, I passed by Altamira Square. Opposition protesters had gathered throughout the square holding Venezuelan flags and chanting "fraude". From a distance, it sounded like "Chavez", so I got closer to see what was going on.

I called a friend on the Discovery Times News Channel crew to let him know that there was a protest taking place. When I called him, he told me he was across the street.

We met, and walked by CTV leader Alfredo Ramos, who was speaking to the media. After interviewing Ramos, we heard motorcycles approach the protest. Most of the riders were wearing pro-government t-shirts and red berets, popular in the pro-Chavez movement because he wore a red beret as a parachutist during his military service.

As we walked towards them, I wondered how I would run if anything happened.

Suddenly, bullets flew by. I fell to the ground, then crawled to a flower patch. I crawled on the dirt until my body wasnīt visible anymore.

When the bullets stopped, I ran down a flight of steps to a subway station, where others were hiding. As we waited, a teenaged boy ran down to us holding a Venezuelan flag drenched in blood and threw it into a fountain before us.

Eventually, the subway authorities, which had locked down the station, escorted us out of another entrance, across the street from the Canadian Embassy.

Later, photographs taken by international agencies, including Reuters and Seven, would show what many of us had seen - that the shots came from the men on motorcyles, many of whom were wearing t-shirts that the government had given away days before the referendum.

Asked about the incident, both President Chavez and Vice President Rangel blamed Globovision News for "inciting violence" and opposition leaders for calling people to protest. Not once did either leader condemn the violence, nor did they ask their followers to cease from attacking opposition protests. Both lost a great opportunity to show that they are truly committed to reconciliation. Blaming the media and opposition for violence is unacceptable, especially when it is Chavez who has boasted that the revolution is "armed".

Concerning the results of the referendum, I would like to echo concerns expressed by Sumate and Tal Cual Director Teodoro Petkoff over incidents that shed doubt on the fairness and transparency of the process. I was willing to accept any results - yes or no - from a fair process. But I do not think that the referendum was fair or transparent, which is why so many Venezuelans today are questioning whether their votes really counted.

I donīt vote. In fact, Iīm not even registered. I am not a member of a political party or organization. I have nothing to gain from promoting the victory of one side over another. I turned down invitations to volunteer with two important organizations because I didnīt want to be influenced by one side or another. I saw benefits in a victory by either side.

However, I am concerned for many reasons. A friend who works for a multilateral lending institution told me that Carter simply fell in line with US and regional interests concerning oil. Venezuelaīs instability and high oil prices have the potential to create regional instability, and rather than prolonging the process, Carter took the first opportunity to take a stand and close the case. When he went so far as to say that the Carter Center had been inside the tallying room, Cesar Gaviria quickly contradicted him, saying that no international observers had been allowed inside the room where the votes were counted. Gaviria, according to experts, was more hesitant in his statements, sending the opposition an important message when he encouraged the opposition to submit any evidence of fraud to the OAS.

If the referendum was a tool to create stability in Venezuela, then I am concerned by how the National Electoral Council behaved on the night of the referendum. At around 3:30, I was awakened by a truckload of Chavistas who parked by Atlamira Square playing loud pro-government propaganda music. Since I couldnīt sleep, I turned on the TV. Moments later, two pro-opposition electoral board members, Mejias and Zamora, called a press conference, in which they expressed concern because neither they nor any opposition witnesses had been allowed inside the tallying room. They warned that the pro-government council members were about to announce preliminary figures without having counted any of the "actas" or forms which showed official results. At 3:47 am, CNE President Francisco Carrasquero announced the first "bulletin claiming Chavez the winner." It was a bizzare, and tense announcement, with no press or other CNE members present.

I understood that those celebrating at Altamira Square had been told the results before the rest of the country. (Often, Chavez supporters are informed of key events before the rest of the country, as has been evident by their appearance at television networks when the networks are about to be visited by tax or Conatel authorities.)

Why was there a rush to announce the results, while the country was asleep? Why didnīt the president of the electoral authority wait until the five electoral board members agreed on reliable results? Why werenīt the pro-opposition board members or the pro-opposition witnesses allowed inside the tallying room? What were they doing in the tallying room?

Then there was the strange press conference by Smartmatic president Antonio Mugica, who before a dozen microphones, announced that the electoral machines were completely reliable, then quickly walked away, not allowing the press to ask why the final figures had varied so wildly from the exit polls. An exit poll by Ceca at the Central University showed that out of 21,305 voters in seven cities, 63.2% had voted in favor of the Si, while 36.8% were in favor of the No. According to the US Firm Penn, Schoen, and Berland, which organized Sumateīs exit poll, 60% voted in favor of the Si, and 40% voted for the No. And Venevisionīs exit poll shows 59% voting for the Si, and 41% voting for the No. Clearly, there is an irrefutable pattern there. The government explains the exit polls by saying the their supporters waited until the end of the day to vote. But this not a satisfactory explanation.

