I participated in a delegation of US citizens and residents who met with Venezuelans from across the political spectrum from September 30-October 8, 2006 in Caracas, Venezuela. The delegation, sponsored by the Venezuela Solidarity Network and Marin (CA) Interfaith Task Force on the Americas looked at factors influencing the December 3, 2006 presidential election with a particular emphasis on the US government role in that election. The official delegation report will be posted to www.vensolidarity.org.
The delegation was met with courtesy by every Venezuelan organization we interviewed ranging from Sumate, the best known opposition group, to the Vice Foreign Minister for North American Relations on the government side. Only at the US embassy were we met with barely minimum courtesy. The US ambassador refused to meet with us. His Political Officer had us shown to empty room with a two way mirror and folding chairs set in a circle. Across the hall was a well appointed unused conference room. We were not even offered water in sharp contrast with our meetings with Venezuelans who always offered us coffee and water.
Venezuela is politically polarized. We witnessed the extremes of this during a dinner with lawyer and author Eva Golinger. Some very drunk opposition supporters recognized Golinger as author of The Chavez Code and a strong Chavez partisan. Some of them surrounded our table and began screaming at Golinger and the delegation, calling us "assassins" "Cubans," and "Argentines." The verbal abuse went on for long minutes until waiters ejected the most out-of-control anti-Chavez woman. We were later told that she worked in the Ministry of Justice, highlighting one of the many contradictions arising from the fact that Chavez' Bolivarian revolution came into power democratically through the ballot box rather than by force of arms. Armed revolutions generally sweep opponents out of government jobs and places of influence such as the media, but in Venezuela many in the opposition are still in the civil service and most of the media is virulently anti-Chavez.
The one issue that unifies both the opposition and the supporters of the government is rejection of the Bush government's foreign policy. Nearly everyone we met with criticized President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The opposition uniformly volunteered that statements from the White House or State Department strengthened Chavez and, of course, supporters of President Chavez remember the attempted coup of April 2002 and the ongoing US hostility to the democratic advances they feel they have made.
This year initially there were 23 candidates running for president from 86 political parties and organizations. Several have withdrawn. President Hugo Chavez and Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales are the leading contenders and a popular comedian is the only other candidate to top 1% in the polls.
Birth of the Chavez Era
From the end of the last dictatorship in 1958 until Chavez' election in late 1998, two political parties, Accion Democratica and Copei dominated the elections and divided the spoils of government. Electoral fraud in favor of AD and Copei was so open that their practice of dividing between themselves the votes for the smaller parties even had a name, Acta Mata Voto (the Tally Trumps the Vote.)
The traditional parties were so discredited that in 1993 Rafael Caldera won the presidency without the support of either major party. In 1998 AD and Copei couldn't even nominate a candidate. A beauty queen and mayor of the wealthiest district of Caracas was high in popularity until she accepted the endorsement of the two parties. It was the kiss of death. She dived in popularity and Chavez went from 3% to win the election.
Chavez has won elections in 1998, 2000, and the 2004 recall, each by a margin of about 60% to 40%. In the 2005 National Assembly elections the opposition made a series of demands of the National Electoral Council (CNE). After the CNE agreed to every opposition demand, the opposition still dropped out of the election and called for voters to abstain. The result was that pro-Chavez parties won every single seat in the National Assembly.
Manual Rosales the major opposition candidate for the presidency is the governor of Zulia, the major oil producing state. The CNE bent the electoral laws to allow Rosales to keep his office as governor while running for president. This, and the fact that the all-Chavez National Assembly elected one anti-Chavez Rector to the five member CNE, indicates that the pro-Chavez forces have an interest in keeping democratic spaces open for the opposition despite the charge of US Political Officer Robert Downes that "Chavez controls the process and is hollowing out the democratic institutions."
The Empire Strikes Back
The domestic programs Chavez began to implement after taking office in 1999 were seen by Washington as a direct threat to its hegemony over Latin America and a threat to its ability to maintain the already fraying "Washington Consensus" of market-driven, neoliberal capitalism. The Bush administration's hostility to the Chavez government is certainly a factor in the election. The opposition is convinced that this hostility actually benefits Chavez.
Teodoro Petkoff, who was a top contender for the opposition presidential candidacy until he withdrew in favor of Rosales told the delegation, "Some people in the State Department talk too much, and always in ways that help Chavez. We always see the Ugly American. Condi said Venezuela being elected to the UN Security Council would be unviable. I'm against the Chavez government having a seat on the Security Council but it is unacceptable for the US to say that."
