Few women – if any – in Venezuela’s “Fifth Republic” (as the Chávez and post-Chávez era is known) left as significant a mark on the country’s history as Tibisay Lucena, who died of cancer on April 12, 2023, at the age of 63. Her main accomplishment was that during the 14 years as president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), she fundamentally reformed the country’s electoral system to make it one of the most fraud-proof systems in the world.
I first met Tibisay in 1997, well before Chávez became president of Venezuela, while she was studying for an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. I didn’t get to know her that well at the time, but she was a friend of my Venezuelan girlfriend (who later became my wife). At the New School, she headed up the Latino Student Association and was studying electoral systems. Despite (or because of?) her relatively small stature, she always comported herself with friendliness, dignity, and authority. I stayed in touch with her throughout my time in Venezuela and even while living in Ecuador, mainly as a journalist for Venezuelanalysis.
Upon completing her Ph.D. and returning to Venezuela in 1999, Tibisay was almost immediately given an important position in Venezuela’s reformed electoral authority, when the Constituent Assembly that had written a new constitution named her as an alternate member of the newly formed CNE. Then, in 2006, she was named the CNE’s president and was thus associated with every major Venezuelan election between 2006 and 2020, as the person who announced the official election outcomes.
During her tenure as CNE president, she oversaw numerous initiatives that dramatically improved democratic participation in Venezuela. First, via regular citizen ID card drives (the “cédula de identidad”), which were automatically combined with the voter registry, voter registration climbed from 70% of the voting-age population in 1998 to over 90% in 2012.
Second, the number of voting centers was increased in the country’s poorest neighborhoods, thereby lowering the inequality in the density of electoral center per neighborhood in poor versus rich areas.
Third, prior to the Fifth Republic, Venezuela’s voting system suffered from endemic fraud. For example, it was generally recognized that the 1994 presidential election was stolen from the center-left candidate Andrés Velasquez and handed to the more conservative Rafael Caldera. Also, it was generally known that when votes were counted, small political parties, such as Venezuela’s Communist Party, often did not have electoral observers in all polling stations and so their votes would be divvied up among the two main parties, AD and COPEI.
Lucena’s CNE addressed this problem by introducing a computerized voting system that also had an auditable paper ballot trail. This meant that vote counting would be centralized via computer but could also be automatically audited on election day in each voting center. That way, the centralized vote count and the decentralized one could be compared. Fraud would then be practically impossible because anyone hoping to rig the vote would have to alter the vote count in the Caracas headquarters as well as at the voting center simultaneously and to the exact same extent.
Fourth, extensive audits were introduced, in which all parties had the right to participate, and which verified the integrity of the election system before, during, and after the vote. As a result of these processes, former President Carter, who extensively studied Venezuela’s voting system and who founded the Carter Center, declared in 2012, “Of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
Fifth, the foregoing changes contributed to a steady increase in confidence and in participation in electoral contests, at least between 1998 and 2013, during which time turnout in presidential elections rose from 63% to 80% of registered voters. (For the 2018 presidential contest, however, there was a significant decline because major opposition parties boycotted the election.)
Despite all of these positive changes, the United States, under President Trump, decided in 2017 to issue blanket sanctions against CNE president Tibisay Lucena, with the unfounded claim that she played a role in “undermining democracy” in Venezuela. The European Union followed suit shortly thereafter, also without making any attempt to justify or explain the decision.
Of course, during her entire tenure the opposition and the US government constantly claimed that Venezuela is not a real democracy, and so she became the target of countless conspiracy theories that she and the CNE had supposedly rigged elections. Here too, not one shred of evidence was ever offered – or needed to be offered. The international media simply parroted these claims and spread the notion around the world that Venezuela is a military dictatorship.
After completing two seven-year terms as president of the CNE, Lucena went on to assume the directorship of the Universidad Nacional Experimental de las Artes (UNEARTE). A year later, in late 2021, she became Minister of University Education under President Maduro. Although Maduro praised her work as the head of the ministry during his eulogy, her undoubtedly greatest achievement was the creation of an unimpeachable voting system for Venezuela, one which serves as an example for countries around the world.