Venezuela’s Discrimination of Poor Voters Prompts Measures

A a recall referendum on Chavez approaches, elections officials announced measures to alleviate the disparity in the number of voting centers between working-class and wealthier neighborhoods

All citizens should have equal opportunity to exercise their voting rights, according the CNE board member Jorge Rodriguez
Credit: Venpres

Caracas, Venezuela. Jun 17, 2004 ( As the August 15 recall referendum on President Chavez’s mandate approaches, pro-government sectors have complained to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) about the disparity in the number of voting centers between working-class and wealthier neighborhoods.

During a press conference last Tuesday, Jorge Rodriguez, member of the board of directors of the CNE, expressed his “indignation due to the absolutely lack of democracy, lack of justice, and of equality with regard to the distribution of voting centers.”

Rodriguez, who is serving at the CNE since late last year, when Venezuela’s Supreme Court appointed him and other directors to lead the elections commission, criticized the way the voting centers have traditionally been set up, especially in big urban centers. After reviewing the voting centers’ distribution by zone and population in Caracas and other cities, Rodriguez concluded that their unequal distribution amounts to discrimination against the poor.

A high percentage the population of the valley of Caracas, who live in shanty towns built in the city’s hills, must travel long distances to find their assigned voting place as none is located in those hills, according to Rodriguez.

“In Las Minas de Baruta (a predominantly working-class zone outside Caracas), there are 25.000 citizens registered to vote, but only 4 voting centers. In the same municipality, in El Cafetal (a middle, and upper-middle class sector), there are 40.000 registered voters, and 40 voting centers.”

Rodriguez also mentioned the case of El Paraiso, a middle-class neighborhood in southwestern Caracas, with 14 voting centers. The working-class neighborhood next to it, La Cota 905, with a similar population, only has only one voting center.

“This situation repeats itself throughout the country, and it clearly violates the principles of equality of rights, especially human rights as expressed by the Constitution,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez announced that, in response to this problem, the CNE started a study to determine where new voting places could be opened “so that all citizens have equal opportunity to exercise their voting rights.”

“The United States has the same problem in the South,” said a Hector Madera, a reporter for Negro Primero community radio, who covered Rodriguez’s press conference. “But the goal of the dominant classes there is to prevent poor blacks and Hispanics from voting, and artificially causing long lines is one of the tactics they use as people get discouraged from voting,” Madera said.

Government officials and pro-government political commentators have also complained about the fact that opinion polls are inaccurate as polling companies don’t take into account poor areas of the cities.

The 40% – 50% of the population which according to some polls approve of Chavez’s presidency is concentrated in working-class zones. These zones traditionally have high abstention rates, as an important percentage of their inhabitants who are eligible to vote, don’t have non-expired ID cards or are not registered to vote.

Part of the government’s strategy is to get the poor to get or renew their national ID card, and to register to vote. “It hurts them that we are finally issuing ID cards for the poor,” said Chavez last night during his new weekly radio program “Patrolling with Chavez”. “Everybody has the right to vote, to participate, and to ratify mandates. This is a participatory democracy,” said Chavez.

Venezuelans traditionally have to stand in line for several hours to have their ID cards issued or renewed, and then wait several months to get receive their cards. Since last year, the government has set up ID card centers at special locations, and it is using modern machines that allow citizens to obtain their cards in minutes.