Venezuela: Signing Away A President

After an abortive coup and an attempt to destabilise the economy, Venezuela’s opposition remembered such democratic procedures as a referendum to revoke the mandate of President Hugo Chávez. But its refusal to accept the decisions of the National Electoral Council and its calls for civil disobedience have increased the tension.

HUGO CHÁVEZ could not resist a few digs at a press conference on 14 April 2002 after his return to the presidential palace, the Miraflores. He said, smiling: “Some people called for a referendum. They got it, and they lost!” He had been the victim of a coup three days earlier and been restored to power by loyal members of the military and a demonstration of popular support (1).

In shanty-town alleys, his army of supporters were behind the comandante: “If Chávez is such a bad thing, why do the people love him so much? Why did they bring him back to the Miraflores?” In response, Enrique Salas Romer, the presidential candidate defeated by Chávez in 1998, said: “The perception was that a government of the far right had taken power and was going to act against the interest of the people. In contrast, Chávez looked like a democrat, which he is not. There was a magic moment of solidarity, but don’t forget that Jesus Christ was acclaimed a week before he was crucified.”

Chávez’s opponents, though crushed for a time, are back on the offensive. Throughout 2002 they challenged the government in the war of the marches. Just as in the days before the coup, the media made the atmosphere tense (2). But every time the opposition mounted a huge demonstration, the response was as large – or even larger: a red tide of presidential supporters. The media refused to acknowledge or broadcast the tide’s existence. As a result of disinformation, Chávez’s opponents did not even know they had taken place, since their only sources of information were television news bulletins describing “the largest march” (by the opposition); “the huge march” (by the opposition); the “super-march” (by the opposition); “the march to end all marches” (by the opposition). It would have been easy to conclude that the whole country was calling for the president to go.

On 11 July 2002 Carlos Ortega, leader of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), a trade union in the pockets of the employers, declared: “We shall not rest until Chávez goes.” Tension increased, punctuated by incidents. At the instigation of Chávez’s supporters, the clashes became violent when, on 14 August 2002, the Supreme Court of Justice dismissed, by 11 votes to eight, a case against four officers accused of military revolt; the media called this the 11-A (11 April) conspiracy.

Working-class people violently demonstrated their disapproval and said: “It’s as if they were trying Bin Laden and judged that the twin towers had fallen down by themselves.” The government, accused by its detractors of being authoritarian, took no action against the 11-A conspirators. The conspirators took advantage, particularly since Washington announced that an Office of Transition was to be set up in Caracas. Opposition groups, united under the umbrella of Democratic Coordination, looked for a way out of the institutional crisis. Article 72 of the constitution permitted a mid-term referendum to revoke the presidential mandate by popular initiative; the mid-term fell on 19 August 2003. Was this legal? Yes. The opposition leaders were keen to press ahead since they doubted whether they could win a process of consultation.

On 22 October 2002, 14 members of the military who had taken part in the coup declared themselves to be in a state of “legitimate disobedience” in Francia Square, in the middle-class Altamira district. Numbering about 70, they set up camp in this “liberated” zone and, over several weeks, put on a show carefully orchestrated by the press, television and radio. The stage was set for the second, softer coup attempt.

While a meeting between the government and Democratic Coordination was being held under the auspices of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Democratic Coordination announced a “general strike” that would last until the president left office. This lockout by the bosses, partially supported at the outset, had an ultimate weapon: Venezuela’s national oil company PDVSA, the only outfit that that could make an impact on the government by stopping work. By making its workers technically unemployed, the PDVSA bosses (the oil-igarchy) inflicted a serious blow.

The lockouts lasted for 63 days during December 2002 and January 2003. Punctuated by sabotage against the nerve centres of the economy, they caused Venezuela losses of $10bn. As in April 2002, a number of martyrs were sacrificed on the altar of democracy. On 6 December 2002, when Carlos Ortega was holding his daily press conference in Francia Square, the rebel soldiers’ headquarters, a man opened fire, killing three and injuring 28 in the crowd of escualididos (3). Ortega, in a live interview given as the media broadcast images of the “terror and chaos of the Altamira massacre”, called on the OAS to intervene in Venezuela and said Chávez was a murderer. General Enrique Medina Gómez (a participant in the 11-A attempted coup) called on the armed forces to overthrow the president.

The next day amateur video footage broadcast and rebroadcast by the non-state television com panies seemed to show the alleged “assassin”, João Gouveia, a Portuguese national, in the company of some of Chávez’s close advisers, including the mayor of Caracas, Freddy Bernal. They were blamed for the deaths. During the subsequent investigation, examination of Gouveia’s passport proved that he had been in Portugal when the video footage was taken (4). It was a forgery. But that was passed over in silence. This meant that the United States White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, could declare that “the only peaceful and politically viable path out of crisis is through the holding of early elections” (5) – without Chávez.

