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Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch

Open Letter to the Journalists Covering the Venezuelan Elections

The decision of four opposition parties in Venezuela to withdraw from elections this weekend raises important questions for the media. It is clear to anyone familiar with the situation that this is an attempt to discredit the election, by parties that (according to opposition polling) were indisputably expected to do very badly in the election. This is despite their control over the majority of the broadcast and print media in Venezuela, as well as most of the country’s national income and wealth.

Yet much of the international press coverage would convince the general reader, who is not familiar with the details of the situation, that these parties may have a case for their claim that the ballot couldn’t be trusted. In this coverage it appears to be a matter of opinion, despite a strong statement to the contrary from the OAS, which is observing the election. (See below). As of this morning, almost none of the English-language press had reported the OAS comments, although they were reported in Spanish-language newspapers such as Clarin in Argentina.

It is clear that the opposition’s attempt to discredit these elections will be joined by powerful figures in the United States, including some Members of Congress and - possibly, depending on how the media covers these events - the White House and State Department.

It is worth noting that most of these same opposition parties, and also Súmate (an opposition group that co-ordinated the August 2004 attempt to recall President Chavez), refused to accept the results of that referendum, which they lost by a 59-41 margin. They claimed that a massive electronic fraud had taken place, and even commissioned a statistical analysis by two economists, at Harvard’s Kennedy school and MIT, which provided a theory and alleged evidence for this fraud. (See: <http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~rhausma/new/blackswan03.pdf> ).

The referendum was certified by the OAS and the Carter Center. The electronic voting machines used in that election  produced a paper receipt for each vote, which was then deposited in a ballot box. It was thus a simple matter for the election observers (OAS/Carter Center) to audit a sample of the electronic vote and match it to the paper ballots, which they did.

The Carter Center subsequently appointed an independent panel of statisticians who found that there was no statistical evidence for fraud in the election. (See ).  The panel’s review included the above-cited paper, which was methodologically flawed and relied on data from opposition-gathered exit polls. (See: <http://www.cepr.net/publications/fraud_venezu_conspiracy.pdf> ).

In spite of this, opposition leaders continue to maintain their allegations: "We felt we were victims of fraud" in the referendum, said Henry Ramos, Secretary General of Accion Democratica yesterday (Associated Press), in justifying his party’s withdrawal from the election.

The vast majority of the international press (with some exceptions such as the Wall Street Journal editorial board) accepted the certification of the OAS and the Carter Center in the August 2004 referendum, and did not take seriously opposition claims that the ballot was stolen.

The media would do well to treat with similar objectivity this latest attempt to discredit what appears, with OAS support, to be a fair and honest electoral process. If Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate for President in 1984, had withdrawn a few days before the election (which he lost by a wide margin), claiming that the vote count could not be trusted, he would not have been taken seriously in the press for such self-serving actions. There is no reason to take these allegations about the Venezuelan elections any more seriously, especially from a political bloc that has refused to accept the clear results of internationally monitored and certified elections. And the safeguards against electoral fraud in the Venezuelan elections are arguably stronger than those that prevail in the United States even today.

Mark Weisbrot
202 746-7264
Co-Director
Center for Economic and Policy Research

Larry Birns
202 223-4975
Director
Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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Statement of the Electoral Observer Mission
of the Organization of American States in Venezuela

November 28, 2005

The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Venezuela has concentrated its efforts over the last week on the observation and auditing of the automated voting system and the consideration of concerns expressed by citizens and political parties. The Mission also began the process of placing observers in 22 of the country’s 24 states.

Within this framework, in a meeting held on Sunday, November 27, the Mission received from the leaders of the political parties that together form the Unity Alliance a request to be transmitted to the National Electoral Council (CNE) that digital fingerprint readers not be used so as to assure the secrecy of the vote and secure the participation of said political parties in the elections scheduled for December 4. The representatives participating in the meeting with the CNE were Henry Ramos (AD); Cesar Perez Vivas (COPEI); Julio Borges, Gerardo Blyde, and Juan Carlos Caldera (Primero Justicia); Leopoldo Puchi (MAS); Adalberto Perez, Enrique Martinez, and Ana Ferrer (UNTC); and Enrique Mendoza.

As is regular procedure with all Missions of the OAS, the above-mentioned request was transmitted to officials at the CNE. The Mission was present today at the meeting at which the CNE accepted the request of the political parties and where said parties committed themselves to participating in the elections and encouraging citizens to vote, noting that, “the secrecy of the vote in this process will not be violated.” They similarly expressed that save an extraordinary event, the guarantees offered to this date permit the elections to proceed as scheduled without any new requests from the political parties involved. The Mission is satisfied that the efforts of the political parties and the CNE produced important advances to generate confidence in the electoral process.

The Organic Law of Suffrage and Political Participation has mandated the automating of the Venezuelan electoral system. The current automated system is sophisticated and complex, and represents an important advancement towards this end. The system requires the continuous participation of political parties and the citizenry to develop safeguards and human and technological controls that allow for the constant verification of its functions and to generate confidence in the electoral process.

As such, and as expressed in the statement dated November 19, the Mission has observed other important advances in the offering of guarantees requested by political parties in the opposition that should generate further confidence and participation by the citizenry.

The Mission wishes to express its satisfaction for the conclusions reached in the dialogue between the CNE and the political parties, because they demonstrate that through a system of permanent participation the development of a transparent and safe electoral system is possible.

The Mission expects that all institutions, in respecting the commitments they have assumed, the guarantees offered, and the existing laws, contribute to the realization of successful elections on December 4, reaffirming one more time that the electoral process constitutes the only democratic means to elect, change, or ratify leaders. The Mission also trusts that the participation of the citizenry on December 4 will triumph over abstention. (bold added)