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Why four million Venezuelans cannot turn the page

By Gustavo Coronel

September 9, 2004 - A recent meeting at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC, had as its main theme the Venezuelan Presidential Referendum, the transparency of this process and an attempt at answering the question: Should Venezuelans turn the page and look ahead? The quality of the participants in this off-the-record dialogue and the excellent manner in which the moderators conducted it allowed for a very interesting exchange. I remember seeing there Miss Jennifer McCoy, from The Carter Center; Former Ambassador to Venezuela Donna Hrinak; former Bolivian President Sanchez de Lozada; Ricardo Hausmann and Roberto Rigobon from Harvard and MIT; Alberto Quiros, a leading negotiator for the Venezuelan opposition; Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez; Pedro Mario Burelli; Isabel Granier; Chris Sabatini from The National Endowment for Democracy; veteran journalist Everett Bauman; two young and bright envoys from Súmate, the Venezuelan NGO and many other people following the Venezuelan situation. What follows is not a disclosure of what was said there but a summary of the positions held by the main participants, already made known by them elsewhere and essentially reasserted during the meeting.

Many well-known US entities, from The Carter Center to The New York Times, have been urging Venezuelans to "turn the page" and leave the claims of a fraudulent Presidential Referendum behind. The NY Times has gone as far as telling the opposition to "stop speaking on behalf of the Venezuelan people." Reading and listening to them, one tends to feel guilty for being so stubborn. After all, one does not want to become a member of those pathetic groups that still claim that Elvis is still alive, or that Gardel did not really die in a plane crash in Medellin, or that American astronauts really landed in the Arizona desert and not on the moon, or that the twin-towers were destroyed on the orders of the US President to justify the invasion of Iraq. I hate to be considered as one of those die-hard recalcitrants.

And yet, I am among the four million "deluded" Venezuelans who do not feel like turning the page, just yet. I will explain my reasons. I will start with an anecdote told by Ricardo Hausmann, a distinguished Venezuelan economist, to the Inter-American Dialogue audience (no harm in disclosing this). Hausmann said something like: "I wonder where the US would be if someone had convinced public opinion that the Watergate affair was just a small matter of some crazy plumbers and that the incident did not merit further attention." What developed at the end, added Hausmann, was due to the fact that many in the country did not accept turning that page.

The problem four million or more Venezuelans have with turning the page of the Presidential Referendum is that both the process leading to it and the way it was conducted are littered with documented and/or perceived irregularities, which are of enough severity, in a global sense, to render the referendum invalid and to justify, in the eyes of many, the strong perception that fraud was committed. And fraud is something that no loser can be asked to accept in good grace. What we are seeing in Venezuela today is not so much sour grapes as it is serious soul searching.

The process leading to the referendum started with three signature collection drives. The first one was invalidated for being extemporaneous and for not being monitored by the National Electoral Council (CNE). After the second collection process was done, more than 800,000 signatures were invalidated because the CNE arbitrarily changed the rules of the game after the fact, which forced a third process. The third process finally was accepted by the government, although the government controlled CNE did all they could to stop it. Just before the referendum took place, says Alberto Quiros, one of the negotiators for the opposition, a set of written rules were established which legally obliged both sides, according to a sentence from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ). These obligations included proper random auditing of 1% of the total votes and joint reviewing of the process before announcing results. These obligations, affirms Quiros, were openly and arbitrarily violated by the CNE. Furthermore, the opposition, as well as the observers, were prevented from monitoring the audit process, which was done according to the CNE's own choice and not in a random manner, as stipulated by both the opposition and the observers and as agreed in writing by all parties involved.

The argument of Quiros, which I find very strong, is that since the CNE violated the rules of the game, rules that had the strength of law, as stated by the TSJ, then, the process was invalid, illegal and that the CNE had staged a coup d'état. The fraud does not have to be proved, says Quiros, since all there is to know is already known: that the CNE violated the established rules of the game.

The process itself, add Ricardo Hausmann and Roberto Rigobon, from Harvard and MIT, had 99% of probabilities of being fraudulent. The explanation given by these members of Harvard and MIT is that the CNE, again, had changed the rules and that the tallies were printed in the Central offices of the CNE after they had been received in the Center and not before, at the level of each individual voting machine. In addition, Smartmatic lied when they said that there was no two-way communication between CNE headquarters and the individual machines. There was. In this manner, Haussman and Rigobon claim, the results could have been tampered with, as their statistic analysis suggests. They add that the CNE did not allow the opposition or the international observers (something that The Carter Center has corroborated) to properly monitor the CNE's computing center while this was being done, a restriction, which lends considerable strength to the assumption of fraud.

The Carter Center has admitted, in its preliminary findings, that the process was plagued with irregularities and that the current structure and composition of the CNE are unreliable and unfit to conduct an impartial electoral process. However, they still formally insist that they have not seen evidence of fraud. This is their official position, although their final report on the Venezuelan referendum will surely be highly critical of the CNE. Given the awkward situation they are in, these admissions by The Carter Center, once they are confirmed by the final report, will amount to an open disqualification of the Venezuelan Electoral Institution by one of the main international observers of the process. The probable outcome of this report is that we will never see The Carter Center again in Venezuela, in matters related to voting since they will have managed to dissatisfy both the opposition and the government. They probably decided that, strategically, they were much better off by giving their blessing to the official results given by the CNE, in order to disengage from the very complex Venezuelan situation. Lending support to the claims of fraud would have kept them in Venezuela for an indefinite period of time, something they did not want to do. So, they ran. If this was the basis for their decision, they are also running the risk of a significant loss of credibility, in case fraud could be substantiated. It seems to me that what could be called circumstantial evidence for fraud is becoming overwhelming: the statistical analyses coming from different experts, the arguments of Quiros, the report presented in Caracas by the opposition, the video showing the military tampering with the ballot boxes, the reports of individual observers which have been appearing in the press, the exit polls, the maneuvers by the CNE to switch thousands of voters from one geographical place to another just before the referendum took place, the incorporation in a few months of hundreds of thousands of aliens to the voting register. It must be remembered that when the CNE forced a third signature collection process, their argument to do so was that of "reasonable doubt." But, today, with much stronger reasons for "reasonable doubt," they insist that Venezuelans have to turn the page. It is this arrogant and asymmetric manner of conducting their duties what disqualifies Carrasquero, Rodriguez and Bataglini in the eyes of four million Venezuelans.

The case against turning the page of the referendum is so strong, both rationally and emotionally, that it is impossible to ask us to let go and forget. The Venezuelan air is highly poisoned, saturated with distrust and resentment. It will take a major political gesture from the part of the current regime to re- establish the minimum conditions for democracy in our country. Otherwise Chávez will enjoy an illusory victory and the people will be the big loser, as always.

The position of Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez is also known from his numerous public appearances. He claims that the opposition should stop playing "strategically" (sounding like a victim) and should start facing the need for true co-existence with the government. But it takes two to tango. One thing is clear. The first step in this direction has to be taken by a President that has six years insulting the opposition and excluding half of the nation from decision-making. I have said before and I repeat again that there is no way a regime can govern a country in which half the population (the half that generates most of the wealth that oil does not generate) is treated like second-class citizens. If this simple fact is not recognized by Chávez, who is the only one taking decisions in the current regime, there is no hope for democracy in Venezuela, at least while he is in power.

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