But this democratically elected and re-elected president did not give in, nor did the section of the population that supported him, although they suffered the most. The general strike did not affect electricity or gas supplies in towns. It was claimed that power cuts affected commercial broadcasters, and by cutting their usual broadcasts, including the ads, they gave a display of economic sabotage. The middle classes, the source of massive opposition support, used piped gas daily for cooking. But in poor quarters, without infrastructure, they used bottled gas and it vanished from the shops. In January 2003 a woman in Catia, her only furniture a table, chairs and an old fridge, said this was “a strike against the poor. For a month, we had to burn wood to cook. But there is no wood here.” Women used laundry irons to heat water for babies’ bottles.

It was a wartime economy. One day a sign would appear in the basic shops advertising cornflour for sale, next day it would be gone. Essential goods vanished from the shelves. According to Blanca Eckhrout, then director of the community television channel CatiaTV, “They thought people will have enough. There will be an outburst.” The aim was to trigger a rebellion that would demonstrate popular rejection of the government (6). “We dealt calmly with the situation,” said one of Catia’s community leaders. “We were hungry and in a mess. But we continued to back Chávez. And we didn’t take to the streets to cause chaos. The government was not the enemy.”

During 2003 Venezuela’s economic activity declined by 9.5%, ruining the country and social welfare programmes (which was the aim). But despite having spent millions of dollars trying to get rid of Chávez and thousands of hours of tele vision trying to destabilise him, the opposition was again defeated.

As the strike petered out, the opposition tried further provocation to save face. On 2 February 2003, citing the Venezuelan constitution, it began a collection of signatures (el firmazo) calling for a referendum to revoke the presidential mandate. An organisation of ill-defined status, Súmate (join us), was made responsible for making the arrangements for that day. We know that in 2003 Súmate received, for a programme of electoral education, $53,400 of the $800,000 the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), affiliated to the US state department, disbursed to Venezuelan opposition organisations and parties over two years (7).

At the end of that “historic, definitive and wonderful” 2 February, memorable because of its examples of manipulation (with only Súmate as arbiter), the opposition announced that it had collected more than 4 million signatures – more than the 3,757,733 votes Chávez won in the 2000 election, when the number of abstentions was particularly high. Some thought there was no need for a referendum – the head of state had lost all legitimacy. Others more subtly played on on the government’s refusal to make arrangements for a plebiscite.

In fact, the firmazo was organised six months and 18 days before the midway point in the presidential mandate and was therefore illegal. But since international public opinion understood little about the Bolivarian constitution, any organisation calling for a referendum was considered inherently democratic. Anyone refusing a referendum must be afraid of the outcome. That view became paramount when on 12 September 2003 the National Electoral Council (CNE) declared the request inadmissible on grounds of incompatibility with the constitution (resolution No 030912-461).

“Seventy per cent of Venezuelans want Chávez out” was the message in much of the international media when, on 19 August 2003 the president finally reached the mid-term in his mandate. True, the rise in inflation and unemployment had caused an increase in poverty, and that, linked to the old political culture, bureaucratisation, vote-catching and corruption were still rife.

But the oil industry had been energetically taken back under control – 18,000 people were sacked – and as a result it had regained its production capacity and was providing revenue for the state. There were a number of social programmes for the underprivileged, including agricultural reform (8); facilitating home ownership in poorer districts; the Barrio Adentro mission providing health care in shanty towns and marginalised regions with the help of thousands of Cuban doctors; the Robinsón mission, a literacy campaign for a million people; the Ribas mission for students obliged to leave college; the Mercal mission, a network for the distribution of essential goods at below market prices; and the grant of micro-loans of $50m in 2000-3 via the Peoples’ Bank and the Womens’ Bank. There was popular support for a president who declared: “I would rather be overthrown than end up as a petty social-democrat president who did nothing.”

On 29 May, at the end of tough negotiations under the auspices of the OAS and the Carter Centre headed by the former US president Jimmy Carter, Democratic Coordination signed a pact opening the way to the organisation of a legal referendum.

When the National Assembly failed to appoint the members of the new National Electoral Council (a qualified majority vote was required), the Supreme Court appointed them ex officio on 25 August 2003. The opposition was delighted, as the Supreme Court was inclined in its favour, given its decision on the trial of the soldiers who took part in the 11-A conspiracy. Two members of the CNE board represented the government and two the opposition, with chairman Francisco Carrasquero to ensure balance. While some sectors of Democratic Coordination viewed Carrasquero with suspicion, many saw him as an opponent of Chávez: some of his relatives had been sacked from the PDVSA when it was taken over. That was the make-up of the National Elect oral Council responsible for acting as arbiter for the new collection of signatures – the reafirmazo.

