Reflections on the Opposition’s Petition Drive (II)

Michael Lebowitz continues his observation of the petition drive, reflecting on the fraud charges, the organization Sumate, and citizen turn-out.

Today, there have been charges and countercharges. One continuing issue relates to the pressure being placed on workers by private sector employers. In particular, government supporters and officials attacked the signature cards (described yesterday) that were distributed by the companies to be validated at the signature tables. According to the opposition newspaper eluniversal, ‘in a press conference from the National Electoral Council (CNE), Venezuelan Labor Minister María Cristina Iglesias announced the beginning of an investigation against several private companies, which were not named, that are supposedly pressing their employees to participate in the signature collection to be held this weekend to back a recall referendum on the presidential mandate.’  They quoted her as saying, “We want to tell the workers that they have two options: one is to file a claim to the Labor Inspector’s Office, the CNE, and the Ombudsman’s Office. The other one is what we can call an active silence: those who are afraid of submitting a claim, can go and sign (the recall petition) twice in order to invalidate the signature.” “If I were forced to sign, I would file a claim, but I would also sign wrongly, I would make a mistake filling the form, I would simply sign twice to invalidate the signature. This is the way the worker can democratically rebel to an employer that acts immorally and illegally”.

Government supporters also attacked the appearance at the tables of a separate organisation, Sumate, which has worked with the opposition in the past. Sumate representatives sat behind computers con|aining a voters#list (which actually is out-of-date), asked for the details of everyone who came to the tables and handed them a slip with their registration information. Government supporters denounced the presence of this 3rd party and, in particular, the additional pressure being placed upon those who were signing under duress.

The Electoral Council responded by asking Sumate to remove its computers but also indicated that counselling people to sign the petition twice was counselling an ‘illegal act.’

The tensions surrounding this campaign against Chavez were clear from a number of incidents. One report from the state of Zulia was that pro-government observers were forced from the area of the signature table by armed gunmen. Closer to home, though, were several incidents in the barrios of Caracas itself. In what can only be regarded as deliberate provocations, leading opposition figures entered strong Chavist areas accompanied by many TV cameras to sign for Chavez’s recall.  The response of the communities was predictable. The Mayor of Metropolitan Caracas, Alfredo Pena (who controls the feared Metropolitan Police), went to the community of Petare, and was driven out. Similarly, the head of COPEI (the Christian Democratic Party) went to Carapita and also was driven out. Also in Carapita, according to the opposition paper eluniversal the following occurred:

Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of newspaper El Nacional, was attacked by pro-government demonstrators when he attended to a signature collection center located in Carapita, Caracas, to sign recall petitions to revoke the mandates of President Hugo Chávez and pro-government parliamentarians.

While Chávez’ followers attacked Otero, the military protection Plan República officers seemed more interested in preventing the media from covering the events than in controlling pro-government protesters.

Chavistas threw bottles to the Chávez’ foes lining up outside the signature collection center. The violent protesters tried to dismantle and take away the microwave equipment installed by several TV crews in the signature collection center. The Plan República officers were not capable to preserve public order.

Earlier on Friday, some 50 people supporting Chávez attacked this Carapita signature collection center where Juan Fernández, leader of civil association Gente del Petróleo, was scheduled to sign the recall petition. Fernández was attacked and hit. Some people tried to protect him by taking him to a nearby subway station, but it was closed.

Again, these reactions were not surprising. As one community member involved in chasing the COPEI leader declared, how could these people show their face here after what they have done to the country!

How the signature campaign went on this first day is, not surprisingly, in dispute. The private TV stations have run continuous coverage showing long lines of people around the country waiting to sign up to recall Chavez. As the camera pans, the crowd cheers (recognising allies in the private TV cameras) and the atmosphere appears genuinely happy and triumphant. Opposition spokesmen speak throughout the day about how well the campaign is going, and there is no question that the message being communicated on all private stations is that the removal of Chavez is well underway.

In contrast, the public statements of Chavez,  Vice-President Rangel and numerous other government supporters seems almost smug— as if they know that the opposition campaign is failing. On the ground, there seems to be some reason to think that the opposition campaign is not as successful as portrayed on TV. In some cases, the long line-ups reflect the limits on the number of collection centres. (Eg., one area in Caracas had 34 collection centres last weekend and only 4 this time.) I observed an interesting line-up at Parque Cariboba in downtown Caracas between 4 and 5 this afternoon. The 4 people taking signatures became 2, then 1 and then none at all. For 30 minutes, no signatures were taken. The argument was that they had run out of their collection sheets and had to obtain more. Perhaps. What I found interesting, though, was that if the table had been open in that 30 minutes, the 80 people waiting would all have been accommodated— along with the 10 others that came during this period. Clearly, the absence of a line-up at this peak period as people left work would have been quite embarrassing. Another interesting situation at this site was that a signature sheet was removed and taken to a nearby business where signatures of workers were taken on the spot. This was discovered by the pro-government observer when there was an attempt to return the sheet; the opposition observer agreed that this was a violation and the 30 signatures were nullified.

According to one government supporter I know who visited the Chavist barrios, the tables there were basically empty, and that people who were from those areas were signing up downtown (eg., at the site I was observing). His comment was that when you recognise that an area liked Petare has 2 million voters and you see how little support the opposition has there, it looked to him at this point as if the opposition would fall far short of the numbers it needs in Caracas (600,000) to force a referendum. Another government supporter who was looking at the entire country also suggested privately that the opposition was going to fail.

But, what if the opposition comes to the same conclusion as it analyses today’s results?

Remember, this is an opposition that has determined to remove Chavez by all means necessary— and which has already tried a coup in April 2002 and a shutdown of the economy last winter (with the state oil company revenues being the main target). Remember, too, the opposition has access to vast amounts of arms (a new cache of which has just been discovered). If the opposition comes to the conclusion that its effort at removing Chavez peacefully has failed, how long before they turn to Plan B?