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Statement of the CIV concerning the situation in Venezuela

By Coordinadora Internacional Venezolana [CIV]

Washington – September 27, 2004 – The Recall Referendum (RR) of August 15th was supposed to be the electoral solution to the May 29, 2003 OAS-Carter Center-UNDP brokered agreement between the government and the opposition to solve the Venezuelan political crisis. Unfortunately, the RR did not accomplish this objective, and the country is more polarized than ever, making it even more difficult to stay on the democratic path. Understanding how this has occurred requires taking a step back to consider what triggered the RR in the first place.

The political situation by early 2003 was characterized by:

· Worsening political violence and civil strife caused by the lack of willingness of the Government to have constructive dialogue with the opposition.

· Severe weakening of the judicial system and the rule of law, as well as lack of checks and balances.

· Concern in the international community regarding serious violations of human rights in Venezuela.[1]

· Falling living standards and general deterioration of economic performance and social conditions. Figures available for the period 1999-2001 indicate a deterioration of average purchasing power of Venezuelan households of about 10 percent and an increase in the number of households living below the poverty line near 5 percent.[2]

All these factors that polarized the country in 2003 remain. Today, given the general lack of transparency amid which the RR took place, the Venezuelan citizen’s confidence in the electoral solution has suffered a major blow, opening the possibility of additional civil unrest and continued political conflict.

The erosion of democratic institutions generates “reasonable doubts”

The conduct of the pro-government majority of the CNE was openly flawed during the year preceding the RR, as acknowledged by the OAS and Carter Center. The process was biased and lacked transparency in which the CNE lost credibility, and ¨reasonable doubt” exists about the results, requiring the need for careful scrutiny. In order for the CNE to dissipate all doubts, and re-establish its credibility, we believe that the CNE needs to open the all the ballot boxes and count the paper ballots. Unfortunately, to date the CNE has adamantly resisted to open the boxes, adding more to the perception that there is “reasonable doubt” to believe the CNE. Likewise, the following should be considered:

· There was no “hot audit” of the votes cast during the recall referendum, in violation of the explicit agreement reached between the CNE and the opposition in the days before the RR.

· The role of the electoral judges at each polling station became moot when the computer first transmitted the results electronically to CNE headquarters before precinct election judges could verify the results. The machines printed out the results AFTER the vote had been transmitted to CNE headquarters, violating international electoral standards concerning vote tabulation.

· There was bi-directional communication between the computer and the server, which conceivably would allow the server to “reprogram” the results before the election officials at the precinct had an opportunity to review them. This violated the agreement between the opposition and the Government whereby the opposition was assured that the machines were not bi-directional.

· There was no systematic audit of the paper-ballots to see if they correlated with the electronic results. Less than 1% of ballot boxes were opened as part of the Carter Center/OAS audit, and the sample was selected using a CNE computer running CNE provided software and operated by a top level CNE official. The CNE insistently rejected the software offered by the Carter Center for that purpose, and strong evidence has emerged that the sample selected may have been biased.

· Several manipulations to the electoral systems took place before the election day, based on continued violations of the legal framework by the CNE and Government entities. These include arbitrary relocating voters to other precincts, illegal registration of people on the electoral rolls, arbitrary relocation of poll workers representing the opposition the day before the Referendum among others.

The opposition has put all these and several additional facts forward in order to substantiate the allegation of fraud[3]. In view of such allegation, we find entirely reasonable the claim made by the leadership of the opposition, regarding the need that the ballot boxes be opened and the paper ballots be counted at all precincts. In our view, the opposition is asking no more than what President Carter recently demanded in the case of the upcoming US presidential election for the State of Florida: ¨…maximum public scrutiny of the suspicious process¨, in the absence of ¨…the basic international requirements for a fair election¨, namely, a non-partisan electoral commission and assurance to all voters that their votes will be cast and tabulated with the same accuracy[4]. Opening all ballot boxes would remove any reasonable doubt concerning the election results, and allow all Venezuelans to “turn the page”, as the international community suggests.

The CIV believes that, given these recent developments, the most important issue is the continuing erosion of democratic institutions in Venezuela, and not the results per se. The challenge for all is how to continue on the democratic path while at the same time recognize that democratic institutions not only are being eroded but also becoming dysfunctional, as stated by Dr. Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center when referring to the CNE.

The “reasonable doubt” could impact future elections

The existence of “reasonable doubt” in the process could have a tremendous impact on the upcoming regional/municipal elections scheduled to take place this coming October 31st. Even worse, violations are already being perpetrated by the CNE in the organization of the regional electoral process, which is bound to contribute to further increasing the lack of credibility in democratic institutions by Venezuelan citizens. The following violations are the most relevant:

* There is no sign that the serious allegations concerning the inaccuracy of the electoral registry are going to be addressed by the CNE.

