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It's not lies - even Chávez supporters knew the election wasn't fair

From The Guardian

Wednesday December 14, 2005 | Despite attempts to coerce Venezuelans into voting, the people stayed away, says Jocelyn Henriquez. Last week the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, addressed a gathering of South American heads of state. The delegations from the EU and the Organisation of American States which had observed our December 4 national assembly election were liars, he said - part of a global rightwing conspiracy, allied with the US and intent on destabilising democracy.

While listening to Chávez, I looked again at Richard Gott's article (Democracy under threat, December 6). "A tiny ragbag of opposition groups...," Gott wrote "by their irresponsible electoral abstention... hoped to undermine the credibility of the parliamentary system." Gott suggested that it was almost a "superfluity of democracy" and a certainty of Chávez's victory which explained why only 30% of Venezuelans (the official figure is actually 25%) had bothered to vote.

The EU/OAS thought differently. Their delegations expressed "surprise" at the decision of the opposition parties to withdraw four days before the poll; and they also recognised the actual election results as valid. But the EU preliminary report also concluded that "wide sectors of Venezuelan society do not have trust in the electoral process". This is not surprising.

A key reason the opposition withdrew from the contest was a controversy around an audit of the polling system, witnessed by EU/OAS delegates. During the audit, a file was uncovered in that system's software by opposition-sponsored technicians. The opposition charged that the file compromised the secrecy of the vote - and thus compounded a row that had started weeks before with the revelation, acknowledged by the EU/OAS, that the government held a computerised list of more than 12 million citizens containing personal data and political preferences. This, said the EU delegation, had "generated widespread fears that this information could be used for intimidation". Thousands of Venezuelans have lost their jobs as a consequence of their political stance.

The EU/OAS acknowledged that blacklists, the abuse of government economic and media power, open threats against public employees by pro-Chávez candidates, and military interference in the electoral process, had further polluted the atmosphere. Hours before the polls opened, the state media went into overdrive to encourage - and coerce - Venezuelans into voting. Yet Chávez's government failed miserably. And it wasn't just the middle class who abstained. In the working-class heartlands of Caracas, supposedly loyal to Chávez, just 18% bothered to turn out.

It is particularly galling to find my country caricatured and relocated into Gott's dreamscape, with a heroic Chávez, an opposition of "ragbags" propped up by the US government, and a walk-on part for the citizenry. The demand by Venezuelans for fair elections is rooted in democratic principles. So why is the probity that Europeans expect of their electoral system somehow unnecessary for developing countries? Unfortunately for Gott, the people do have minds of their own. And they have just shown it.

· Jocelyn Henriquez, director of the Centre for Diplomatic and Strategic Analysis in Caracas, is a former Venezuelan ambassador to India and China

· The Response column offers those who have been written about in the Guardian an opportunity to reply. If you wish to respond, at greater length than in a letter, to an article in which you have featured either directly or indirectly, please email or write to Response, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER. We cannot guarantee to publish all responses, and we reserve the right to edit pieces for both length and content

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