In the wealthy Caracas neighborhood of Altamira would-be voters are experiencing extended delays, and some have spent as much as 12 hours waiting in line. Across town in the working-class neighborhood of Petare, people have been in line since 4 am. In the upper class neighborhood of Altamira, where voters are almost unanimously against President Chávez, they are blaming the delays on Chavista sabotage; and in Petare, a bastion of Chávez support, the chaos is the now familiar result of opposition dirty tricks.
|Sumate volunteer conducting an exit poll in wealthy Caracas district|
Credit: Gregory Wilpert
Outside one of the Altamira voting centers, Súmate volunteers conduct exit polls and provide support for those still in line. Súmate, a self-described civil association, is an arm of the opposition umbrella group the Democratic Coordinator. According to Súmate, there are forty-five thousand of these volunteers all over the country—at least one at every single voting station, and at those voting stations deemed more important, there are as many as twenty.
Altamira, apparently, is one such location. Twenty conscripts stand around outside the voting center, clipboard in hand waiting for unsuspecting citizens to emerge, fresh from having voted. “Good afternoon,” they purr, “would you mind telling us if you voted ‘Yes’ or ‘No’?” and “Yes, yes, yes,” is the most common response.
“How many ‘No’ votes have you received?” I asked, playing the naïve reporter.
“Let’s see,” she offered, tapping her tennis shoes, “there are no ‘Nos’ on this page, and one on this page. I have one ‘No’.”
“Just one?” I persisted.
“Well, I don’t know about the others, but I have just one,” she answered, then, spotting some emerging voters in the distance, she scampered of to collect more “Yeses.”
According to co-director Maria Corina Machado, Súmate is an objective non-partisan civil association. When asked why Súmate has worked exclusively with the Venezuelan opposition since its inception in 2002, Machado said that their overtures to the government were regularly rebuffed. Machado neglected to mention that one of the reasons the government may have been hesitant to work with her group is because she was a participant in the 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chávez—she signed the infamous decree of dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona. She is currently being investigated for treason, for having received funds from a foreign government (the U.S.) earmarked for ousting the Chavez government.
Due to Súmate’s infamy as an arm of Venezuela’s opposition umbrella group the Democratic Coordinador, Machado noted that volunteers stationed in Chavista neighborhoods would not reveal their identities. Since campaigning ended on Thursday, and political groups are not permitted to solicit votes at voting centers on Sunday, Súmate has instructed its volunteers to pose as ‘good samaritans’.
The role of the volunteers, according Machado, is to help citizens to resolve any problems they may encounter during the voting process. For example, “if someone comes to a voting center to vote and their name’s not on the list…that will happen.”
According to one of Súmate’s Altamira volunteers, “we are here to provide food for the people in line, to provide them with water, to help them in any way we can to facilitate the voting process. And to do exit polls, to see if they voted ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”
“And you have volunteers providing food in all the lines all over the country?”
“Yes, absolutely. Everywhere,” responded another white-clad Súmate pollster.
“But I was just in Petare, a very Chavista neighbourhood, and I didn’t notice anyone from Súmate handing out food or water,” I said coyly.
“That’s because the people in those neighbourhoods don’t like the Coordinadora, not because the Coordinadora doesn’t want to help them,” she exclaimed, visibly perturbed.
“So if you can’t get into Chavista neighborhoods, you can’t do exit polls there, right?” I asked.
“No…” she hesitated, “I’m sure they are doing exit polls everywhere.” End of interview.
In light of Democratic Coordinator leader Enrique Mendoza’s pronouncement last week that he would be releasing his exit poll results this afternoon, Súmate’s less than representative polling may be cause for concern.
At this point, the opposition seems to be more or less aware of the likelihood that they will lose today’s vote. And with the optimistic attitudes of both the Carter Center and the Organization of American States regarding the transparency of the voting process, it would appear that a Chávez victory will have to be grudgingly accepted by at least those sectors of the opposition nominally committed to the democratic process.
In that case, perhaps the best that they can hope for is to cast some doubt on the process; to exaggerate some irregularities, to create others. That way, they can refer in passing to problems with the referendum results for the rest of Chávez’ tenure as President, never going into any detail, but perpetuating the international stereotype that Chávez has authoritarian tendencies.And releasing exit polls that directly contradict the official results may be the best way of accomplishing this.