Venezuela News Summary #73 – Term Limit Referendum

Venezuela News Summary #73 - Feb. 15, 2009 Term Limit Referendum

I. Venezuelans Vote to Eliminate Two-Term Limit on All Elected Office 54.4% to 45.6%
Venezuelans went to the polls yesterday and supported a constitutional amendment to eliminate the two-term limit on all elected offices. At 9:30pm Sunday night, February 15th, three and a half hours after polls closed and with nearly 95% of votes counted, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council announced that Venezuelans had voted nearly 55% in favor of the constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits. Chávez supporters took to the streets, to celebrate the nearly 9-point victory margin with enthusiasm, as it will allow President Hugo Chávez to run for a third full term in 2012. Thousands descended on Venezuela’s presidencial palace, Miraflores, where President Chavez addressed the crowd. According to the Electoral Council, participation was relatively high. Just under 70% of the 16 million registered to vote, cast their ballot on Sunday. This is roughly two million more voters than in 2007, during the failed constitutional reform referendum that would have altered 70 articles of Venezuela’s constitution. Chávez and his supporters had argued that the elimination of term limits is necessary to allow Chávez to govern for longer than the four years remaining in his term, in order to complete Venezuela’s transition to “Bolivarian Socialism.” http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4213

II. Chávez Promises Continuation of Project to Create Socialist Democracy in Venezuela
Chavez spent most of the speech talking about the problems that need to be dealt with, and what needs to be done next. Chavez said, quote “Truth has won against lies.” He included the opposition in the victory, saying quote, “It’s a victory for Venezuela and they are part of Venezuela.” Chavez also saw the result as a boost for the socialist project and invited the people to strengthen their effort towards the construction of true socialism. The president encouraged supporters to again go on a push with the “3R” campaign of “Revision, Rectification, and Revolutionary Re-launch.” Chavez also said the republic needs new institutions, with truly new men and women. Chavez declared his life at the service of the people, and suggested that the following week be a “week of love”- and free of political themes. The Venezuelan President also announced his pre-candidacy for the 2012 presidency, meaning that his United Socialist Party of Venezuela will decide in internal primary elections whether Chavez will become the party’s candidate for president. Chavez announced from the balcony that the first message of congratulations he had received was from the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, who congratulated him on the tremendous victory. Later, Bolivian president Evo Morales, and the Spanish government also congratulated Chavez for the results.

III. Venezuelans Vote Peacefully Over whether to Amend Constitution
Sunday’s electoral process was calm with few irregularies reported. According to the National Electoral Council, all voting centers were open by 9am, and stayed open until 6pm or later, if there were still people waiting in line. Most Venezuelans said the voting machines were quick and easy, and they encouraged their fellow citizens to exercise their democratic rights. Observers reported that there were very few long lines. Short voting lines were prevalent in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, as well as other major cities, including Mérida, San Cristobal, Maracaibo, and Maracay. Government officials said this is because Venezuelans are only voting on a single, yes-or-no question. People in the street told Venezuelanalysis they expect most to vote in the late afternoon, perhaps because they had been up late celebrating Valentine’s Day the night before. The National Guard and other security officers maintained a well-marked security perimeter around voting centers, and treated voters and observers with courtesy. In Mérida a truck playing the reveille bugle call drove through the city from 3am on, to wake up voters and voting booth attendees. The voting process was identical to that of the regional elections in November last year. The National Guard arrived at 4am, and was responsible for managing the lines at the various stages and checking ID’s before people went inside. Inside, people lined up outside their voting room until they were let in. They showed their identification at a table, put their fingerprints next to their name, were asked if they knew how to vote, then went behind a cardboard screen to the computer, where they marked their vote on a touch screen. The computer printed out a hard copy of their vote, which they placed in a ballot box. Finally, they dipped their small finger in indelible ink, to mark who had voted during the day. This referendum is the second ever totally automated national election in Venezuela, out of a total of 13 electoral cycles the country has undergone since Chavez was elected ten years ago. In contrast to previous elections, this voting day was marked by relatively few acts of politically motivated violence. The only major incident of violence was a burglary and vandalism of the social work school at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas early Sunday morning. Burglars identifying themselves as members of the opposition group Bandera Roja broke windows, set fire to paperwork, broke furniture, and spray painted the anti-amendment slogan, “No means No,” on the walls. More than 11,000 voting centers were set up across the country in addition to more than 100 voting centers in overseas embassies and consulates. On December 1 President Hugo Chavez had called on his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela to campaign for the constitutional change. In January the national assembly approved it, and then put before the Venezuelan people in this weekend’s national referendum vote.

IV. Venezuelan Elections Transparent and Exemplary, International Observers Report
On Monday, International observers of Venezuela’s referendum praised the security, transparency, and organization of Venezuela’s electoral system, calling it an example for the region and the world. In a press conference on Monday, Brazilian delegate Max Altman commented on the impressive electoral system which reinforced the secrecy of the vote. Altman further highlighted the enthusiastic participation of Venezuelan voters. A non-partisan national electoral observation organization called Ojo Electoral noted the quote, “tranquility and normality” of the voting on Sunday. Ojo Electoral spokesperson Luis Lander reported that the Venezuelan National Guard, which was deployed to secure voting centers across the country, displayed “correct behavior” throughout the day. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4219

