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The Venezuelan Referendum Ends


At the time of writing (6am), the preliminary results of the Venezuelan referendum are in, courtesy of the National Electoral Council (CNE) of Venezuela. As of 3:47 am on August 16, President of the CNE Francisco Carrasquero announced at 4am in a televised press conference, 94% of the votes were in. Of these, 58% went to the NO (4 991 483 million votes) and 42% to the SI (3 576 517 million votes). Record levels of participation were achieved in a long, exhausting period of 24 hours of long lineups and technical difficulties, during which many people waited in line for over 12 hours to vote. Chavez himself, speaking from his window at the Miraflores palace at 4:40am to a jubiliant crowd of thousands, celebrated the victory but called on all Venezuelans to respect the electoral authorities, the vote of the people, and the constitution above all. He stated his respect for the SI voters. And he invited them to show the same respect to the Venezuelan majority.

 

They did not do so. In an opposition press conference at 5:30am, spokesperson for the Coordinadora Democratica Henry Ramos Allup rejected the results of the referendum and cited two members of the CNE who are aligned with the opposition who questioned the preliminary results.

 

Ramos’s figures, that presumably come from exit polls conducted by opposition volunteers according to dubious methodology (for a taste of the methodology take a look at Jonah Gindin’s latest article on Venezuelanalysis:

 

http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1248), have 8 million voters in total, of whom 59% voted SI and 41% NO. On the surface, this suggests a very simple methodology: a matter of flipping the official numbers. Ramos promised to spend the rest of Monday gathering evidence to present the opposition’s case to the international community, and mobilize to fight against the “gigantic fraud” that the opposition accuses the government of having committed.

 

Speaking of fraud, the UK Independents reporter Hannah Baldock seems to have violated Venezuelan law, using the opposition’s phony exit polls to declare a Chavez loss early on Sunday. The article seems to have been quietly removed from the Independent’s website, but the NarcoNews team did a dissection of the piece (see here:

 

http://narcosphere.narconews.com/story/2004/8/15/205259/595#1) that includes Baldock’s figures: she cites “mid-morning results” (from where?) that “showed that the opposition, already boasting an enormous 1,758,000 votes to Chavez’s 798,000, is well on its way to reaching the target of 3.76 million votes it needs to oust the authoritarian, left-wing President.”

 

The Independent might have retired Baldock’s article from the site, but there is little doubt that the international press will seize on the opposition’s figures and contrast them with the CNE’s. The referendum has been true to the pattern in Venezuela, including “polarization”, irreconcileable stories, and the sleazy role of the media.

 

On the morning of the 16th, the world awaited a declaration from non-Venezuelans as to whether Venezuelans, having voted in a vast majority to keep their President, would be “allowed” by the “international community” to keep him. The Carter Center and the OAS were apparently in intense meetings with the Coordinadora Democratica. Both Cesar Gaviria of the OAS and Jimmy Carter spent the day declaring the transparency, cleanliness, and democratic character of the process. When complaints about long lineups and the fingerprinting machines came out in the afternoon, Carter went on television to announce that the CNE was taking “appropriate measures” to deal with the situation. His opinion was that the difficulties were due to record participation levels. Gaviria echoed his sentiments at the same press conference, and expressed his amazement at the comportment of the Venezuelan people on the historic occasion. If they make statements soon that are consistent with these, they will contribute to a de-escalation of the situation in the country and affirm the international communitys interest in the development of democracy in Venezuela. Given the record of these men and the institutions they head, however, that is a lot to hope for.

 

 

Irregularities

 

There were, in addition to the sleaziness of the international media, irregularities and even tragedies. The fingerprint registration machines malfunctioned in many places, and combined with record levels of participation, resulted in very long lineups all over the country.

 

Various incidents occurred in which soldiers accidentally fired their weapons, resulting, according to wire services like Dow Jones and EFE, in 3 deaths. There was also a drive-by shooting that killed one and injured over 10 people outside of Caracas, the same wire services reported, citing the Ambulance Chief for Caracas Rafael Briceno. This fit the pattern of opposition provocation, but it was later presented as gang violence.

 

The strangest incident came in the afternoon, when a fake tape containing an impersonation of the president of the National Electoral Council was discovered. On it, the fake CNE president was heard announcing that the SI forces had won with a truly fantastic landslide of 11 436 086 votes.

 

The real president held an immediate press conference promising an “exhaustive investigation” into this “serious electoral crime”.

 

 

Contrasts

 

On the morning of the 15th, most of the media were concentrated in the barrio of 23 enero, a huge, poor neighbourhood of some 500,000, to catch Chavez voting. A member of the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, a grassroots pro-Chavez organization in the barrio, talked of the barrio’s long history of resistance. Since the 1960s, the barrio has been through resistance and repression. They came out en masse to vote in August because the Chavez government gave their community opportunities they never had before. “This process will go on with or without Chavez”, Jose said, at a community basketball court far from the action, “but we support the process and we support Chavez because he is a democrat, an anti-imperialist, and a leftist.”

 

Community volunteers were eager to have journalists and observers watch the voting process, which at the two stations I visited was working well, if slowed down by the fingerprint registration system. The double system seemed to be clear enough: voters pressed a button on a machine to vote electronically. The machine then produced a printed ballot which the voter could check. The voter then put the ballot in the box. This system makes fraud difficult, and it also seemed quite easy to the voters in the neighbourhood. After visiting the stations, some members of the community showed me some of the place. They were completely confident of victory, preparing for the celebration party by noon.

 

From 23 enero, I went to Chacaito, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Caracas, a place of Country Clubs and SUVs parked on the street. There, too, there was a long lineup, this time of SI voters sheltered under umbrellas. A volunteer for the SI forces, Cristina, was as sure of victory as the people of 23 enero were. “The only way the government can win is by fraud,” she said. The big NO demonstrations were propaganda, she said, with Chavez paying people to come from the interior to stack the crowds. He was giving the country over to Fidel Castro, signing secret pacts (of which there was no evidence, of course), disappearing people (also without evidence). What was utterly obvious was that these rich people were just as sure of their claims and their victory, despite the lack of evidence, as the poor people in 23 enero were of theirs.

 

Approaching midnight, we visited some other neighbourhoods and voting stations, this time in La Vega, one of Caracas’s oldest neighbourhoods, with some 300,000 people. There, too, the people were solidly NO, and wanted it known. Lineups were still very long, but were clearing up towards midnight and things were progressing smoothly in the polling stations.

 

Real results were much longer in coming — almost 4 hours after midnight.

 

And immediately after that, the opposition announced, more than its rejection of the vote, its intention to never allow the Venezuelan democratic process to develop normally. Until now, the United States, and its “neutral” agencies in the Carter Center and OAS, have shown that they share that intention. If they do not support the CNE and the Venezuelan vote, the Carter Center and OAS will just be telling Venezuelans again that the only people they can count on to defend their democracy is themselves, along with sabotage from the powerful elsewhere.

 

Justin Podur will be in Venezuela for several more days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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