Observer Report on the Venezuelan Term Limits Referendum

A U.S. delegation of international electoral accompaniers reports back from their observance of the February term limits referendum in Venezuela. NACLA, TransAfrica Forum, Urban Semillas, and Diverse Strategies Organizing compiled the report.


The U.S. delegation found that the voting in Venezuela's 2009 referendum was, overall, fair, transparent, and clean. While there were a few instances of technical problems, we were impressed by the efficiency and simplicity with which Venezuelan voters were able to express their preferences. We often found ourselves wishing that elections in the United States were conducted with such uniform professionalism and care, and that the election results could be tallied as quickly. Our observations of Venezuelan popular democracy in action stand in marked contrast with media depictions of Venezuela's government as autocratic.


History of Constitutional Reform

2009 referendum on term limits was the third such consultation on the
Venezuelan constitution to be held since Hugo Chávez was elected in
1998. The first was the constitutional reform in 1999, which formally
established the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and represented the
first time a constitution had been approved by popular vote in the
country's history. The second referendum, held in 2007, was to amend 69
articles of the constitution, and included two blocks of amendments
which were both voted down.

reforms and amendments, as outlined in Venezuela's 1999 Constitution,
can be proposed by the president, the National Assembly, or 15 percent
of registered voters through petitioning. The 2009 referendum was
proposed in an amendment introduced in the National Assembly. The
Constitution requires that proposals for constitutional reform and
constitutional amendments must be debated three times in the National
Assembly, changed if required, and then each change must be approved by
two thirds of the members of the National Assembly to move forward. At
that point, any proposed changes must be voted on by Venezuela's
citizens in a national referendum within 30 days.

History of Electoral Observers

has garnered wide international attention and scrutiny since the
Constitutional Reform of 1999 and his subsequent electoral victory in
2000. In an attempt to diffuse any possible criticism and guarantee
the highest level of transparency during elections, the CNE invited
international electoral observers to monitor every election and
referendum between 2000 and 2008. Despite critiques from Chávez'
opposition and some Western nations, Venezuela's elections have been
internationally certified as free and fair. Following the December 2,
2007, referendum, the Carter Center congratulated the CNE "for the
measured and responsible management of this critical democratic
exercise and their efforts to strengthen the guarantees the electoral
system offers the citizens." Overall, international accolades for
transparency consistently describe Venezuela's current electoral

February 15, 2009 Referendum

February 15, 2009 Referendum asked the people of Venezuela to vote on
whether or not to amend five articles of the Constitution. These
amendments would change the 1999 Constitution, which prohibits most
elected officials from serving more than two consecutive terms in office,
by removing these limits on reelection. These modifi cations specifically
sought to change articles 160, 162, 174, 192, and 230, removing the
term limits for governors, state legislators, mayors, National Assembly
representatives, and the president. While approval of the amendments by
referendum removes term limits, it still requires that elected officials
be reelected each term (term lengths vary by position).

question posed to the voters in the referendum was as follows: "Do you
approve of amending articles 160, 162, 174, 192, and 230 of the
Constitution of the Republic, as proposed by the National Assembly,
which would expand the political rights of the people with the aim of
allowing any citizen who holds a publicly elected office to be nominated
as a candidate for the same office, for the constitutionally established
term, exclusively depending on their election via popular vote?"

to CNE officials, the international recognition of Venezuela's recent
history of transparent, free, and fair elections made hosting
international observers unnecessary. Nevertheless, the CNE invited 98
international electoral accompaniers , predominately from countries
throughout Latin America and Europe as well as the Middle East and
North America. As accompaniers, rather than full-fl edged observers, the
delegation was present in Caracas from February 12 to 17 to observe the
voting process on the day of the referendum (February 15) and conduct
interviews with members of the Venezuelan government and civil society.

