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Defending the vote in Venezuela

Aleksander Boyd interviews Leopoldo Lopez

Caracas 25.10.06 | The Mayor of Chacao is certainly no Red Ken. Thirty five years of age, victim of political prosecution, his mother can’t leave Venezuela, his aunt was shot by chavista thugs... Leopoldo Lopez is one of the brightest young politicos of Venezuela. The 26 penal investigations that the Chavez regime has opened against him are but proof of how much Castro’s apprentice dreads able politicians. Interested in learning more about his unique approach regarding defending the vote against partisan electoral authorities I decided to ask him for an interview which he kindly granted.

From what background does your contention that defending the vote is a personal responsibility, rather than a collective one, stems?

During the recall referendum of 2004 a general disregard about the importance of safeguarding the vote at the polling centre level occurred. A great effort to mobilise the opposition was made and this task was tackled effectively. However we did not worry as much in looking after the votes of the huge number of people we had mobilised. That was a costly mistake for elections are not won by mobilising people but rather by protecting their votes. The core of this issue is precisely to safeguard that every vote cast in different places under dissimilar circumstances is correctly counted and added to the winning count. Unfortunately we weren’t prepared then. But then elections for mayors and governors came. I won in Chacao and Rosales won in Zulia. Why? Because we took all necessary precautions in each and every polling station to ensure that the votes cast in our favour were in fact added to our count. The way of achieving that was checking that the voting machines were not sending information since 7am, as it happened during the recall, making sure that people did not vote twice, ensuring that the voting process was carried in expedient and efficient fashion, alerting the authorities and the media when electoral officials imposed artificial delays, asking people whether the paper trail deposited in ballot boxes corresponded with the choice selected in the machines, contrasting paper trails with tallies printed after voting had ended, in sum there were a number of points that we had to keep on check. This couldn’t have been made without the individual commitment of many volunteers and party colleagues. That is why I keep saying that every Venezuelan committed to live in democracy must defend its vote. It’s an individual responsibility.

Why do you think presidential candidate Manuel Rosales is yet to address this issue publicly?

He has, perhaps not as often as needed but he has.

What plans have you/Primero Justicia devised to defend the vote at a national level or as Rosales claims “to collect” victory?

What are we doing to collect victory? We have divided Libertador –one of Caracas municipalities- geographically in 125 zones. Each zone has between 6 and 10 voting centres. Each centre has on average 4 mesas (booths). The zones are also divided in two main areas: electoral and organizational. The electoral has to do with what happens inside voting centres –see above- whereas organizational has to do with issues outside centres. We have already trained 9,000 people for the electoral area. They will witness the audit of 55% of operating mesas guaranteeing that both the voting process and the audit takes place in absolute normalcy. Another 9,000 will monitor the inflow of voters into centres and report any abnormality. I receive a daily report, which is being constantly audited, that tells me exactly how are we doing. By 3 December we will have every municipality in the country covered by this model. In any case we will run a test before election day to see how things go, identify potential pitfalls and take corrective measures.

What commitment you think there is to face the potential reprisal or institutional violence, including loss of life that surely will erupt should Chavez lose the election?

I think Venezuelans understand the historical moment and will act accordingly.

Do you think there’s any true to Chavez’s threats that Cuban militias and urban paramilitary groups such as Tupamaro and Carapaicas will start a guerrilla warfare against Rosales’ government should he win?

I don’t give any consideration to Chavez’s threats.

In the hypothetical case that Chavez is defeated at the polls, do you think the army will follow Chavez’s orders of disregarding results?

I rather talk about what I know, which is preparing the ground with volunteers, supporters and collaborators.

In countryside Venezuela there’s much restlessness. Can Rosales repeat Herrera Campins feat?

How do you mean?

Well Herrera Campins won an election against all odds thanks to the vote of Venezuela’s countryside, specifically carrying the vote of Merida, Trujillo, Tachira and Zulia.

I think we are going to win Caracas as well. Further I reckon Libertador will add lots of votes to Rosales’ overall result.

It has been said that your party’s leader refused to call upon Venezuelans on 15 August 2004, after fraud claims were raised. Do you foresee any difference between that scenario and the 3 of December one?

It isn’t that it has been said, I was there in Lido, I was the one who asked Julio Borges to talk to the people, it was 8pm we knew what was happening and I was desperate, not knowing what to do, and the response was “let me go talk to Carter and Gaviria” at least 20 people can attest to what I’m saying. We then went to Quinta Unidad and the rest of the leaders of the Coordinadora Democratica were in the same situation, clueless about what to do.

Picking up your stance that defending the vote is an individual responsibility, why didn’t you do something?

At that moment I couldn’t do anything for there was a modicum of hierarchy and institutionalism. I was but part of one party that conformed the Coordinadora. Our party leader was Julio [Borges] who at the time was one of the leaders of the Coordinadora. What they should have done was, at least, to have informed the population about what was happening but no one did. I can tell you my thoughts at the time were “we must do something” but no one did. My position was shared by many Venezuelans and at the end of the day, what did we lose that day? It wasn’t the recall that we lost but trust, in our leadership and electoral system. Had we reacted most probably we wouldn’t have lived the last two years the way we had. Fortunately this time round there’s an organization and a leader who won’t cower. I say this based on our experience in Catia, when despite chavistas shooting at us Rosales kept going. I doubt he will hide beneath a table on 3 December…

In what way does the candidacy of Manuel Rosales and the joint effort that traditional political parties are making differs from the Coordinadora Democratica?

Now we have a leadership and someone has taken responsibility. The recall was Chavez v Chavez, no more. Now Rosales has entered the fray.

Being someone considered as part of Caracas’ new political establishment, how do you perceive Rosales’ ticket, given that he comes from the provinces? Further can you adventure any thoughts on how will the political and economic powerful types receive a Rosales victory?

I see Rosales candidacy as very positive. Whether he comes from the provinces or not is entirely irrelevant. Regarding the powers that be, well they’ll have to receive it as any other Venezuelan, they’ll have to adapt to the new president and learn to work with him.

Do you think Rosales’ pledge to decentralization is a positive thing?

Definitely, actually I am an advocate of decentralisation, which needs to be arranged in such a fashion that municipal and regional administrations receive budgets timely.

Chavismo is trying very hard to curtail your political career. How do you see your future should Chavez win the election?

26 penal investigations have been opened against me by the Attorney General’s Office, 10 pending lawsuits, one of my bodyguards was killed, I have been politically interdicted until the year 2020, which means that I can’t run for any elected position, the People’s Defender accused me of being an assassin, the National Electoral Council has just imposed a fine of Bs.34 million due to my involvement in Rosales’ campaign, it was even argued that the bridge to La Guaira fell because of me…

Why do you think Chavez has picked on you?

Because I can and have won elections, because my performance in the public administration has been successful, because we have managed our funds efficiently so that citizens can feel the benefits, because we have addressed and solved many issues, because there’s investment in Chacao, because there’s a substantial improvement in Chacao’s residents lives, that is to say we have proved in Chacao that it can be done.

Coming back to the many issues you have with the regime, from what sort of legal bases do these spring or is it mere political prosecution?

Political prosecution, nothing more, not only against me though. My father is also politically interdicted, my mother can’t leave the country, my aunt was shot by chavistas, my political career does not only affect me, my family has also been victimised.

To conclude, gossip has it that after 3 December you will lead the take over of Primero Justicia together with Liliana Hernandez and Gerardo Blyde. Is there any true to that?

All I’m asking for is party elections. This business of self appointed party leaders lacking support from the base has to end. Elections are won by individuals and individuals that do not have the support of its party members can seldom win an election.

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