Rebuttal to the Venezuela Information Office
By Coordinadora Internacional of Venezuela
The Venezuela Information Office (VIO) has responded to the Washington Post’s editorial “A Coup by Technicality” of Friday, March 5, 2004, encouraging people to write letters to the Washington Post pointing out what they consider as mis-statements in the editorial. Copy of the message sent by the VIO is attached.
The Coordinadora Internacional de Venezuela, headquartered in Washington, DC, welcomes this invitation, but instead of pointing at any problems with the editorial, which we fully support, we feel that the arguments made by the VIO are misleading and false.
This report is a rebuttal to the arguments put forth by the VIO.
Control of the National Electoral Committee (CNE)
It is truly naive to expect that one will find a direct link from the President of the Republic to the CNE. However, public statements by the President, his Vice-President, ministers of his cabinet and close supporters representing his political party (MVR) over the past months, have shown a consistent trend to directly intervene in the decisions made by the CNE and a faithful acceptance of those interventions by the pro-government faction of the CNE board.
On November 30th of last year, before the signature collection process was over, the President of Venezuela condemned the act as a “mega fraud.” Based on CNE guidelines that prohibit intervention by other powers, in this case the Executive Branch, this was an illegal intervention by the President. Since that date, the President has spoken of the process as a “mega fraud” in almost all of his public statements, including his Sunday radio program ‘Alo Presidente’, providing misleading evidence breaching the Constitution and laws. To date, the CNE has not taken any actions against this illegal action by the Executive Branch.
Additional evidence of the President’s control over the CNE is his consistent violation of article 67 of the Constitution when he has promoted and appointed directly without consultation, candidates for Governors and Majors, before electoral campaign period has legally started. The CNE has not taken any actions against such violation.
Similarly, Mr. Diosdado Cabello, Secretary of Infrastructure and one of President’s Chavez closest allies, without disengaging from his position, has also made public statements on the Referendum signatures discussions. He has joined the “Comando Ayacucho”, a group formed by pro-government factions, and presented on TV and the print media clear statements against the signature process of the opposition. From the first week of the signature verification process he has confirmed that the opposition only gathered 1.8M signatures (the real number adds up to approximately 3.4M signatures). Coincidentally, that was the same figure that the President of the CNE announced after the first round of verifications of the signatures. The Vice-President, Jose Vicente Rangel, has made similar statements, along with the President’s TV and Radio deliveries. The electoral authorities have not condemned these actions of intervention by the Executive Branch.
The independence of the CNE is in serious doubt today consistently putting obstacles to the recall referendum. Controversial decisions made by the CNE have been made with a split 3-2 vote (not unanimous as was the original agreement of the board when they were pointed by the Supreme Court). The position of the pro-government members of the CNE Board has been in line with the Government’s positions contradicting the rule of law, as it is explained below.
The Washington Post’s statement that the CNE has made decisions based on nonexistent rules is true, and what the VIO says on its letter is false. The referendum regulations does not provide any rule stating that the voter cannot be assisted in the process of filling out the forms, as long as the voter signs and imprints his/her thumb print. This is common practice around the world, particularly in Venezuela where it is custom during the electoral processes for the CNE to show up with the forms previously filled out with the voters’ information, for him/her sign the voter role, and to imprint their thumb print after casting a secret vote. The CNE recent decision is putting the burden of the proof on the signature holders and created a new process (no stated in the regulations) where their signatures are put in observations and they have to prove that they actually signed the forms. Contradictorily, the CNE is proposing exactly the same process that it has questioned in the first place, by providing pre-filled forms with signature holders data of those labeled with “similar handwriting”, where they would only sign and stamp their thumb print to confirm that they did in fact sign the form in November. Is this not exactly what the CNE has claimed as been prohibited by their guidelines?
The VIO states that opposition members have acknowledged such prohibition in public statements. That is a manipulation of the truth, a consistent strategy followed by the government and its paid lobbyists. The only public documents available where this ‘prohibition’ is available, are an advertisement video clip and an instructional bulletin signed by only one of the five CNE board members. To avoid any further confusion, neither the referendum regulations nor any other legal document mention such prohibition. On the contrary, the CNE’s decision contradicts its own regulations and the rule of law by changing its own regulations to rule retroactively apply the similar handwriting criteria to signatures that had all ready been verified. It also violated the “good faith assumption” that characterizes the Venezuelan legal system by reverting the burden of the proof to signature holders. Both are serious violations of the rule of law.