Goals of Delegation

The delegation's goals were to:

  1. Gain a preliminary understanding of the pre-referendum environment based on
    conversations with members of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Venezuela.
  2. Observe the referendum vote on Sunday, February 15, 2009.
  3. Deepen personal and organizational understanding of the Venezuelan electoral process.
  4. Contribute to domestic and international press coverage of the results of the referendum.
  5. Offer observations and recommendations to the CNE, CSO, and elected offi cials.

attention was paid by delegation members to the ways Afro-Venezuelan,
indigenous, and socio-economically marginalized citizens were
incorporated into the electoral system.

America Information Office, LLC "Referendum on an Amendment to the
Venezuelan Constitution," February, 2009 < http://www.lataminfo.org/
post/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/ven-referendum-fact-sheet1.pdf >


Contextualizing the Referendum

his election as president of the newly named Bolivarian Republic of
Venezuela in 1998, Hugo Chávez Frias has come under steady criticism
from some leaders of the Global North, perhaps most especially
in the United States. Such criticisms stem from opposition to Chávez's
rejection of conservative economic policies that to date have
consistently failed to bring economic expansion to much of the Global
South. Chávez's promotion of a form of democratic socialism that
challenges multinational lending institutions, as well as the current
framework of free trade and market deregulation, while promoting
alternative economic models, has met with great opposition.

is hard to overstate the importance of Venezuela's news media, both of
the left and the right, in framing the country's electoral politics.
The Chávez administration has also been consistently criticized by the
international press. Such criticism has been centered on Chávez's
efforts to extend social services to historically disenfranchised
communities, the use of public funds, the nationalization and
governance of Venezuela's oil processing and revenues, and proposed
changes to the electoral system.

recent report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) concluded
that over the past 10 years, editors at four leading U.S. newspapers
(The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and
The Miami Herald) have been wholly biased in their reporting of
politics in Venezuela in comparison with their coverage of Colombia.
Much of the media commentary in the United States, as well as in the
corporate Venezuelan media, has depicted Chávez as an autocrat, if not
a dictator, and his political movement as based solely on inciting "the
mob" to vote for him in exchange for the government's generous social
programs. Our findings in this report, at least on the question of
elections and their fairness and openness, seriously challenge this

Summary of the Venezuelan Voting Process

electoral process includes multiple mechanisms to stop fraud. A cédula,
or national identification card, is required to participate in the
voting process. Obtaining a cédula was historically diffi cult for many
of Venezuela's Afro-Venezuelan, indigenous and socially marginalized
citizens, and thus constituted a mechanism of disenfranchisement.
People reported submitting paperwork requesting a cédula year after
year without success. Under Chávez, cédula distribution, and thus voter
enrollment, has increased exponentially through outreach to previously
ignored barrios surrounding Venezuela's larger cities and rural areas.
Under this outreach effort, named Mission Identity (Mision Identidad),
millions of cédulas were distributed and over five and a half million
Venezuelans registered to vote for the fi rst time.

The voting process was as follows:

  1. Voters confirm their enrollment at a particular polling center, typically a school, on a list posted outside.
  2. Voters enter the polling location and present their cédula to CNE
    workers to verify they are at the correct polling place. At this time
    they also have their identity verified through a thumbprint machine (ink
    thumbprints were used in small locations).
  3. Once
    confirmed, voters sign to verify their identity and are referred to
    their specific polling booth based on the last two digits of their
  4. Voters enter their assigned polling booth,
    usually a classroom, referred to by Venezuelans as the mesa electoral
    (electoral table). Each mesa is in fact a series of four tables,
    arranged in a horseshoe confi guration: (1) the Secretary 1 table, where
    voters check in; (2) the President table, where the CNE offi cial in
    charge of the voting sits, operating the voting machine and giving
    voters instructions; (3) the voting machine; (4)
    Secretary 2 table, where fingers are inked. Upon entering, each voter
    begins with the Secretary 1 table, presenting his or her cédula to
    confirm once again that they are in the correct room.
  5. The mesa president instructs the voter to proceed to the electronic
    voting machine. The president hits a button, activating the voting
    machine, and the voter is asked to vote using the touch-screen
    computer. Once completed, the machine issues a paper receipt, which the
    voter uses to confirm a correct vote. If it is correct, the voter folds
    the receipt and stuffs it in a ballot box. (Throwing away or tampering
    with a paper ballot is a crime under Venezuelan law, punishable with up
    to two years' jail time.)
  6. At the Secretary 2 table,
    voters dip their little finger in blue ink to mark that they have voted,
    in an effort to prevent double voting.

