My Days as an International Observer in Venezuela

A report on the abuses and questionable practices of the opposition's petition drive by an official international observer.

By Michael Lebowitz
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After unofficially observing part of the first day's signature campaign to recall Hugo Chavez, on Saturday I joined about 50 others in a group of official observers. Our group (which includes Italian and Spanish politicians, European journalists, Latin American activists and legislators) is hustled into a bus and several vans, and we go off on a mystery trip to locations selected by the National Electoral Commission. After about an hour's ride, we were disgorged somewhere in the state of Vargas. As we approached the signature table (located in a barrio) , we were cheered and chanted at by about 20 Chavists (many redshirted) to the right of the tables. To the left of the tables, there were around 50 happy, singing people accompanied by loud music coming from a nearby bar. It was a bit like a party. Even though language-challenged,  it soon became clear to me from the 'yo no soy chavista' sung by this 2nd group that the positioning around the table was no accident. At the tables themselves, though, only two of the tables were occupied by someone who wanted to sign, and there was no queue. One of military men there to protect the process indicated that it was a bit busier there yesterday but not much more so. As we left, the crowd of anti-chavists dissipated.

At our second location in Vargas, we saw people come to the tables with a narrow strip of paper filled out on one side. After they signed the forms, the opposition person taking signatures signed the other side of the paper. This was a frequent pattern--- except that older people coming to the tables did not bring a slip. (One might speculate that this latter group did not need to bring proof to their employers that they had signed). There were 5 tables. It was quiet, with one or two signing when we arrived, but shortly after, a truck unloaded a number of people. I begin to wonder at this point whether the presence of 50 international observers is attracting opposition displays. In general, the atmosphere was not antagonistic-- much like between opposition scrutineers in an election at home. Certainly, people on both sides seem to be happy to see us.

At our third location in Vargas, there is no one signing up at all--- although the crowd arrives soon after. A bit like a mariachi band following us. We pass another site on the road-- one person signing, and we don't stop.  Our fourth stop has 5 places for signing up. 3 are occupied, with people getting white slips to prove they have signed. It is very quiet. I start to wonder--- how long before the singers arrive? In fact, we get away before they arrive. I feel a certain sense of loss. On the bus, a Haitian in the delegation notes that he has spoken with a member of Bandera Roja, the Marxist-Leninist group allied with the opposition. He notes that the explanation offered by the BR person is that they oppose Chavez because he is producing a war of class against class. So much for the Marxist-Leninists.

The 5th stop in Vargas is at Catia del Mar. I notice very careful work by the signature collector over whose shoulder I peer. She rejects wrong identification, makes people sign several times (crossing out errors). Very conscientious-- perhaps because of our presence. But, it does make me wonder why this is the first time I've seen crossed-out lines--- is this the only place that people are making errors? There are 4 tables here but not much activity. Our stay is short. No mariachi band here either. In fact, our stays are getting shorter. Is it because we're hungrier (or that the CNE organisers are)? It's 1:52 now and we've been going since 9 am.

After lunch, we go to centres in Caracas. Our first stop is in Sucre near St. Mary's University. This is definitely a different class of people here. People here are well-dressed and look at us very antagonistically. (Someone comments, who says you are international observers!) There's an orderly line-up of about 50 there, and I suspect fraud is unlikely here. A very short stay. We go from there to a closeby site near Metropolitan University. Also looks like a wealthy area, with very nice high-rises near these tables. Here we are told that they have no more papers, that their signature forms for the 4 days have been exhausted by 4:30 the 2nd day. They had received 368 papers (with 10 lines each). This is their message to the international observers--- the CNE has not given us enough! Is this possible? Has there been a miscalculation? The CNE gives out sheets equal to 66% of registered voters in each area (and does so at the rate of 25% per day--- although it is possible to request more in the early days if they are exhausted quickly). Is the problem that in a heavy opposition area more than 66% would come to sign against Chavez. Yes, possible-- the hatred is high here. In that case, the CNE rule is biased against heavily skewed areas. On the other hand, people can sign anywhere against Chavez! So, a shortage of papers can show up anywhere the opposition wants--- if it wants. Does this suggest what the opposition's strategy will be--- to claim on the last day that there are many people who could not sign? We note that those who come to this location to sign are being directed to other centres in the area.