Ironically, the pro-government supporters collected signatures to recall opposition deputies (Congressional Representatives) a week before the President’s signature took place and most of these forms had similar handwriting for personal information, as was the case of the opposition. However, the CNE board’s majority found no reasonable doubt on those signatures, considering them as valid without further objection. Is this an impartial decision made by an autonomous and independent body?
It is important to highlight that none of the signature collection forms and closure acts, signed by international and CNE designated observers, and with witnesses from both factions, have any observation denouncing any illegal practice that points to the “reasonable doubt” rationale that justified the CNE board majority’s decision.
The process’ authority
SUMATE is a NGO, not a political party, which has publicly expressed its position in relation to the Presidential Referendum. Moreover, it has served as an entity providing technical support for the verification of the opposition’s signatures. That seems to be the only reason to invalidate its depth and technical expertise in accordance to the VIO statement. It is important to highlight the signatures were also audited by an independent consulting firm. Therefore, the Washington Post’s affirmations with respect to SUMATE are also correct, whereas the assertions made by the Office concerning SUMATE are false.
President Chavez’s popular support
President Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidential elections in 1998 with 33% of the vote. In the 2000 elections, he won with 32% of the registered vote. The percentage of signatures collected to revoke him is roughly the same. When it comes down to measuring the President’s current popularity, polls show differing numbers. But what matters is that according to the Constitution, only 20% of the registered voters is needed to trigger a recall referendum: that is exactly what has been achieved to date with the signatures collected, and what the Government pretends to dissolve through the CNE. What we want is to clarify any doubts through the casting of votes. We want to see through an electoral process how many people support Chavez today and how many want him to go, after five years of bad governance. If Chavez Frias does in fact have 40% of popular support, there are even more reasons for President Chavez to count his popularity through real votes as stated in the Constitution. That would allow him to show the Washington Post and the rest of the world that the opposition is wrong. Unfortunately, that is not happening.
Number of signatures
The Washington Post’s statement that the opposition collected 3.488.747 signatures is correct. This was the number of signatures given to the CNE, and there are certified copies of these forms signed and stamped by the CNE itself. What is false is what the VIO says regarding the fact that no one has questioned the number of signatures later presented by the CNE. Of course it has been questioned: by the opposition, the printed media, business associations, Unions, and independent analysts.
The signatures presented by the CNE are wrong, not only because there is a difference of 381,000 signatures between the number put forth by the CNE and the opposition, but because the rest of the signatures have not yet been accepted as valid. These include signatures that need to be ‘repaired’ and the other two invalid categories defined by the CNE. In order to disperse doubts, the opposition has asked the CNE to make available the database it is using to make these arguments. The number of signatures that appeared on the database, made available to the opposition on Sunday, March 7th, are not consistent with the number of signatures made public by Francisco Carrasquero, the President of the CNE on national TV and Radio.
However, once the discrepancy between the number put forth by the President of the CNE and the number that appears on the database is resolved, the real question is whether there are enough signatures to call for a recall referendum. For a number of different reasons, the CNE has invalidated 1.6 million signatures presented to this institution by the opposition, and the criteria after which these where heeded invalid is questionable.
The criteria used by the CNE deeming invalid more than 50% of the signatures was challenged by the OEA and Carter. As the Washington Post states both the OAS and the Carter Center have said that they are not in accord with the number put forth by the CNE, based on the fact that they used excessive technicalities to arrive to its conclusion, thus threatening the results of the recall process. They proposed several universally accepted mechanisms to verify those signatures considered of similar calligraphy to respect the will of the voters. The OAS declaration is available here.
“We have had some discrepancies with the CNE over the verification criteria. In the case of the petition forms in which the basic data of several signers, but not the signatures themselves appear to have been filled in by one person, we do not share the criteria of the CNE to separate these signatures, sending them to the appeals process in order to be rectified by the citizens. It is such a large number of signatures that they could have an impact on the outcome of the process.”
Finally, we reiterate our support to the Washington Post’s editorial, which we consider states the truth about the crises in Venezuela. We reject the false statements put forth by The Venezuelan Information Office in its response to the Post.