addition to CNE representatives at each mesa, two official witnesses,
each identified as representing the Yes or the No political position
("Bloque Sí" or "Bloque No"), were present. Each mesa also included a
witness from the CNE (el testigo).

Steve Rendall, Daniel Ward and Tess Hall, "Human Rights Coverage
Serving Washington's Needs," Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR),
February, 2009.
Venezuelan Missions web page, http://www.misionvenezuela.gov.


Delegation Activities: CNE

The CNE held various events to contextualize the 2009 referendum within Venezuelan and Latin American politics:

  • A panel to begin official referendum activities featuring CNE president Tibisay Lucena.
    The panel presentations included a short history of referendums in
    Venezuela and focused on the technological advances of Venezuela's
    electoral processes.
  • A panel featuring electoral officials from throughout Latin America
    discussed their respective experiences with participatory democracy in
    recent years.
  • A trip to the factory where election
    machines are made to illustrate technological precautions in place to
    stop any potential voter fraud.

Delegation Activities: CSO

gain a greater understanding of the referendum's context, the
delegation also had the opportunity to meet with leaders from multiple
CSOs, including:

  • Luis Lander, Director of Ojo Electoral: Mr. Lander discussed the work
    of Ojo Electoral, a nonpartisan Venezuelan election monitoring
    organization, and their suggestions for further electoral transparency
    and accountability.
  • Leopoldo López, former mayor of
    the Chacao municipality of Caracas: Mr. López outlined his
    participation in the "No" referendum campaign and his efforts to
    promote an alternative political agenda inclusive of both major
    political parties' priorities, emphasizing human rights, security, and
  • Frente de Las Mujeres por la "Sí": This
    women's group, located in La Vega, Caracas, said they supported the
    amendment proposed in the referendum because of the tangible changes in
    their quality of life since the election of President Chávez. These
    changes included, but were not limited to, a fully operational medical
    center within their community, the political enfranchisement of their
    community through the granting of cédulas, a marked increase in
    affordable access to secondary and university education, and legal
    measures against domestic abuse, including representation for victims.
    The delegation was able to visit one of the medical centers in La Vega,
    a community that previously had no access to free healthcare.
  • Professor Luis Bigott, Representative of 5th Commission for Social
    Issues and Human Development of the Andean Parliament Group of
    Venezuela: Professor Bigott gave the delegation a brief overview of the
    history of Afro-Venezuelan communities, the impact of Constitutional
    recognition of Afro-descendant communities, and his current efforts to
    support academic institutions and research projects about
    Afro-Venezuelans, including the Barlovento Center of Integral Studies
  • A presentation by Carlos Escarrá, a
    congressional representative of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela
    (PSUV) who gave a brief history of the PSUV and its current policies.


Inside the Polling Stations

over 69 percent voter turnout, including both Yes and No voters, the
referendum was a successful example of Venezuela's participatory
process of democracy. Election Day was calm, free of violence, and
people on both sides of the referendum said the process was very smooth
and well carried out. Venezuelans were able to exercise their right to vote with little or no diffi culty.

centers were well-organized, very well-staffed, and the locations
observed by the U.S. delegation and other internationals contained all
the necessary materials, ensuring that voter turnaround from entering
to completion of the vote was very expedient and easy. Where present,
the fi ngerprinting machines were highly effective. Two of the locations
we visited did not have the machines and were thus using paper and ink
to fi ngerprint.