At the next site in this area, one also characterised by high-rises (but not as nice on the outside), we find that they were given 340 sheets and have 140 left. (We are learning to focus on numbers and not on how well people sign their names.) I ask how many of the 200 were used the first day and how many used the 2nd day. I am told 95 the first day and 52 the 2nd (about the ratio of the two days that seems characteristic). Um, but that doesn't add up! What about the other sheets (53, for the numerically-challenged)? Oh, those are for the itinerant forms. Huh? Yes, those are the ones taken out on the street. Are these taken with representatives of the pro-government parties overseeing this? Yes, generally. Generally? What prevents fraud? (The basic justification for the itinerant sheets is the existence of the infirm at home and people in hospitals.) I have my translator find the representative of the government party there. Is this true that itinerant forms go out without any representative of the chavists? Yes, she answers--- she tries to go with as many as possible but can't always. But, she trusts them--- they've been so correct in everything else. At 6pm, a group of chavists on motorcycles arrives to check the forms before they are handed in. Too late, I think. This point about the itinerant sheets is critical as more and more reports have come in about people in hospitals pressured to sign.

Day 3 (Sunday) begins and we ride off to Miranda State (about 45 minutes). Nothing happening at the first site. A few people sitting around. Maybe it's too early (9:30) on a Sunday morning. No, we don't get out of the buses; we are told that they are closed. They finished their sheets. (Are more coming or did they use all 100%? Not clear.) We go to a 2nd location. There are 4 tables, all occupied, and a queue of 5 people. Here, the opposition people tell us that out of the 200 papers assigned for the 4 days they used 90 sheets the first day and 69 the second. The chavist representative present indicates that there were 850 signatures the first day and 545 the second. It's hard to understand the discrepancies for the 2nd day-- if there are no errors, 90 sheets would suggest a minimum of  891 signatures; and 69 sheets, a minimum of 681 signatures. (Maybe there were lots of errors on Saturday.) We learn, too, that 36 sheets have been set aside for itinerant (9 per day). Hmm. 36 sheets out of 200--- 18%; quite a few sick people here.

We go off to a 3rd centre. There are 5 tables, 3 are occupied, and there is no queue. We learn that 67 papers were used the first day (642 signatures) and 38 (358) the second; this is out of a total of 238 assigned for the 4 days.Here, we get to see the Sumate card in use. People are given the Sumate card (the one which says they have chose the peaceful route out of the crisis of Venezuela), their fingerprint is placed on the spot for stamping it and they are given a sticker ('YA firme') which they can put on the card. I see several younger people take the card and get it stamped. (I get my own card and YA firme sticker--- one for the scrapbook.) International observers are incensed by the use of these cards which are being demanded by employers, so we sign a denunciation for presentation to the CNE.

Our next centre (still in Miranda--- an opposition stronghold) is La Casona, an upscale pink-bricked shopping mall. Here they tell us immediately that their papers are finished. They had 200 for the 4 days. 150 went the first day and the rest the 2nd day by 4:00.(There's a bit of a discrepancy because they tell us they used 1319 the first day and the rest (681), the second; again, the numbers don't quite add up--- how do you get 681 signatures on 50 sheets of 10 lines each?) They say they are not entirely finished because they are waiting for 2 itinerants to return. They are complaining that the CNE made a mistake and didn't give them enough--- everyone here wants to sign and we only got 66%, we are told. Still, the fact that people can sign anywhere and that this is a shopping mall may explain why these are exhausted. Those who come here are being directed to other centres in the area (although the opposition coordinator says these other centres will soon be exhausted, too). Here as elsewhere in Miranda, it is very hard to find the chavist scrutineers--- they are vastly outnumbered. One itinerant returns while we are there, and there is a massive battle because the chavist who accompanied him has challenged 4 names. How many signed up on sheets of itinerants here? 350 (and that is before counting the sheets of the two itinerants who had been out). So, at least 17.5% of the total. Must be an epidemic.

Next centre in Miranda is Plaza Bolivar. Again, the key questions become numbers. The opposition says they are supposed to get 198 sheets but they were only given 150, that they had used these up (not counting what the itinerants were doing) Further, they won't get any more. When it is pointed out that 150 was 3/4 of their total and that they would be entitled to 50 more tomorrow, a furious argument breaks out between representatives, observers, etc. It's all happening very fast, and I look from face to face. I miss the subtitles. We leave shortly after it is established that they can get 50 more.

I decide to pass on the afternoon trip. The pattern is clear, and I am more interested in learning about the charges of fraud that are emerging from the government side (something you don't get on the bus or at the signature tables). In fact, I have concluded that this business of being an international observer is a bit like seeing through a glass darkly--- we see only appearances and not what is actually happening. How many people are signing several times at different places? How many forged identifications? How many sheets are being slipped in when no one is looking? We can have suspicions that something is not quite right, and we can identify specific abuses (as with the use of the Sumate cards and the problem of unregulated itinerants), but there is absolutely no way that it is possible for us to have any idea of the scope of problems at all. This is something to remember when you hear of representatives from the Carter Center or other observer bodies talk about how smoothly and properly this process is going. I return and turn on the TV and see a person from the Carter Center (from California) say exactly this--- it is all going very well.

Incredible stories of fraud now on TV. I'll pass these on in the next note. There have been confrontations and tables shut. The border with Colombia shut at places because of fraud at border areas.