Gerardo Blyde, a leader of the opposition Primero Justicia political party who served five years in National Assembly and is in charge of the mass media for Rosales campaign told us, "It is easy in this moment to know what the role of the US is in Venezuela. Personally I think it probably helps most the person who least deserves the help. Especially if it comes from State Department and White House officials. It has cost the opposition a lot to get out from under charges that they are agents of imperialism, paid for by the CIA, etc."
Elias Santana, founder, of Queremos Elegir (We Want to Choose) which is opposed to the Chavez government but also pushed for reform and transparency under previous governments since its founding in 1989 said, "I think Chavez is a crazy person but he's my crazy person and it's not for President Bush to deal with. Every time they speak they strengthen Chavez."
Ultimas Noticias pro-Chavez political columnist Luz Mele Reyes, asked the obvious question, "If they want them to shut up why don’t they tell them to shut up?"
Venezuela's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and Vice Foreign Minister Jorge Valero told us, "The enemy is not the opposition but Mr. Bush. Millions of dollars have been channeled into the opposition parties and leaders, not only formally through the NED (National Endowment for Democracy and AID (US Agency for International Development) but informally. What right does the US have to fund parties in other countries when that is illegal if done in the US?"
And Jose Albornoz, General Secretary of the Patria Para Todos party and member of National Assembly where he chairs the Committee for the Investigation of NGO Funding added, "Under Clinton we talked. When Bush came in the decision seemed to be to get rid of Chavez rather than work out our differences."
The issue of US military intentions is not far from the thoughts of many Venezuelans. The US war against Iraq is intensely unpopular across the political spectrum. Freelance journalist Gregory Wilpert said many members of the Chavez government "from the top on down" are convinced the US will invade Venezuela.
Several people we met with said that the US either participated in or knew in advance about the short-lived coup of April 11, 2002. Golinger told us that the US is building a new military base on Curacao, the Dutch colony off Venezuela's coast and near the oil state of Zulia. She speculated that one outcome of the December election would be for the US to refuse to recognize Chavez' election and for Rosales to go back to Zulia and refuse to recognize the central government. There is already a secession movement in Zulia. With US forces in Colombia, on Curacao, and nearly constant navy war games in the Caribbean, it is possible that Venezuela could be stripped of its major oil producing state.
Wilpert pointed out that Venezuela's military budget is less than that of its neighbors Colombia and Brazil.
In January, a US naval attaché was expelled from Venezuela for espionage. In August guards at the airport stopped US personnel trying to move six tons of material that had been shipped in as part of the "diplomatic pouch." The shipment included 11 ejector seats for military aircraft. The army said it didn't order them. In an Oct. 6, 2006 article in La Nacional, an opposition newspaper, US Ambassador William Brownfield declared that he "considers the chapter closed."
Delegitimizing the Electoral Process
The opposition and the US embassy have a whole series of complaints about the electoral system itself. Much of the opposition’s criticism centers on the composition of the National Electoral Commission (CNE). The CNE is a fourth branch of government, common in Latin America, charged with conducting elections.
Petkoff complained, “The CNE has five members, four from the government and one not. This wouldn't be accepted in any civilized country.” US Embassy Political Officer Robert Downes said, “My personal opinion is that Chavez controls the system. The new CNE has a more smiling face than the old one.”
Herman Yépez, one of the five Rectors of the CNE explained the selection process. The 1999 constitution made the CNE an independent branch of government. Before it represented the parties as we are used to in the United States. Now there is a nominating committee of 11 members of the National Assembly and 10 from civil society. Law faculties also present candidates. Three Rectors and six alternates are chosen from civil society for seven year terms and, one Rector and two alternates are chosen from the universities for 3-1/2 year terms and one Rector and two alternates are chosen from the Citizen branch of government also for 3-1/2 years. The Citizen branch is a fifth independent branch of government created by the 1999 constitution.
“There might be 200-300 nominees,” Yépez said. “They are all interviewed by the National Assembly and five are chosen as Rectors and 10 as alternates.” No Rectors are appointed by President Chavez. One of the unintended consequences of the opposition’s boycott of last year’s National Assembly elections was to deprive themselves of a voice in the selection of the CNE. The fact that one of the five is not a Chavez supporter runs counter to the charge by Downes that Chavez is “hollowing out democratic institutions.”
