15A – Testimonial from the Ground in Venezuela

At 3 am on the dot on August 15, the “toque de Diana”, the trumpet call to battle, rang joyfully throughout Caracas. - A report from the streets of Caracas.

At 3am on the dot on August 15, the “toque de Diana”, the trumpet call to battle, rang joyfully throughout Caracas. Just as President Chavez had suggested to his supporters, Venezuelans of all classes and sectors rose in the wee hours of dawn to position themselves in line for the highly anticipated opportunity to vote against or for a recall of President Chavez’s mandate. Shouts of “Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va” were heard throughout the streets of Caracas, coming from behind windows and doors adorned with red “NO” posters, from which confident citizens emerged ready to ratify the legitimacy and continuity of the controversial Venezuelan Head of State’s term.

Having been in Caracas and other states in Venezuela during the prior weeks, it seemed apparent that Chavez supporters would triumph – the “NO” (to the recall) signs overwhelmingly outnumbered those proclaiming “SI” (Yes) to recall Chavez, and caravans and marches supporting the President were numerous and visible in the days before the referendum. Credible pre-referendum polls from international and Venezuelan pollsters all showed a clear tendency that Chavez had an average of 10% points above the opposition, a fact more than evident on the ground in Venezuela.

Yet, concerns of potential fraud in the vote—on both sides—fluttered around the nation and 15A became a longed-for date for millions to re-affirm their support for a president who had proven, through effective social programs, his intent to diminish poverty and give Venezuela’s traditionally excluded minority a voice in government and the power to participate actively in determining their collective future.

I spent the early morning hours of 15A on line at a voting location in the very center of Caracas – Los Bomberos de Nuevo Circo – scooping out the scene. The air on line was jittery and filled with anxiety, anticipation, tension and determination to vote, no matter how long it took. There were nervous and uncertain glances and steadfast looks ready to jump at the first sign of fraud. After more than one hour past the scheduled opening time of 6am, I began to inquire about delays. As an accredited international press observer, I was able to enter the voting center and speak to the witnesses and members of the referendum voting tables. As in many voting centers, some of the designated members and technicians were late and the new digital biometrics machines were missing their security codes. As another hour passed with no codes to access the biometrics machines and no one responding to calls for assistance, the line outside grew about one mile longer.

On the brink of the third hour of delay, several opposition members of the voting center stated they would open the tables and bypass the biometrics machines (fingerprint scanners), a proposal that violated the regulations set forth by the National Elections Council (“CNE”), the official electoral authority. The biometrics machines, a $60 million venture, had been added to the process to ensure against fraud–bypassing their use would defeat this costly preventative measure. Considering that the recent signature drive calling for the recall referendum was rampant with fraud (more than 300,000 signatures were thrown out as fraudulent and widespread evidence was found of more 50,000 signers using deceased citizens identification cards), the biometrics machines were a necessary safeguard. As a civil, yet tense discussion erupted between the opposition majority and pro-Chavez minority at this voting center on whether to begin the voting process with no biometrics, a CNE official arrived with the codes. Once the security codes were inputted and the machines activated, the voting process officially began. Despite the 3-hour delay, Venezuelans were happy to move along in line and exercise their highly coveted right to vote, many for the first time.

I spent 3 hours monitoring and observing the voting process at this center, and with only a few minor irregularities due to a massive voter turnout and new procedures, everything moved along smoothly with civility and full transparency. I did have the unexpected opportunity to actually witness some unfortunate individual attempt to vote with a deceased citizen’s identification card. As planned, the biometrics machine caught this fraudulent actor before he made it to the voting machine.

At about 2pm, I moved on throughout the city to observe several other centers in more popular and poorer sectors. In El Valle, a working class neighborhood, lines were extremely long but highly organized. Voters had provided chairs, tents, refreshments and music for all on line. Food and drink were passed around communally, and enlightening discussions held. In some areas, people had been waiting since 4am on line, but were adamant to make it to the voting polls and do their civil duty. Spirits were high and the “NO” vote was overwhelmingly evident by red shirts, hats, bandanas and wraps that adorned those on line. The level of kindness and civility extended even to those observing, as one woman gave me some arepas (a typical Venezuelan food) for lunch.

In the poor neighborhood of 23 de Enero, known for its heightened level or social organization and community work, lines wrapped around mountain roads and made passage very difficult. Music with Venezuelan rhythms and lyrics supporting Chavez blasted from cars and stacked cement houses, and the environment was electric and festive in the streets. One man on a very long line told me – you won’t find any anti-Chavez people up here, they’d never come into this zone. Over and over people assured me that everyone on line was a “NO” vote and that they would remain on line until the last vote was cast and then head down the mountain to Miraflores, the presidential palace, for the victory celebration.