voting centers were generally quite accessible. Elderly voters, those
unable to read, or voters who otherwise required assistance were
allowed to bring one friend or family member to assist them. We
observed wheelchair users being assisted by family members, and even
carried up stairs by members of Plan República, the army battalion that
secures Venezuela's elections. Chairs available for anyone waiting made
the process easier for the elderly and demonstrated a procedure that
assured accessibility and people's right to vote.

voters seemed familiar with the machines and process, a fact that we
attributed to the CNE's national voter education campaign, which
included media advertisements as well as adverts on television, in
parks and plazas, on the metro and through posters. We did hear reports
of nullified votes at the voting stations, likely due to some users'
unfamiliarity with the highly sensitive electronic voting machines, but
these were few. In the end, nullified votes amounted to only 1.76
percent of votes cast. The machines were fast, trouble free, and
accurate in the data collection, and fast and easy with the data

workers, who had received a 30-day training, maintained CNE protocols
and seemed well equipped to deal with any challenges on the day of the
election. Workers appeared generally well-organized, calm, competent,
and efficient. If there was a problem, CNE mediated well between the
voter and the table. It was heartening to see that the staff came from
the community, which seemed to produce a comfortable and informal
environment that made people feel engaged and safe. Observers found the
station closing processes to be particularly impressive. Election staff
meticulously followed the rules outlined, the data transmission
processes were well monitored by representatives supporting and
opposing the amendments in the referendum, and the audit process was
completely transparent. Half of the polling booths were audited, during
which boxes were assembled in the presence of witnesses, each ballot
was read aloud, and the ballot receipt was shown to witnesses and the
counting staff then placed in a box held by a witness.

Outside the Polling Stations

CNE did a good job of preserving the integrity of the voting stations.
At one site, the area around the station was blocked to all vehicular
traffic, making it more accessible to pedestrians. It appeared that the
polling places were located in accessible parts of the community and
staffed by community members.

saw no propaganda on the actual sites, although it was visible on
surrounding buildings. Party colors were present among the voters. The
delegation noted that in many of the public schools, where voting took
place, there were plaques and other signs with messages along the lines
of "This school was made possible by the revolutionary government of
Hugo Chávez." This could be interpreted as mildly prejudicial. There
were no external organizations visible, although at one site the
delegation witnessed an argument between a group of people and the
electoral authorities over the permanence of the ink applied to voters'
fingers at the end of voting. The delegation was unable to discern
whether this group of people was in fact an organization or just a
group of likeminded voters.

Poll Opening, Closing, and Audits

than half of the locations we visited, including La Escuela
Experimental, where we attended the formal opening, did not open on
time, generally opening 30 minutes to an hour late. However, according
to a CNE official this was an improvement over previous elections, when
stations opened as late as two to four hours after the scheduled time.
While equipment was present, the absence of a few staff members caused


vote was sufficiently private for voters. However, in the future, to
prevent any possible intimidation, the voter booths-made of folded
cardboard slats that did not entirely conceal the voter-could be made
higher. From a U.S. perspective, the presence of armed soldiers in the
voting centers could be interpreted as intimidating rather than as a
reassuring measure against disruption or fraud. It must be noted that
there is a much higher degree of normalcy surrounding the presence of
the military during civil functions in Venezuela than there is in the
United States. Most of the soldiers who interacted with the delegation
had a friendly disposition.

noted that the relaxed, informal environment at the voting stations
allowed for casual conversations in which voters' preferences were
voiced, giving rise to the concern that some voters might have felt


a delegation, we were wholly impressed with the extent of accountable,
transparent, participatory democracy as illustrated by Venezuela's
referendum vote on February 15, 2009. While recognizing our limitations
as a group due to the short duration of our role as accompaniers, we
offer these recommendations based on our observations:

To the CNE

  • A
    number of delegation members were uncomfortable with some of the
    language in the question posed in the referendum, specifically the
    phrase that describes the proposed constitutional amendment as one that
    "would expand the political rights of the people." While the language
    was approved by the National Assembly and CNE, the phrasing of the
    amendment favors a Yes vote and should have been left out.
  • Having accompaniers move between many stations gave them greater
    breadth of exposure to the experiences of voters at different
    locations. The CNE should, however, consider having some accompaniers
    remain at a single polling station, or perhaps two, over the course of
    the day. The accompaniment in East Caracas was often a bit hurried and
    the accompanier felt unable to fully appreciate the dynamics at any
    single station, especially in an opposition stronghold where tension
    was running high. Also, the accompaniment session lasted only from the
    morning hours through mid-afternoon, though voting lasted until 6 pm.
  • Overall the programming created by the CNE gave accompaniers a holistic
    understanding of the voting process, the context of the referendum, and
    recent technological advances. However, a workshop by a
    non-governmental and non-partisan electoral group, such as Ojo
    Electoral, would have also been helpful for international accompaniers.

To regional actors

  • As a delegation, we have more than 90 years of collective experience in
    the areas of human rights, economic development, and community
    organizing. In our work we are privileged to have learned from
    partners, networks, and cooperatives throughout Latin America, the
    Caribbean, and Africa. As a result of our experiences, we believe that
    there are many opportunities for Venezuelans to share their best
    practices and lessons learned with people facing similar problems of
    equitable development, and vice versa. As such, we encourage the
    governments of the region, the private sector, and International NGOs
    to encourage, facilitate, and support greater South-South cooperation
    and exchange.

To U.S. State Department, Congress, CSO

  • Based on our observations we suggest the U.S. Department of State take
    concrete steps to normalize relations with Venezuela. These would
    include recognition of the importance of participatory democracy within
    Venezuela. We consider the State Department's statement of February 17,
    2009 to be a first step toward normalization. According to statements by
    Gordon Duguid, Acting Deputy Department of State Spokesman, the
    referendum " . . . process was held consistent with democratic
    principles." This statement illustrates a marked change from previous
    recent reactions to Venezuela's democratic processes as articulated by
    the U.S. government. Such statements are not sufficient, however, and
    must be elevated by a change in attitude towards Venezuela's
    democratically elected government, which has been treated with severe
    disdain since 2000. Venezuela must be added to the list of allies of
    the United States who promote human rights and fair and free electoral
  • The delegation's experience illustrates the immediate need for an
    expansion in positive statements by U.S. based civil society
    organizations who work on Venezuela. We implore U.S. CSOs working with
    partners in the region to promote U.S.-Venezuela policies based on the
    priorities of CSOs within Venezuela.

States Department of State Website, February 17, 2009 Daily Press Briefi
ng. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2009/02/117401.htm


Diverse Strategies for Organizing, Inc. (DSO)

Strategies for Organizing, Inc. (DSO), founded in 1991 by Victor
Griego, Jr., is a public affairs consulting firm specializing in
community relations, government relations, and political consulting.
Our reputation for success rests on an intimate knowledge of Southern
California communities and a strong network of relationships with
civic, labor and political leadership across the state. We work within
the public and private sectors, crafting strategic programs to deliver
community support for organizational objectives, and helping clients
navigate the legislative process.

  • Victor Griego is the founder and CEO of Diverse Strategies for Organizing, Inc. (DSO).
    Mr. Griego has led the DSO organization on a pathway to high visibility
    in the Latino community through involvement in political and community
    campaigns that focus on the mobilization of residents, volunteers,
    organizers and community leaders. A nationally recognized political
    strategist, facilitator and organizer with 25 years of successful
    experience in political, grassroots and community organizing, Mr.
    Griego has been an instrumental catalyst in planning and conducting
    various community involvement projects, including union wage and benefit
    issues, voter registration drives, public education campaigns and in
    the elections of local, state and federal candidates.

North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA)

North American Congress on Latin America publishes NACLA Report on the
Americas, the oldest and most widely read progressive magazine covering
Latin America and its relationship with the United States. Each issue
of the bimonthly magazine examines a single topic in depth, offering
comprehensive, analytic coverage of Latin America not found anywhere
else in the English-language press.