I am also concerned by recent complaints about the appearance of paper ballots floating on a road in Anzoategui state. More troubling still are claims by Bolivar state governor who said that some machines in his state seemed rigged to stop counting the Si vote past 133. Respected analyst Miguel Octavio writes that according to a local news report: "In one center with nine lists of voters, three lists had 117 SI votes, three had 127 votes and three had 133 votes. In a different center, all nine had exactly the same number of Sí votes." If there was tampering with one machine, all machines could have been affected.

News networks such as CNN have reported that opposition leaders simply refuse to accept defeat. However, it is important to note that nearly all opposition leaders have rejected the results, including those in the 27 parties belonging to the Democratic Coordinator. In fact, expect for Zulia State governor Manuel Rosales, the entire opposition political leadership has questioned the results or claimed fraud. Highly influential analysts such as Teodoro Petkoff, Manuel Felipe Sierra, and Jorge Olavarria have also claimed that there was fraud. Not one highly respected analyst has called on the country to accept the results. Petkoff, who was the first to denounce actions taken by Carmona during Chavezī ouster, asked:

"How is it possible that no result from the random audit of the voting machines was ever presented? How is it possible that not only could the opposition witnesses not enter, but they never received their badges to be present at the audit? How can they give partial results with having certified the cover sheets of the results? Who computed the final results if the members of the committee that was supposed to do that composed of Jorge Rodriguez, Ezequiel Zamora, Luis Ramirez and Andres Brito, never met?"

Every single influential journalist, except those paid by the government in one form or another, has questioned the results, and so has the Catholic Church. Could the entire country, except for Chavezī supporters or employees, be steeped in denial or unable to understand the terms of a referendum?

Miguel Octavio wondered how "abstention was in the end 37.5% if CNE Director Rodriguez spent the whole afternoon saying that it would return to historically low levels?" ( http://blogs.salon.com/0001330/) Jimmy Carter said that he had never witnessed such a low turn-out in the fifty elections that the Carter Center had observed. How could nearly 40% of the country have abstained, when voting was extended until midnight after thousands were still waiting to vote past 8 pm?

A question frequently asked by the opposition which I would like to echo is: if 4.9 million Venezuelans voted for Chavez on August 15th, 1.7 million more than had voted for him ever before, then where were there celebrations, jubilee, people on the streets celebrating victory? When asked the same question by a reporter this morning, Vice President Rangel said that thousands of caravans had driven through Caracas in the afternoon, since most had slept in the morning. He also said that the media had failed to cover the celebrations. But where was state media? Where were those caravans? The only Chavistas I saw yesterday aimed guns at me, but they were more menacing than celebratory. Where were 5 million adults who voted for Chavez and their children celebrating Chavezīs victory, in a country of 25 million?

My final concern is how the electoral authorities have behaved after the referendum. When asked by opposition leaders for a count of the paper ballots issued by the machines for each vote, pro-government board member Jorge Rodriguez flatly rejected the count. He even refused the count of a sample. CNE president Francisco Carrasquero has refused requests by Primero Justicia president Julio Borges for a meeting with the CNE. Why do electoral authorities refuse a count of paper ballots, when that would undoubtedly resolve the controversy? Why are CNE board members refusing to meet with opposition leaders?

Sadly, rather than create stability and harmony in Venezuela, the referendum has only created more uncertainty and anger. In her book "World on Fire" about globalization, Yale professor Amy Chua writes that democracy through suffrage is incompatible with free market capitalism, because those (especially ethnic minorities) who amass economic power are resented by the ethnic majorities who are usually poor and who democratically elect populists who promise to overthrow the economically powerful. After witnessing Venezuelaīs process, I have to say that democracy through suffrage has a tough road when combined with authoritarian leaders, because by controlling all institutions, especially the judiciary and the electoral authorities, they are able to conduct themselves "democratically" while ensuring their victory at any costs. Whether this was the case in Venezuela or not, it is obvious that the Venezuelan crisis is far from over.

To ensure a quick resolution to Venezuelaīs electoral crisis, international observers should join the opposition is demanding either an audit of 1% of the machines in 180 centers where doubt persists over which side won as the Democratic Coordinator is requesting, or a count of the paper ballots under the custody of the National Armed Forces. In a country where millions of lives are at stake, oil should be the least of issues. In the end, regional stability can only be assured when each country in the region is at peace with their elected leaders.

Alexandra Beech (ab@veninvestor.com or ab@sixthrepublic.com)



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