On Sunday, September 12, a month after failing to remove President Hugo Chávez from office in a recall referendum, Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Coordinating Committee (CD), began what they promised would be regular street actions to protest the referendum’s allegedly fraudulent outcome. The first action was a caravan of automobiles that snaked through the eastern sections of Caracas, horns blaring. The actions were under the command of a leftist, one-time guerrilla fighter named Pablo Medina. Though the CD tilts strongly to the right, it is not without its left wing, composed in part of one-time Chávez backers who have felt personally insulted or demeaned by him, or who have become alienated by what they consider his “autocratic” style.
On August 15, Venezuelans had the opportunity to vote on whether Chávez should be compelled to immediately step down or whether he should be permitted to serve out his term and, indeed, run for reelection in 2006. They could vote “Yes,” he should step down immediately, or “No,” he should remain in office until the end of his term. The “Yes” option was backed enthusiastically by the CD and its electoral arm, a group called Súmate. The campaign for the “No” vote was coordinated by a group called Comando Maisanta that bypassed the Chavista party structure and reported directly to the President.
About 70% of the country’s 14 million eligible voters showed up to vote and, due to inefficiencies that seemed more organizational than technical, stood in line an average of seven hours. Although all factions had agreed not to release any unofficial projections until the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced the official results, by late afternoon the CD was emailing its exit poll results showing a supposed overwhelming victory for the “Yes” vote.
The voting took place on computerized touch-screen machines provided by a U.S.-Venezuelan firm called Smartmatic. Voters were instructed to touch either the “Yes” or the “No” option, to wait for the machine to emit a paper ballot with their vote correctly recorded and then to fold and deposit the ballot in a box adjacent to the voting machine. Each vote was thus recorded twice, once within the computerized system, once on paper. When the polls closed, the ballot boxes were sealed and placed under military guard.
The computerized results were tabulated in each voting station and transmitted via telephone line to CNE headquarters in Caracas. (The order of this process remains the subject of controversy with the CD claiming that the results were first sent to central headquarters, manipulated, sent back and then officially tabulated at local polling stations. The CNE responds that the counting of the corresponding paper ballots made this centralized manipulation impossible.) Slightly after 3 a.m., with some 90% of the polling stations reporting, the CNE announced the preliminary results: just under 59% for the “No” vote, just over 41% for the “Yes.” It was an overwhelming defeat for the recall and an overwhelming victory for Chávez. Chavistas began the celebration; Súmate and the CD swung into denial.
The entire process, including the workings of the computerized voting machines, was overseen by observers from the Carter Center, headed by Jimmy Carter, and from the Organization of American States (OAS), led by former Colombian President César Gaviria. (Another team of international observers, of which the author was a part, observed the impressive, unimpeded voting, but not the disputed tabulations.) The machines were tested in advance for accuracy and reliability, and two “audits” of random samples of the paper ballots were conducted by the Carter Center, one the morning following the opening of the polls and a larger one two days later. According to Carter, the audits “revealed no significant disparities.”
The “No” vote came heavily from districts in which the poor and the very poor were in the majority. This was yet another confirmation that the poor feel included in the Chavista project (and excluded from everything else: jobs, schools, housing, public services, health care, respect). The “Yes” vote came overwhelmingly from wealthy and middle class Venezuelans who have a profound distrust of Chávez the “caudillo,” and who feel threatened by his empowerment of the poor. A significant part of the “Yes” vote also came from the organized working class who remain loyal to the old corporatist regime, in particular to the Democratic Action party (AD), a social democratic party and a militant, though diminishing, component of the CD.
While they have no real evidence any actual fraud took place, and while the Carter Center and the OAS have ratified the outcome, the opposition claims to have statistical proof that the voting results are too suspicious to be true. And for many in the opposition, such a strong outpouring of support for a president they assumed almost everyone despised was honestly unbelievable.
Venezuelan political scientist Margarita López-Maya, one of the more astute observers of her country’s politics, has described one of the effects of the country’s rigid class divisions: “The middle classes are divided, but the most visible and powerful are with the opposition. Surrounded by family and neighbors, cut off from the poor sections of town, they confuse ‘their’ reality with ‘the’ reality; ‘their’ country with ‘the’ country.” Speaking only to people like themselves, regarding only people like themselves as Venezuelans—the dark-skinned poor in Caracas are frequently referred to as “Colombians”—it is no wonder large portions of the middle class can’t believe they lost.
They have fallen back on the laws of probability to prove their case. First they claimed too many voting stations had the same number of “Yes” votes and others the same number of “No” votes, indicating tampering. When the numbers proved to be within the realm of statistical probability, Súmate-contracted economists Ricardo Hausmann and Roberto Rigobón, currently teaching at Harvard and MIT respectively, ran some numbers to demonstrate another possibility. They compared the “Yes” votes with the signatures gathered in the November 2003 petition-drive demanding the referendum, reasoning that the citizens who demanded the referendum in the first place would be those who voted for Chávez’s ouster. They say they found that the “Yes” votes at the voting stations audited by the Carter Center matched the 2003 petition tallies from the same precincts at a rate that was 10% higher than at the voting stations that weren’t audited. Ergo, they reasoned, the audited voting stations must not have represented a true random sample of all voting stations and, further, the “Yes” vote must have been fraudulently suppressed at the unaudited stations.