MEMO To: Interested Parties From: Venezuela Information Office Date: 5 March 2004 Subject: Recent Washington Post Editorial
On Friday, 5 March 2004, the Washington Post published an editorial entitled “Coup by Technicality,” which contained numerous factual inaccuracies and questionable claims. This memo discusses the most egregious of them and urges readers to contact the Post to complain.
CONTROL OF THE CNE
The March 5 editorial repeatedly accuses Hugo Chávez of acting to block a potential recall. While many have criticized the CNE’s decision to further scrutinize 876,017 signatures, no international observer or journalist has ever found evidence, or even suggested, that President Hugo Chávez has given instructions to the members of the CNE. Even journalists who regularly refer to three of the CNE’s directors as “pro-Chávez” do so only because those individuals have consistently ruled in favor of the government. If the editorial board of the Washington Post does have evidence that Hugo Chávez has improperly influenced or even had contact with the CNE directors, such proof should be made public.
The fact that President Hugo Chávez has no direct control over the decision of the CNE casts doubt on the Washington Post’s claim that President Chávez has violated both the Venezuelan Constitution and the May 2003 Agreement signed by pro- and anti-Chávez groups. Indeed, this charge is totally unsubstantiated, as the editorial provides no evidence of Chavez’s having acted in bad faith or violated the law. The situation in Venezuela is indeed complex, as numerous communiqués from international observers have noted. The Washington Post’s editorial vastly oversimplified the situation, painting Hugo Chávez as a villain pulling all the strings in Caracas. This is simply not the case. The CNE is an independent entity, and no one has suggested otherwise.
RULES GOVERNING THE SIGNATURE-GATHERING PROCESS
According to the Washington Post’s editorial, the CNE “invented requirements that didn't previously exist” while it worked to verify the over three million signatures submitted on December 19. This is simply false. Even the opposition acknowledges that the written instructions issued by the CNE well in advance of the opposition petition drive made clear that personal information “must be registered by the signer himself.” This is confirmed by a Mach 4 Associated Press article. In short, the charge that the CNE changed the rules and applied them retroactively is false.
FALSE CLAIMS OF IMPARTIALITY
The Post’s editorial also asserts that signatures on recall petitions “were rigorously audited by a nonpartisan civic group before being forwarded to the electoral commission.” The signatures were audited by Sumate, an organization that does indeed claim to be non-partisan. However, a brief visit to the organization’s website (www.revocatorio.org) clearly show’s that its sole purpose is to ensure that Hugo Chávez is removed from office by means of a recall vote. Claiming that Sumate is non-partisan is like saying that MoveOn.org is non-partisan because they assist people of any political stripe in defeating George Bush in the 2004 election.
LACK OF CONTEXT
The editorial also falsely portrays the political conflict in Venezuela as a clash between Hugo Chávez and the vast majority of Venezuelans. In fact, the latest public opinion polls indicate that Chávez retains the firm support of approximately 40 percent of the population, while the opposition has the committed backing of only 30 percent of Venezuelans. The rights of those who signed the petition to recall Chavez must be balanced against the rights of those who voted for continue to support him.
NUMBER OF SIGNATURES SUBMITTED TO THE CNE
The Washington Post’s editorial board erroneously claimed that the opposition submitted 3.448747 signatures to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) on December 19. While opposition leaders regularly claimed to have submitted anywhere from 3.4 to 3.6 million signatures, the only objective ruling on the number of signatures is that of the CNE, which has stated that 3,085,013 signatures were submitted. Observers from the OAS and the Carter Center have not disputed this number.
The Venezuela Information Office encourages those concerned about the current situation in Venezuela to write letters to the editor, pointing out the serious problems with this editorial. Letters should be under 200 words long (one-third of a page single spaced) and include a daytime address and telephone number. To submit a letter to the Post, write to: email@example.com or to:
Letters to the Editor The Washington Post 1150 15th Street Northwest Washington, DC 20071
Venezuela Information Office 733 15th St. NW, Suite 437 Washington, DC 20005 Tel: 202-737-6637 ext.22
NOTE: The Venezuela Information Office is dedicated to informing the American public about contemporary Venezuela, and receives its funding from the government of Venezuela. More information is available from the FARA office of the Department of Justice in Washington DC.
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