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Sumate: Fighting for Fair Elections

By Christina Leadlay | Embassy - Newspaper

Embassy, January 26th, 2005 | This is Maria Corina Machado's first trip to Canada, and the Venezuelan activist appears unfazed by the frigid temperatures. Instead, she is fueled by the passion which brought her here: to raise international support for S˙mate, a Caracas-based NGO focussed on promoting political rights and transparent elections in Venezuela.

S˙mate - Spanish for "Add Up"- was established in 2002 by "professionals with no previous political experience" says Ms. Machado, and is an officially registered non governmental organization in Venezuela. It is not a political party, but a civil society whose politics oppose those of President Hugo Chavez. According to its Action Plan for 2005-2007, S˙mate "now sees its most proximate challenge as the rescue and safeguarding of democratic practices and institutions in Venezuela; it has to become a bulwark against the clearly autocratic trends of the state apparatus." Ms. Machado explains that Venezuelans don't trust voting in elections, that they are baffled by the non-transparency of the electoral process. "Citizens feel they can't be defended by local institutions," says Ms. Machado. "Democracy is at risk," she continues, citing how the president has manipulated institutions such as the supreme court to be more in his favour, implementing laws which threaten freedom of speech.

Another concern of Ms. Machado and S˙mate is the politicized military and the militarized government in Venezuela, which "do not promote participation or accountability," she says. In response, she has made it her crusade to inspire her fellow citizens to participate in elections and become more politically involved.

On Jan. 20, Ms. Machado was in Ottawa addressing members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. In lieu of an audience of Senators and MPs - the House resumes sitting on Jan. 31 - she spoke to representatives from CIDA, Foreign Affairs Canada, MPs offices and others. "While the Government of Canada recognizes the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Venezuela," explains the Committee meeting invitation, "S˙mate's visit to Canada will provide a useful opportunity to hear about the human rights situation in Venezuela from a different perspective.... Foreign Affairs Canada is therefore assisting Ms. Machado and Mr. Alejandro Plaz [who was not at the Standing Committee] by arranging meetings with government, NGOs and academia in Ottawa." Ms. Machado says that she was invited to come to Canada after approaching the Canadian Embassy in Caracas. She is hoping that her visit will persuade the Canadian government to advise S˙mate on how elections work in this country: "We need technical advice from Canada, we need advice about the election process. We would like to know about best practices and comparative analysis on election processes in the rest of the world," she says. Ms. Machado hopes that, while the political structures in Venezuela and Canada are substantially different, it is the "common democratic principles," like respect for freedom of speech, that will inspire Canadian contribution to S˙mate's aim of fair elections. The Canadian Embassy in Caracas' website notes how Canada has supported elections in Venezuela: "Canada has been supportive of efforts by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center to facilitate a peaceful, democratic, electoral and constitutional solution to the crisis... Canada contributed approximately 10 per cent of the budget ($30,000) and four observers to the OAS Mission to monitor the presidential recall referendum of August 15, 2004."

"The current government doesn't want to give the impression that it is against NGOs in Venezuela," says a spokesperson from the Embassy of Venezuela in Ottawa. "On the contrary. We stimulate the creation and existence of these people and types of organization, but in this particular organization [S˙mate], the question was the funding....They are an NGO so they receive economic support from different organizations, but in this case it was from the U.S. government." S˙mate has received much criticism for receiving $31,000 from the American National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the U.S. government. "It's not ethical. They can receive funds from international organizations, but not particular governments," says the spokesperson. Ms. Machado acknowledges that this funding, as well as S˙mate's involvement with the Presidential Recall Referendum in August 2004 where the process by which petition signatures collected by the group was questioned, has led to charges (of fraud, treason, and usurpation of the electoral process) against Ms. Machado and her colleague Mr. Plaz. Canadian election observers were also involved with the pre-referendum petition: "Canada also contributed $60,000 and four observers to an OAS mission in May 2004 which oversaw the confirmation of 1.2 million signatures that had been collected in support of a referendum, but initially deemed invalid by Venezuela's electoral authority," according to the Canadian Embassy's website.

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