The government-controlled CNE, they suggest, may have tampered with only some of the machines, leaving others clean for observers to audit. The sample used for the Carter Center audit, their statistics claim to show, wasn’t a random one but rather limited to the “clean” machines. In response, the Carter Center, saying nothing about Hausmann and Rigobón’s statistical techniques (and having no political stake in the outcome other than support for “democracy”), found a “very high correlation between the signers and the YES votes” both in the audit sample and in the entire universe of voting stations. They then re-tested the CNE’s sample-generating program and found that, indeed, it had drawn a true random sample of voting stations for the second audit of paper ballots.
Notwithstanding these findings, the CD continues to demand a recount of all the paper ballots. At street actions, CD members are also demanding the immediate resignation of Chávez. Coming from the same group that just two and a half years ago tried to remove him forcibly from office, the latter demand is ominous. For many observers, both pro- and anti-Chávez, the CD street actions appear to be nothing more than an attempt to create a state of ungovernability.
Further, the CD is now implicating the company providing the automated voting machines as well as the Venezuelan phone company, CANTV, in the alleged fraud. The Carter Center’s Americas Director, Jennifer McCoy, however, says the Center had tested and verified the computer program used to select the sample and closely monitored the transmission process. Following the Carter Center’s defense of the process, some opposition members are even suggesting that the Center itself is in on the fix. That’s an ironic switch. Confident of their victory, when the CNE announced the initial results in the early hours of August 16, opposition leaders said they would accept no results until the Carter Center and the OAS confirmed them. But that was then.
The stakes are high. The Carter Center’s McCoy has commented that “polls show that Venezuelans have a very high level of trust in the international observers, while the institutions of Venezuela, unfortunately, have lower levels of trust. It gives us an extreme amount of responsibility…. We’re also trying to mediate, to bring the two sides together to agree on the rules at different points in the process and to get a general acceptance of the outcome.”
Interestingly, the Chavista project seems to have increased Venezuelans’ faith in political democracy. A Latinobarómetro poll finds that support for “democracy” has gone up steadily over the past three years in Venezuela despite—or perhaps because of—its being the most politically polarized country in Latin America. Seventy-four percent of Venezue-lans say they support “democracy,” second only to Uruguay with 78% and compared with a 53% average for Latin America.
“The impact of President Hugo Chávez on the political culture of this country,” comments the Chile-based polling agency, “seems to be having effects that are longer lasting than other alternations in power.”
Adding to those lasting effects are literacy campaigns, barrio high school courses, refurbished schools, new health clinics and paved roads in poor neighborhoods. There are also the Chavista “missions,” high-profile outreach programs to the country’s previously excluded populations. A public health mission called Barrio Adentro employs some 10,000 Cuban doctors who serve where few doctors have served before. Opponents and supporters agree that the popularity of the missions increased the “No” vote. Opponents, of course, regard these programs as examples of Chávez’s cynical short-term populism. Supporters see them as the beginning of an alternative program for the country.
The events of the past three years have shown how intensely pro- and anti-Chávez sentiment divides Venezuelans. Since the months leading up to the April 2002 coup, the opposition’s only demand has been that Chávez resign immediately. The political middle ground has disappeared.
Carter and the OAS have tried to counteract this. Following the April 2002 coup, Carter and Chávez agreed, at Chávez’s initiative, to commence discussions between the restored government and the opposition. The Carter Center then teamed with the OAS and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to promote a “national dialogue.” Many Latin American governments then committed resources to a negotiated, constitutional resolution to the ongoing conflict. In May 2003, negotiations bore fruit when both sides signed an agreement initiating a process that allowed the opposition to gather the requisite signatures to hold a recall referendum.
But the process produced another polarized choice. The referendum contained no nuances, no third possibilities. Venezuela has become a country of two sets of options, two sets of living conditions, two ways of facing the challenges of globalization. August 15 was meant to be a way to resolve Venezuela’s directional choice peacefully, democratically. But not everyone has accepted the results. When the choice seems to be “all or nothing,” it is difficult to be on the losing end.
Just how the situation plays itself out will have an enormous effect on Venezuela’s democratic institutions and on the challenges Chavismo presents to Latin America’s ongoing neoliberal transformations. His victory ratified, Chávez should be in a powerful position to govern, to carry out his progressive agenda and to negotiate a working relationship with the country’s splintered opposition. But he faces domestic opponents unreconciled to their defeat, hostility to his regime from the leadership of both U.S. political parties and a global economy that discourages the principal item on his political agenda: the inclusion of the excluded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Rosen is a NACLA contributing editor based in Mexico City. He observed Venezuela’s August 15 recall referendum as a member of a group sponsored by Global Exchange.