V. Hundreds of Thousands of Venezuelans Rally as Campaign for Amendment Closes
No campaigning was allowed on Sunday or Saturday, so both those in support and against the referendum rallied and marched last Thursday and Friday, to close off their campaigns. In Caracas late last week, a march of hundreds of thousands of amendment supporters began at 10 AM in the poor Caracas barrio of Petare, and then marched across the city to the large Bolivar Avenue. Helicopter footage of the Bolivar Avenue concentration showed the street and parallel roads filled with red-dressed supporters for about 15-20 blocks. President Hugo Chavez arrived around 5 o’clock, where he joined the entire crowd in singing the national anthem, then gave the keynote speech. Meanwhile, the opposition held a small rally in the Brion plaza, Chacaito, Caracas. In a reference to Venezuela’s high murder rate, opposition youth also put red paint in a large fountain in the Plaza Altamira, to make it look like it was full of blood, and accompanied with a large banner that said, “10 years of revolution, 10 years of blood, 150,000 deaths.” http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4204

VI. Fired Workers Protest Outside Venezuelan Opposition Mayor’s Office
After over 7,000 workers were fired by the recently elected opposition Mayor of Greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, some of the workers protested, prompting accusations over the roll of mayoral responsibilities. Of the workers who were fired from the Metropolitan city offices, more than 200 were people with disabilities, 250 were elderly, and 120 were pregnant women. The workers’ contracts were not renewed on 31 December 2008, but they argue that their right to work is guaranteed in the constitution. According to Venezuelan vice president, Ramon Carrizales, 18,000 people in total have been fired from public offices won by opposition mayors in the regional elections last November. Last Tuesday over 300 people with disabilities protested in front of the Mayor headquarters in Caracas, calling on the Mayor to re-hire them. They read a statement rejecting Ledezma’s assertions that they were criminals and “armed occupying groups on the edge of the law.” In November 2006 the Disabilities Law was passed, guaranteeing people with motor, auditory, intellectual and visual disabilities medical assistance and ensuring their incorporation in the workforce. Companies, regardless of size must ensure that 5% of their hired workforce includes people with disabilities. Some of the fired workers have now decided to go on a hunger strike until mayor Ledezma is willing to talk. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4198

VII. Venezuelan Jewish Community “Profoundly Grateful and Moved” by Government’s Efforts
After meeting with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan Israeli Association publicly expressed its appreciation of the government’s prompt denunciation and successful criminal investigation of the recent attack on the Caracas Synagogue. Elias Farache, President of the Venezuelan Israeli Association individually thanked each of the top government officials who publicly declared their repudiation of the January 30th burglary and vandalism of the synagogue. Reading a public statement to the press, Farache recognized the government’s commitment to supporting the Jewish community in Venezuela and fighting anti-Semitism. One week ago, last Monday, Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami announced eleven suspects had been arrested for the burglary and vandalism of the synagogue, including the security guard and the rabbi’s bodyguard, who allegedly intended to steal money from the synagogue’s coffers. El Aissami said Monday that the burglers anti-Semitic vandilism was a diversion meant to impede the investigation and direct blame toward the government, which had dismissed the Israeli ambassador in January to protest Israel’s assault on the Gaza strip. Amidst a heated campaign against the proposed constitutional amendment, Venezuelan opposition leaders accused the government and their allies of encouraging the attacks on the synagogue. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4205

The victory for the pro-Chavez camp will undoubtedly be covered in the international press. To analysis the likely reaction, members of the US-based organization, Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting, or FAIR, published the following article with Common Dreams this week, entitled Venezuela’s Referendum: Media’s Double Standards…

XIII. Venezuela’s Referendum: Media’s Double Standards
With Sunday’s Venezuelan referendum on term limits, we can expect to hear a lot about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s quote, “plan to become president for life” and its reflection on quote “Venezuela’s battered democracy”–as the New York Times editors put it around the time of Venezuela’s last (failed) term limits referendum. But when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s efforts to lift term limits succeeded in 2005, the U.S. media took little notice, and Uribe’s reputation as the U.S.’s favorite ‘democrat’ in the region remained intact. In Colombia, the lifting of term limits was a big story, in good part because the Colombian courts have sentenced the congress member who cast the deciding vote on the amendment to almost four years in prison for taking bribes from Uribe aides in exchange for her vote. And though Uribe supporters are collecting signatures to get him on the ballot for 2010 elections, the bribery affair has caused Colombian courts to raise questions about Uribe’s eligibility. Yet Uribe’s scandal-ridden term limits law was treated as far less newsworthy by U.S. editors than the Venezuelan government’s moves to put the question of term limits to the popular ballot. A search of “Álvaro Uribe and “term limits” in the Nexis database of U.S. newspapers and wires turns up 60 articles, in contrast to 1003 articles about Chávez and term limits. A spot check reveals that even the articles mentioning Uribe and “term limits” were often about Chávez’s efforts to lift term limits, not Uribe’s. Similarly, nearly 300 articles mentioned both Chávez and “president for life,” while only 30 articles mention Uribe and that epithet–but virtually all of those 30 were again referring to Chávez’s perceived power grabs, not Uribe’s. This discrepancy reinforces the findings of a recent FAIR study which found that editors at major U.S. papers portray Colombia as a safer haven for human rights and democracy than Venezuela, despite Colombia’s vastly more dismal record. It would seem the role of U.S. reporting and opinion on Venezuela (and Colombia) is less about informing the public about real threats to democracy and human rights in Latin America than it is about serving as a propaganda arm of U.S. foreign policy. One would be wise to remember this when reading about Venezuela’s referendum this weekend. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/4214