All Venezuelan voting is by electronic voting machine. Their voting machines differ from those in most US states in that they produce a paper receipt to allow the voter to check that the vote was correctly recorded. The voter places the receipt in a ballot box and at the end of the day 56% of the machines will be audited to compare the electronic tally with the paper trail.
Downes complained that “the paper receipt is not binding, the electronic is binding in the event of a conflict.” However, it certainly seems like widespread discrepancies would draw the attention of national and international observers which is the purpose of auditing the vote. At any rate it is clearly a more secure voting system than is in place in Florida or Ohio.
Another issue raised by some in the opposition is requiring a voter to be fingerprinted and matched to a national database to insure against multiple voting. In 2005 the opposition complained that it would be possible to match a person's vote to their fingerprint. Voting machines and fingerprint machines have no physical or electronic connection making that charge impossible but the CNE decided not to use fingerprinting in 2005. Petkoff said, “I'm certain that it is impossible to identify a person's vote, but both sides had agreed not to use it.”
Sumate is the most adamant against the fingerprint machines. They want the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, although Ricardo Estevez, a founding member of Sumate also claimed it is a common practice for the ink to "run out, be knocked over, or just not be there." The many years of electoral fraud by Accion Democratica and Copei have raised the level of electoral distrust in Venezuela higher than it is in most other countries.
The Rosales campaign has not made an issue of the fingerprinting plan. In a televised speech during the delegation’s visit to Venezuela we heard him say, "People in the Missions and the government agencies will tell you not to vote because the fingerprint will identify you. Don't believe them. It's not true."
Another opposition complaint is the large increase in registered voters. In the past two years 3-1/2 million people who never had identification papers because their births weren't registered in hospitals and for other reasons, were assisted through Mission ID to establish their identity and receive documents which now also enable them to vote. Even the US embassy's Downes, while claiming that the electoral roll is in bad shape praised the Mission to ID.
Ojo Electoral was the only national monitoring organization identified as nonpartisan by both government supporters and the opposition. Jose Virtuoso, its director, said that Ojo Electoral thinks there are problems with the electoral roll, "but that doesn't mean it is bad. Overall the register is good." The delegation concluded that the electoral roll is likely no better or worse than the voter registration lists in many US cities and states.
Another major concern of government opponents is poll watchers. Downes said, "Legitimacy of the tally depends on who's in the room. The CNE has changed the rules from parties having observers to candidates having observers. I think some of these extra candidates are pro-government to get more people in the room," a charge echoed by SUMATE's Ricardo Estevez.
There are 16 candidates besides Chavez, Rosales, and comedian Benjamin Rausseo. The rumor is that the remaining 16 will have their poll watchers in favor of Chavez and outvote Rosales and Rausseo's poll watchers.
There will be 33,000 polling places for the Dec. 3 election. Each candidate is permitted a poll watcher and an alternate at each site. The Rosales campaign has hired Sumate to train its poll watchers. Estevez told the delegation, " We have 480 trainers in place and are waiting to see if Rosales has 65,000 poll watchers for them to train." If the Rosales campaign, which has the support of the largest coalition of opposition groups, has yet to recruit 65,000 poll watchers, it is highly unlikely that candidates with less than 1% support in the polls could recruit 65,000 fellow citizens to poll watch for them. It seems equally unlikely that the Chavez campaign could or would recruit the 1,040,000 people it would need to implement the Sumate-US embassy scenario.
The final complaint of the opposition is the election day role of the military. Baruta Mayor Henrique Capriles said, "For me the problem is not the machines but that the army reserves are watching the ballots. They are not an institution, they are political."
CNE Rector Yépez explained that since 1958 the armed forces have had the responsibility of helping, and having custody of the election machines and materials. "This constitution, and the previous one, included the military reserves" on election day, he said. According to Yépez there will be 125,000 active duty soldiers and 7,500 reserves working on election day. "They transport the equipment because they have that capacity," he explained. "Most of the polling sites are in schools. The military will guard the perimeter, but civilians selected by lottery staff the tables," he concluded. He explained that active duty military cannot engage in political activity or run for office. Reserves sign a statement saying they will act politically neutral on election day. The election day role of the Venezuela military is similar to that of many democracies in the world.
Monitoring the Election
On election day, international monitors from the European Union, the Organization of American States, and possibly the Carter Center will be monitoring the election. There may be additional international observers. National Assembly member Albornoz told the delegation that they've invited Mercosur and the Arab League as well. "The US has a big loudspeaker," he said. "The only way to counter it is to have lots of voices."