This took place between Friday 28 November 2003 and Monday 1 December (9). At least 2,402,579 signatures (20% of eligible voters) had to be collected in 2,780 centres opened by the opposition before a referendum could be held. In terms of public order, it all went peacefully. True, in one place on the coast in Vargas State, near the table where people were signing, Chávez’s supporters and opponents ribbed each other gently. “She is drawing up a list of voters,” shouted an anti-Chávist: “Take that list out of your pocket.” The woman concerned responded with a smile: “I’m counting them up. I don’t want them coming out with unbelievably high figures.” This seemed unlikely in Vargas that Saturday, since there were more people queuing at ATMs than at the centres where signatures were being collected. “That’s normal,” an official of the local opposition told us, “everyone rushed to sign yesterday.”

“An estimated 4 million signatures” was the total we were told about next day in Chuao (east of Caracas, an opposition stronghold), near another deserted centre. There followed a surreal discussion held in perfect French: the local opposition claimed that it was all better before “when the rich and poor celebrated together, dressed in the same way, wore the same shoes. It was all better before that murderer [Chávez] brought about these divisions in society.”

The only real anomaly was the failure to provide enough planillas (forms on which the name, identity card number, thumbprint and signature were recorded) in the middle-class bastions of the capital: Chacao, Baruta, Sucre and Chuao. The CNE gave each sector only enough sheets for 66% of electors. Although at national level that meant that it would have been possible to collect 8 million signatures, far in excess of the numbers Demo cratic Coordination could mobilise, the quota was inadequate in districts that were massively pro- opposition. The problem was resolved by setting up a shuttle system so those unable to sign could be ferried to the many centres where there were still forms available. According to the OAS secretary general, César Gaviria, who was present as an observer, that meant everyone could take part (10).

“The transition has begun, it’s a torrent, an avalanche,” blared the opposition, commenting, as did El Nacional’s leading reporter Marta Colomina, on “the despair and anguish consuming a president whose days are numbered” (11). A bold claim, since at that moment, Chávez had never seemed more relaxed. “If they get they signatures they need,” he told us, “we shall have a referendum and, if they win, I’ll go. We managed to get them to this point: to respect the constitution. But according to our information, I don’t think they are going to get the signatures they need.”

The opposition’s story was different. After a few exaggerated claims, it declared it was submitting 3,467,050 signatures to the CNE on 9 December 2003. Even at the time, that figure raised questions: the reafirmazo had failed to collect over four days what Súmate claimed to have collected in that one afternoon on 2 February 2003. And this was far below “70% of the population opposed to the president” (12). Hugo Chávez had won more votes in a single day when he was elected.

More disturbing was the silence in eastern Car acas on the evening of 1 December. The opposition leaders seemed routed. G5, the theoretical group of five candidates for the opposition leadership – Henry Ramos Allup (Democratic Action), Julio Borges (Primero Justicia), Enrique Mendoza (governor of the state of Miranda), Juan Fernández (Gente de petroleo) and Henrique Salas Römer – kept a low profile, avoiding television studios and not issuing invitations to a victory celebration.

As the third day of the reafirmazo ended, Chávez set the cat among the pigeons by condemning, in his colourful style, a “mega-fraud”. This got an immediate response from Gaviria, not only OAS secretary general but also a fiercely pro-US former Colombian president, known to favour the opposition. He said there was “no evidence to suggest that there has been massive and widespread fraud”. But fraud there had been. A CNE member, Jorge Rodríguez, told us on 29 November: “There have been many accusations casting a shadow over the whole process. Some people have been forced to sign. At the El Llanito hospital patients were told if you don’t sign, you won’t get your operation.”

One centre received 200 forms and returned 400. In another, minors and the dead signed. Doris Gutiérrez, a member of the Honduran parliament (Democratic Unification party) and part of a group of 52 international observers from 35 countries worldwide, noted a plastic-coated card “produced by a private agency [Súmate] on which individuals were required to record their identity and provide their fingerprints as proof of participation”. We saw that too. It is easy to imagine how a document that brings signatures into the public domain might be used – perhaps to prove to an employer (since most people signed on Friday, a working day) that someone voted against the president; or people might be told they had to present it before they could be hired in future. The ministry of labour accused 124 com panies of having pressurised their employees.

According to Gutiérrez, “The CNE documents were clear: form A was to be used to collect signatures in fixed centres and form B for mobile centres (for people unable to get around). But form A was also used in place of form B, so that home visits could be turned into process of collecting signatures en masse, with no possibility of an observer being present in accordance with the rules”.