In the late afternoon, I decided the streets looked good – no incidents of violence had been reported and things seemed very peaceful and organized. That is, until I turned on the television. I went to monitor the private media with the Comando Maisanta, President Chavez’s designated campaign team, and was witness to a world apart from that I had just seen for more than 8 hours on the street. The private media were heavily hinting at an opposition victory and were only broadcasting images of voter concentrations in opposition-dominated wealthy zones in the eastern part of Caracas. The media scene was eerily similar to the days of the coup d’etat against President Chavez back on April 11-12, 2002. All the private media were broadcasting montage images and interviewing opposition spokespeople who were providing a manipulated version of reality. Anyone at home watching those channels would clearly believe that the opposition was way ahead in the polls and that Chavez’s recall was guaranteed.

However, exit polls from international pollsters showed Chavez leading with an even larger margin than before the referendum – an approximate 60% for the NO vote and 40% for the SI vote. This remained the same throughout the day. But the opposition reported the inverse – their exit polls, conducted with a clipboard and an inquisitive Sumate representative (Sumate is an organization funded by the US-government that has been spearheading the recall referendum campaign and is run by a team of virulently anti-Chavez directors), showed a 60% lead for the opposition, and a 40% for Chavez, with 40% of those questioned refusing to supply an answer. Considering that credible polls prior to the referendum showed Chavez in the lead, those exit polls that mirrored that same result seemed the most on point.

By late afternoon, the first opposition fraud attempt had been thwarted. A CD was discovered with a montage of CNE President Francisco Carrasquero allegedly making a declaration at 8pm that evening that Chavez had been successfully recalled. Despite the opposition’s claim that the government had “invented the story to distract from their inevitable loss”, credible intelligence shows the CD montage was part of a greater fraud that involved the Coordinadora Democratica and particularly, Miranda state governor Enrique Mendoza.

The private media, still believing the fraud would be successful, continued to indicate that Chavez was losing, despite evidence to the contrary. In the late afternoon, former president Jimmy Carter, head of the Carter Center, one of the primary international observers of the referendum, and Cesar Gaviria, soon-to-be-former Secretary General of the Organization of American States (“OAS”), gave a press conference calling for neither side to release preliminary or anticipated results in accordance with the CNE regulations. They reminded Venezuelans that only the CNE was able to provide the official numbers that would be certified by the international community. Nevertheless, no more than one hour after this call to heed the law, Rafael Poleo, an opposition leader, appeared on RCTV, a fervent anti-Chavez station, claiming the opposition was leading by 60%.

By nightfall, voter lines were still extraordinarily long, and analysts were declaring the lowest level of voter abstention in Venezuelan history. Results later revealed abstention at 22%, an unprecedented figure. As nearly 10 million (out of 14million registered voters), exercised their right to vote, the polls remained open until midnight, ensuring that every voter had the chance to participate. The private media continued to show images from earlier in the day of long lines in dense opposition zones, filled with celebratory citizens and cheerful crowds claiming victory. But as polls began to close in the evening, results showed the 60-40 tendency favoring Chavez remaining strong.

At about 10pm, RCTV began showing the movie “Indecent Proposal”, and we knew that we had truly won. Had the opposition been confident of their lead, they would have been broadcasting images of their festivities and victorious celebrations. Instead, they remained behind closed doors, brewing and concocting fraudulent plans to interfere with the decision of Venezuela’s majority. Around 11pm, I went to the Presidential Palace to watch the final results with the core command. It was about 1am when we learned of the deceitful plans of the opposition “Democratic Coordinator” (“CD”). They refused to recognize the results and had told the Carter Center and the OAS that they had evidence of a “massive fraud.”

Both the Carter Center and the OAS had told the CD they were ready to certify the CNE results, which showed the “NO” vote winning by 58% to 42%. Heavily tense conversations were held back and forth between Jimmy Carter, the OAS and the CD, as the opposition attempted to convince the international observers that fraud induced Chavez’s triumph. The CNE had tallied up 94% of the votes and a quick count showed Chavez winning by more than 1 million votes. Back at Miraflores, the ambience was tense and restrained – we all wanted to celebrate, but anxiety of an opposition fraud held us back. At about 4am, we knew the CNE was ready to release the results and that Carter was ready to certify. Unfortunately, Cesar Gaviria, known for his affinity to the opposition, had declared his support for the CD and his refusal to certify the CNE’s official results. As part of the plan to discredit the CNE as the official arbitrator of this process, two outspoken opposition rectors gave a disheveled press conference stating on the record their refusal to certify the preliminary results of the CNE.