Nationally, election monitoring will be done by Ojo Electoral. Sumate, which is under legal pressure to register as a political party, is not certified by the CNE to monitor. Estevez said to us, "We'll try to be at every table but we'll be there with a National Guard pointing his gun and telling us to get out." He concluded, "We believe that none of these conditions [for a fair election] will be met." It seems likely that Sumate will reject the election results regardless of the conclusions of national and international monitors.
Ojo Electoral has by far the most comprehensive monitoring system and it has been monitoring the entire election process. Virtuoso said, "Ojo Electoral is organizing national civil election observation to exert social (citizen) control over the process. Government institutions involved can lose their credibility so it is important that citizens in general are able to pass judgment."
Ojo Electoral's total budget for this election is US$700,000 from the European Union, Norway, Holland, Canada, and Switzerland. Virtuoso stated, "We could have gotten money from NDI (National Democratic Institute), the Carter Center, and the US Ambassador. We told them no, that is not possible for credibility reasons. NDI has helped with advice and interchange."
Concerns of Government Supporters
One of the major concerns of government supporters is to know what is being done with the US$26 million the US government admits is being spent on the election through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID.
Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the US for information about the USAID grants which is how the raw numbers of $US23 million and 132 separate grants became known. However, USAID refused to reveal which organizations or individuals the grants were going to. National Assemblyman Albornoz gave the delegation a copy of a $300,000 check that Sumate returned to US taxpayers under pressure.
Eva Golinger thinks that a lot of groups receiving US funding don't really exist and that they're just a way to funnel money to the opposition. "If you want $50,000 from USAID," she said, "all you need is to fill out a one page form off the internet." She pointed out that USAID grants in Venezuela have doubled in 2004-2006 compared to 2002-2003. She also told the delegation, "NED has created a worldwide network to obscure the source of grants. Groups in Norway, Sweden, and Canada get NED funding and then redistribute it. There's definitely a US/Canada/Venezuela connection through the Canadian organization FOCAL.
Another issue of concern is that if there is a high abstention rate the opposition and US government will use that as an excuse to not recognize Chavez as the winner. Rosales' media coordinator, Gerardo Blyde, showed us an elaborate powerpoint presentation purporting to show that Chavez has never won an election with a majority on the premise that those who did not vote would have voted for the opposition. By that standard George Bush has never won more than about 25% of the electorate.
Blyde also told the delegation, "There are people who defend abstention as a way to delegitimize Chavez. They got their way on the National Assembly election but now they're a very small group. Who is organizing the abstention? Sumate. Sumate went beyond what its role should have been. Instead of a transparency group it became a boycott group. They changed from a technical group to a political group."
Yet another issue of concern is that Rosales might drop out of the race at the last minute, the same tactic the opposition used to their own detriment in the 2005 legislative election. There was a range of opinion on the likelihood of this scenario but Rosales appears to be running hard and Petkoff, who might have been the opposition unity candidate if he had not withdrawn in favor of Rosales, told us that Rosales pledged to him not to withdraw unless there were "unforeseen circumstances."
Petkoff told the delegation another interesting thing. He said, "After the coup Chavez said 'let's talk.' The opposition said no. After the recall Chavez said 'let's talk.' The opposition said no. That strengthened Chavez. If the opposition had been democratic from the beginning, I'm convinced Chavez would be politically dead. The opposition strengthens Chavez."
The final concern of pro-government forces is that opinion polls will be manipulated to give the appearance that Rosales is gaining momentum so that the opposition can claim fraud if he loses as happened with the recall election.
Ultimas Noticias political columnist Luz Mele Reyes explained that since 1998 there has been a "war of the polls." She said results are filtered to the press. "Never do they give us the whole survey, who financed it, or their methodology. The national media publish the information and then international news agencies pick it up."
The main goal of the delegation was to examine the role of the US government in Venezuela's Dec. 3, 2006 presidential election. We concluded that the Venezuelan electoral system is robust and includes safeguards not available in most US elections. We further concluded that US interference in the election is not for the purpose of "democracy building" but to bring down the Chavez government and to reassert US political, military and economic hegemony on the region. Since defeating Chavez at the polls is not a possibility this year, US efforts to delegitimize the election are part of a larger effort to destabilize the country following a blueprint they used in Chile when Salvador Allende was elected in 1970. We can expect the disinformation mill to start grinding even before the first vote is counted in Venezuela's December 3, 2006 election.
Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network.