The difficulties were underestimated. The process of authentication of the signatures by the CNE dragged on and announcement of the results was postponed several times, leading to accusations by the opposition. But on 26 January Chávez had, in fact, agreed that members of the OAS and the Carter Centre should be present at the count. Jimmy Carter congratulated the CNE on the quality of its work: “My personal opinion is that the CNE . . . will make the proper decision and that subsequent political events will be acceptable” (13). Although the government had agreed to accept the decisions of the electoral authority without protest, the opposition refused to do so.

It was still more reluctant when the result came on 24 February 2004: 1,832 valid signatures; 143,930 fraudulent signatures; 233,573 signatures rejected as failing to match the electoral register; and 879,000 signatures on planillas planas, nearly 90,000 batches of forms on which the handwriting was similar, filled in by the same person (although the signatures might in theory differ). While help was allowed for the illiterate and old , the excessive number of such forms made people suspicious, lending credence to the claim of mega-fraud, and led the CNE to propose a procedure to re-authenticate those signatures. Signatories were to present themselves between 18-22 March to confirm they had indeed signed.

Democratic Coordination, saying that “signatures are not negotiable”, called for civil resistance and increased the number of violent demonstrations, which were put down by the national guard. Ten people died, often in confused circumstances leading to speculation as to who had fired the shots, dozens were injured and there were at least 300 arrests between 27 February and 4 March. The deputy president, José Vicente Rangel, said: “If they had been certain that the signatures, fingerprints and identity card numbers were genuine, they would not have made a fuss. Why were they afraid of the authentication procedure? If I had signed, I’d confirm that was my signature” (14).

As was to be expected, Washington immediately supported Democratic Coordination, expressing its concern and condemning the CNE’s obsession with technicalities; its faithful ally, César Gaviria, suggested spot checks, which meant accepting signatures in batches or by the kilo. That used to happen in Venezuela when elections were decided not at the ballot box but within a system of machinery to manipulate public opinion.

Two judges from the electoral division of the Supreme Court, their confidence boosted by that support, went over the head of its president, Iván Rincón, and the Constitutional Court on 15 March, and declared the appeal lodged by Democratic Coordination on 8 March to be valid. They ordered that the count should include 876,017 doubtful signatures, bringing the total to 2,708,510, enough to justify the referendum. They also reversed the burden of proof: it was for citizens to declare that they had not signed. That triggered another procedural battle and aggravated the instability.

But even if the opposition does snatch victory in the referendum, the yes vote would have to obtain, in 24 hours without fraud, one more vote than the 3,757,733 Chávez got when he was elected – and more votes than the no votes of his supporters. Given the statistics and the balance of power, that is unlikely. That is why more radical elements, helped by Washington and the OAS secretary general, are inclined to continue fostering a chaos that could lead to a Haitian-style end to the crisis. But there are two obstacles to that: Hugo Chávez is not Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Venezuela is not Haiti.

(1) See “Venezuela: a coup countered“, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, May 2002.

(2) See “Venezuela’s press power“, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, August 2002.

(3) The president’s pejorative term for opponents.

(4) The death of three soldiers in Francia Square (Angel Salas, David Argüello and Félix Pinto), of the fiancées of two of them and of a 14-year-old girl resulted in the same kind of manipulation and absolute silence thereafter. A suspect, Sifonte Nuñez, later arrested, claims to have acted on the orders of two dissident officers, General Felipe Rodríguez and Colonel Yucepe Pilieri, because they suspected the victims of passing information to Bolivarian circles (an organisation with popular support close to the government).

(5) BBC, London, 13 December 2002.

(6) On 27 February 1989, following a structural adjustment imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the population rose and Caracas was plundered; 3,000 people were killed when the rebellion was put down.

(7) Funding groups working to destabilise the government in Venezuela, the NED was also funding a number of dissident Cuban journalists arrested in Havana between 3-7 April 2003. The list of funded organisations can be found on the website of the Venezuela Solidarity Committee: www.venezuelafoia.info/ or on the NED’s website

(8) See “Venezuela: the promise of land for the people“, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, October 2003.

(9) Article 72 of the constitution also covers mayors and governors. The reafirmazo was preceded, from 21- 24 November, by a consultation with members of parliament from the majority and 37 from the opposition.

(10) El Nacional, Caracas, 1 December 2003.

(11) El Nacional, 30 November 2003.

(12) With a total of 12,012,118 eligible voters, that would require 8,408,483 signatures.

(13) Jimmy Carter, “Venezuela Trip Report: January 25-27 2004”, The Carter Centre, 30 January 2004; www.cartercenter.org

(14) El Universal, 4 March 2004.

Translated by Julie Stoker