  • Pablo Morales has been editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas since
    January 2007. Born in Seattle to Bolivian and North American parents,
    he holds degrees from Wesleyan University and New York University. His
    research interests include U.S.-Cuban relations, informal empire, and
    race and ethnicity in the Americas.

TransAfrica Forum

Forum is the oldest and largest African American human rights and
social justice advocacy organization promoting diversity and equity in
the foreign policy arena and justice for the African World. To this
end, TransAfrica Forum serves as an educational and organizing center
that encourages progressive viewpoints in the United States foreign
policy arena and advocates justice for the people of Africa and the
African Diaspora. The organization promotes solidarity with the
oppressed and supports human rights, gender equity, democracy, and
sustainable economic and environmental development practices in Africa
and other countries where people of African descent reside.

  • Imani
    Countess serves as TransAfrica Forum's Senior Director of Public
    Affairs. At TransAfrica Ms. Countess conceptualizes and implements
    public outreach activities to educate and motivate diverse communities
    around U.S. foreign policy. She also serves as a senior advisor to the
    Executive Director and helps shape TransAfrica Forum's policy
    positions. Imani Countess served for fi ve years as the US national
    coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee Africa Program.
    Traveling throughout the continent of Africa and its global Diaspora,
    Ms. Countess created cutting-edge political and activist training
    events to increase public participation in policy making.
  • Nora
    Rasman is the Program Assistant at TransAfrica Forum and her work
    includes policy research and administrative assistance. Before coming
    to TransAfrica Forum, Nora spent time working at Boston University's
    Howard Thurman Center and working with youth in Boston Public Schools.
    She is also a member of Groundwork Anti-Racism Collective, an Unitarian
    youth and young adult anti-racism organizing initiative. Nora is a
    recent graduate from Boston University with a Bachelor of Science
    degree in U.S. History.

Urban Semillas

Semillas is a socially conscientious, reconnaissance and outreach,
community-based, watershed driven organization. Their overarching goal
is to educate underserved and monolingual (Spanish-speaking)
communities about watershed and social justice issues, and provide
these with community-building skills, thus empowering them to
participate in local and citywide planning as well as playing an active
role in city, state and nationwide policies.

  • Miguel Luna is the Executive Director of Urban Semillas. Mr. Luna
    specializes in cultivating relationships with and between
    community-based organizations, businesses, elected officials and their
    representatives, environmental organizations, academia, governmental
    agencies and individual stakeholders. He guest-lectures at Universities
    throughout the state of California, presenting on topics like:
    "Understanding Diversity within Diversity", "Cultivating Community
    Relationships vs. Marketing", "Sight, Site, Cite: Having a vision,
    Choosing a project location, Developing a plan" and "Community
    Reconnaissance: Outreach".


would like to acknowledge those who made our trip possible. The
logistical and personal support offered by the Washington, D.C.-based
Latin America Information Office, and particularly by Alex Main, was
indispensable. We thank Alex for his accessibility and support prior
to, during, and following the trip. His work ensured that our trip went
smoothly and was absolutely trouble-free.

would also like to express our deep gratitude and appreciation to
Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) leadership; each member of
the delegation felt privileged to be a part of this important process
of participatory democracy. We deeply appreciate the patience and
professionalism of the CNE staff who worked with our delegation,
ensured that we had all the needed resources, and readily responded to
each of our requests, including our wish to hold outside meetings and
conversations with various sectors of Venezuelan society.

addition, we would like to thank the members from both civil society
and the Venezuelan government with whom we were able to meet. Their
stories and experiences inform major parts of our report, and without
their knowledgeable input it would not have been produced. We found the
citizens of Venezuela across the political spectrum to be open,
accessible, and politically engaged. From the barrio of La Vega to the
coffee shops of Chacao, Venezuelans were gracious, kind, warm, and
welcoming. They answered every question and freely shared their
opinions, asking only that we tell the truth.