Despite this middle of the night division, Carrasquero, the CNE President, declared on national television that the “NO” vote had won 58% to 42%, as expected. In Miraflores, we pushed our still-remaining concerns aside and celebrated. At about 4:45am, a triumphant Chavez addressed the public from the Balcon del Pueblo, a balcony facing the street outside the palace. An emotional and jubilant national anthem was sung by thousands celebrating a third victory over an opposition determined to oust this democratically elected, and now democratically ratified, President by any means. A coup had failed, a 64-day long illegal strike had been quashed and now, a recall referendum had been defeated by a landslide majority.

But as I left the palace at 6am on the 16th, the worry of Cesar Gaviria’s refusal to certify the results overcame my feelings of victory. The battle was not yet over for the Venezuelan people.

The opposition and their media implemented a campaign of “Mega Fraud” on Monday morning, in an attempt to rally their supporters around demands for Carter and the OAS to refuse certification of the official referendum results. However, to their disappointment, Carter and the OAS gave a press conference during midday, fully backing the CNE results and stating that no evidence of fraud whatsoever had been evident in the process. In fact, both credible observers went so far as to state that any fraud in the vote tallying or voting procedure would have been “impossible”. What had changed Gaviria’s mind? The Brazilian Ambassador to the OAS, the new sworn in Secretary General taking over for Gaviria, who surprisingly appeared by Gaviria’s side in the press conference probably had a lot to do with the change of opinion.

Right after the Carter Center and OAS certifications were finalized and public, fireworks went off around Caracas and caravans filled the streets – the color of red penetrating every corner and zone throughout the city, except of course in the eastern part of town, where the opposition had called its supporters into the streets to protest the “chavista” Jimmy Carter and OAS.

The international press has finally accepted the reality in Venezuela – Chavez has the votes and the support of the majority. The question remains as to whether an opposition, spoiled and immature, will stand tall and do the same. As of today, the CD still presses for audits and recounts and declarations of fraud from international observers. Yet none of the credible entities have endorsed their claims. The US State Department has accepted the results, which clearly indicates that the recall is over and has been derailed, especially considering that the US government endorsed the coup against Chavez back in 2002, led by the same opposition now crying fraud. The fact that the US government has separated from the opposition in this issue shows that the game is over, at least for now. Even the New York Times has accepted and admitted the triumph of the Venezuelan people, and they too had originally applauded the coup.

On line at immigration in the Miami International Airport, I had the fortunate chance to be positioned between two “international observers” returning from Venezuela (with Miami-Cuban accents). They began to talk about the recall, affirming its transparency, and quickly fell into a discussion about this “unfortunate” result that would now lead Venezuela into destruction. Both men stated that the “fraud” must have been programmed into the software, because they themselves had witnessed the transparency and legitimacy of the voting machines and process. Other Venezuelans in line joined in the conversation, expressing grief about the result and adamantly proclaiming a “mega-fraud” was in the works. One of the “observers” stated that Chavez was embarking on a “modern dictatorship”, utilizing democratic processes to fraudulently consolidate an authoritarian rule. The other blamed Venezuelans for ratifying the new constitution back in 1999, claiming that it was too concrete and specific and stating that it was better to have a “bad” constitution like that of the US that permits vast powers and wide interpretation, than a “good” one such as the Venezuelan, which clearly details rights and powers and is harder to manipulate.

The private media have been so effective in their disinformation campaign that many average Venezuelans who oppose Chavez really believe they are the majority and that only fraud could have defeated the recall. A client called me today, ignorant as to my political affinity, to express her regrets as to the outcome of the recall. Taken aback I said “how can you be sorry about a victory for democracy?” The Venezuelan people have spoken clearly and transparently in an unprecedented and civil democratic process. It is time that our voices be heard over those of a private media, run by an elite minority that has manipulated the world into believing a parallel reality exists in Venezuela.

President Chavez’s mandate has been ratified 3 times by approximately the same percentage (60%). The triumph of 15A resides by the victory of April 13, 2002, when Venezuelans defeated a violent coup d’etat and restored constitutional authority. Venezuelans of the opposition and the international community must now accept the undeniable voice of the majority and move towards reconciliation and co-existence.

*Eva Golinger is a Venezuelan-American attorney residing in New York City. She is currently investigating the United States intervention in Venezuela and financing of the opposition movement. Her investigation can be followed on www.venezuelafoia.info.