* The CNE is procuring yet more electronic voting machines from Smarmatic, the same company that supplied them for the RR, which the citizens do not trust. Despite concerns of manipulations through a doubtful electronic process during the RR, the CNE insists in implementing the same process with the same actors again.

* No assurances have been offered with respect to the key issue of whether “hot” audits and/or actual counting of paper ballots will take place this time, in spite of the credibility problems that were generated during the RR.

Human Rights Violations will continue to worsen

Given the weakened democratic institutional base we anticipate that human rights violations and government sponsored “witch hunts” will continue in the immediate future unless there is an outcry from the international community. The trend of human rights violations has escalated and there are clear signs pointing to a even worst situation in the near future. On August 16, the day after the RR, four pro-government individuals fired pistols at a small group of the opposition who were demonstrating in Plaza Altamira, killing a woman in her sixties and injuring eight others.

A Government-controlled Congress is trying to push several pieces of legislation to further impose absolute control by the Government of the private media, and further erode checks and balances between democratic institutions. The so called “Gag Law” would limit freedom of speech by controlling media programming, and the National Police Law would centralize security function currently in the hands of municipalities. There is deep concern about the initiative of packing the Supreme Court with pro-government judges following a unconstitutional selection process, further eroding the judicial system and the concept of checks and balances.

The Opposition at the Crossroads

Given that the state and municipal elections are one month away, the opposition finds itself having to respond simultaneously to the challenge of electoral competition and the need to follow up on the allegations of fraud. These lines of activity are essentially interrelated: the biased CNE that created the “reasonable doubt” environment due to its behavior before, during and after the RR is responsible for conducting the regional electoral process scheduled for October 31. Turning a deaf ear to the well documented flaws of the RR process, the CNE has announced rules that not only make the transparency of the process even worse than what occurred during the RR, but that are also in direct contradiction with existing electoral legislation. The opposition, in turn, may take a cue out of the European Union –who refused to get involved as international observers in the RR given that the framework imposed by the CNE did not provide adequate conditions for a competent electoral observation. Unless minimum conditions for a fair election can be established, there is the possibility that the opposition may not participate in the regional elections.

The Role of the International Community

We believe that within this context, the international community should play a vital role in assisting Venezuela in strengthening its democratic institutions, in particular the CNE and the judiciary. This, however, will not be easy, given what was perceived by millions of citizens as a rush to judgment by the international community once the official results by the CNE were announced.

It is important to recall that the OAS and the Carter Center played a key role of facilitators in the process that brought about the May 29, 2003 agreement. That agreement identified the RR as the democratic, pacific and electoral solution to the crisis as well as a respect for democratic processes promoting balanced and transparent public powers and respect for human rights. Both the OAS and the Carter Center have expressed their doubts and concerns about the transparency of the electoral process that led to the RR because of a biased process favoring the government. Unfortunately, both organization’s statements endorsing the CNE’s biased decision on the RR, even when there was reasonable doubt about the farness of the process, has raised concerns about their effectiveness in brokering a democratic, pacific and electoral solution as stated in the May 2003 agreement.

In spite of unfavorable conditions, however, the international community needs to finish its work of mediating a peaceful outcome to the Venezuelan crisis through dialogue, consensus and compromise among all parties involved.

Thus, in order to support Venezuelans in continuing their struggle against authoritarian rule through democratic means, we request from the international community:

· Give serious consideration to the allegations of fraud identified by the opposition. These should be investigated with full rigor.

· Encourage the CNE and Government of Venezuela to be transparent and act lawfully and impartially in the upcoming regional elections (scheduled for October 31) by getting involved during the process that precedes the election and by providing international observation standards relevant to the current context of the country.

· Support institutional strengthening initiatives of democratic institutions, in particular in the judicial and electoral areas.

· Closely monitor human rights violations in Venezuela.

Contact information – Call 703-535-7577 ext. 102

[1] See Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela”. December, 2003 and Human Rights Watch, several documents.

[2] See "La Pobreza en el Trienio 1999-2001", Matías Riutort. Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Caracas, 2002.

[3] Two of the best known pieces of evidence gathered by the opposition are: “Fraude a la Democracia: Caso Venezuela”, Tulio Alvarez et al. September, 2004 and “En busca del Cisne Negro: Análisis sobre la evidencia estadística sobre fraude electoral en Venezuela”, Ricardo Hausmann and Roberto Rigobón. September, 2004.

[4] See Carter, Jimmy “Still seeking a fair Florida vote,¨ Washington Post, September 28, 2004.

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