With the eyes of the world on the race for the Venezuelan presidency, 700 monitors from the United States, the Organization of American States, the European Union, the Middle East and Africa met in Caracas last week to observe the presidential election up close and to see if it was the real thing.
As soon as a group of judges invited to be international observers hit Venezuelan soil, even before we left Simon Bolivar International Airport, we were cornered by some stylish but seething Venezuelans who themselves were returning from visiting New York. One, a former banker, was breathless with fear that armed Chavistas would be shooting up the airport. Another sputtered, "Welcome to Iraq!"
But their passion would prove to be no match for the passion of the supporters of President Hugo Chávez as he was challenged by Manuel Rosales, governor of the oil-rich Venezuelan state of Zulia. (Rosales was generally referred to simply as "the opposition.") While voting is voluntary in Venezuela, a right guaranteed by the Constitution, all but 1.1 million of 16 million people over the age of 18 are registered to vote. There are 11,000 polling centers around the country, even in local jails. In the end, 70 percent of the population exercised their franchise. The only group with minimal participation were 18- to 24-year-olds, most of whom have neither registered nor shown much interest in the process.
The electoral process in Venezuela has evolved from a system of choosing by color-coded cards to using yellow No. 2 pencils to state-of-the-art electronics. With 99.96 percent of the system automated, all political parties, the government and the opposition have approved the technology and the multiple methods of cross-checking and backing up data; there is overall agreement that the margin of error is insignificant.
The process involves registration by national identity card; in heavily trafficked voting centers, there is electronic thumb-printing upon entry and reprinting in a tally book on exiting. At electronic voting machines, the actual vote is cast by pressing a circle next to the candidate's name, photo and party of choice. The image of the chosen candidate appears on a screen that is surrounded by cardboard assuring complete privacy. Under the candidate's picture, the voter is asked to press Si or No, indicating if that is the correct vote. If the voter so certifies, a piece of paper--the elusive and much-discussed paper trail--is issued directly to the voter, who then deposits it in a box. The final step is dipping the pinkie-finger into bluish-purple ink to indicate that a vote has been cast. This finger-painting establishes voting in a manner similar to the heralded election in Iraq.
Some opposition witnesses in Venezuela complained that the ink could be removed with Clorox, thereby defeating the purpose. However, that was not a widely accepted criticism as there was no evidence that voting could be accomplished by the same person more than once. In fact, the complexity of the process--and the long lines at the polls--would not lend themselves to that possibility. Still, some critics suggested before the vote that if Chávez won, it would indicate fraud. Rumors circulated that T-shirts bearing the word "Fraud" had been printed weeks in advance. Others reported widespread purchase of weapons by the opposition in preparation for postelection protests. Mainstream newspapers ran unsigned full-page illustrations of rifle-bearing children alongside Fidel Castro.
According to Dr. Juan Carlos Higuerey, director of the computer department of the National Election Council, the system is fully defended against hackers and other threats to its integrity. According to Higuerey, someone could try to damage the system, but it is "practically an impossibility to change the results." If charges of fraud were to be leveled, he said, they would not be about the technology, because the paper trail could verify the validity through statistically accepted sampling techniques.
Venezuela's electronic voting technology is the work of the Smartmatic Corporation, the ownership of which has recently been questioned in American news reports, with allegations of Venezuelan government involvement. However, Alfredo Anzola, the multinational technology firm's 38-year-old CFO, explained in an interview that he and his childhood friend acquired the company six years ago and own 85 percent. Anzola said 10 percent is owned by two other contemporaries and 5 percent by employees. While they are of Venezuelan descent, they do not live in that country and claim to be neutral, but they do acknowledge that they are members of families who support the opposition. Asked about the Diebold machines that are in use in some American states, but which do not issue paper trails, Anzola said, "We do not comment on competitors."
In Caracas, a city of street life, an ongoing informal economy and traffic regulations that are taken as mere suggestions, a capital where the Constitution is sold everywhere alongside books by Noam Chomsky, this election was a huge event. As in the rest of the country, people showed up at dawn to be at the front of the line. There was genuine excitement. Despite hours of waiting, people seemed content to wait as long as necessary. Though there were more than 33,000 computers in use at the polling centers throughout the country, there were still long waits. Some people brought chairs. Others came in family groups. Elderly, infirm or pregnant voters went directly to the front of the line and, if necessary, were carried up the stairs.
In the capital as well as in rural areas, election observers were welcome to enter any polling place spontaneously, and without notice, to speak with voters, witnesses,representatives of various parties. There was, in other words, full and unfettered access. Some voters we spoke to said that they had waited all their lives for a chance to participate, so this was no chore; it was a great day for democracy. At Liceo Andres Bello, a school in Caracas,as the polls closed and the rain came down, the public waited to be invited in to watch the opening of sample boxes and to witness a manual count.
I paid a visit to Chávez headquarters at one barrio, Enero 23, which is known as a hotbed of activism--think any major American University, circa 1968--and saw that workers had set up side-by-side television sets to watch returns come in. Though this center is named for Ernesto Che Guevara, and the walls are covered with photos and posters of Che and Fidel, Lisset Torrealba, the second civil chief of the community's town hall, said this was a "special Venezuelan revolution." It is not Cuban, she said, or Marxist, or violent, or anticapitalist. And it promotes opposition to strengthen the democratic electoral process.
While 80 percent of the country is poor, and it is the poor whose lives have been transformed who were likely to vote for Chávez, as the polls closed in one upper-middle-class neighborhood where Chávez never received more than 20 percent of the vote in past elections, he was running at 48 percent. No opposition representatives or witnesses cite evidence of any serious problems or irregularities. Still, in the state of Lara, a small tobacco farmer, perhaps identifying with big business, said he would cast his vote for Rosales, complaining that he could no longer hire cheap day labor because people have real jobs.
In the end, as 70 percent have voted, Chavez carried 60 percent (7 million votes) against Rosales's 38 percent. In conceding, Rosales, who will continue to be governor of Zulia, said, "There were some problems, but we accept the results." There was a downpour of rain and an uproar. Chávez appeared on his balcony, compared himself to Jesus Christ and led ecstatic Venezuelans in song. The skies were filled with fireworks, and Janeth Hernandez, vice president of CNE, said, "We say to the world, 'Accept the popular decision.'"
The next day, most of the posters have been washed away, but not the political will of the Venezuelan people: That has been clearly expressed. We observers have easily concluded that this was a clean election, and the Chavistas won it fair and square.