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Is Venezuela a Democracy?

By Edgar Brown | Paspalum Fasciculatum

15.09.05 | Some people like to think that 'free elections' is enough to define a democracy, but then what does 'free' means?. Is it to be able to cast a vote?, or is it that the vote is actually counted?. Is it to be able to have an election?, or to be able to oppose that election in a court of law?. Is it to let judges decide on the elections?, or is it that those judges actually follow the letter of the law?. A few days ago I talked about my ideal of a government system, and there is a particular quote that is worth repeating:

Freedom is when the people can speak, democracy is when the government listens.
-Alastair Farrugia

Democracies have cycles, democracies go through dark periods in which reason is thrown by the window, but democracies tend to correct for its mistakes, democracies tend to perfect themselves or they would just stop being democracies for a while. People can make stupid decisions some times, but as long as the democratic institutions remain in place, the democratic forces will bring the system in check. Those stupid decisions are the jolts that the democratic systems require to perfect themselves.

To me, as to many Venezuelans, Chavez was one of those jolts, the forces that nucleated against Chavez made me proud, true democracy was being instilled in all Venezuelans to a level that was not there before, a concept of country was being developed in all conversations, understanding that there is a deep inequality that formed Chavez power base was one of the learned lessons, politics had taken a second stage, democracy was front and center. The end of the cycle was the Recall Referendum, we could all see it clearly, the end of this dark phase was within reach. The level of participation can be seen in this picture taken at the closing of the RR campaign against Chavez.
But then the official results came out, it sent chills across all of Venezuela, Chavistas and non-Chavistas alike. The day after the RR was a mourning day, there were no celebrations. A lone protest broke up, and one of the protesters, a lady that had left her new home in the U.S. just to vote in the RR in Venezuela, was killed. The end of the RR process marked the official end of democracy. But how can an election process indicate the end of a democracy?, you might ask. To understand this, I have to refer to the events that led to the RR (1).

First, let's keep in mind that a recall referendum is not an election per se, it is a one-party vote, either for, or against that party, so to talk about 'opposition' when it comes to a referendum is not putting it in the right context. The RR, for us in the 'opposition' (defined as those that would naturally oppose a dictatorship) was a vote for or against democracy, for or against government abuse, for or against meddling with our judicial system, for or against discrimination, for or against the destruction of our infrastructure, for or against the destruction of our culture.

Now in that context, the government institutions, including the ones that were supposed to be the impartial arbiters of the process, the National Electoral Council "CNE" (2) and the courts (3), opposed the process at every stage, impeded its progress, forced a process of signature collection whose rules were changed over and over, coercion was part of the process, if you signed you could face problems, and many did and still do (4), "fraud!" was shouted by Chavez and his subordinates, and the call of "fraud!" was all it took to force new rules, and new obstacles. But even with all those obstacles the signatures were collected, re-collected, and confirmed. A single organization, the most democratic of the new institutions was a strong shining star in this process, "Súmate," (5) the same organization that, now labeled as 'opposition' faces charges of 'treason' under Chavez's regime. The government, through CNE, had no other choice to be able to keep the thin veneer of democracy, the RR had to proceed. It took the presence of OAS and Carter Center observers even to get to this point.

The only legal resource that could fight the partisanship of the CNE is the supreme court, but these were not much different. After the restructuring that happened under the new constitution the majority of the judges were patently partisan. There were (3) a few hold-outs, and these tried through a slim majority in the 'Electoral House' of the court to bring some legality to the process. However the 'Constitutional House' overthrew the decision, a decision that has been qualified as partisan and unconstitutional in dissenting opinions by members of the supreme court itself. So now, there are no legal resources to fight the illegalities of the process. In this atmosphere, and in hindsight, the opposition made one of the most stupid decisions of the whole process, to go along with the RR trusting that the international observers would be able to validate the process.

Needless to say, the CNE went into overdrive, installing shiny new electronic voting machines, for a process that could have been done by hand in a few hours. Installing fingerprint capturing devices, thus causing unnecessary delays in the process. All this costing multiple millions to the whole nation (and putting money in the hands of companies whose background is somewhat hazy). All requests by the 'opposition' were denied by the CNE, all the checks in the process were denied, all the requests for depuration of the voter registration were denied, all the audit avenues were denied. Hundreds of thousands of 'new Venezuelans' nationalized in a hurry were added to the registers, thousands of voters were moved from one location to another. Even the non-Chavista CNE directors were denied access to critical CNE's installations. Millions of dollars were spent in new 'missions' in an obvious attempt to buy votes. But the process kept going, it was the RR or a blody outcome, the 'opposition' (and Venezuela as a whole) had its hands tied, the international observers were our only hope.

The RR finally came, the level of participation broke all records, the voting lines were eternal, some people stood in line for 12 or more hours to vote, partially due to the 'improved process' in place by the CNE. But we all saw this as a way out, there was no other choice. All the indications were there, the festivity in the lines, the opinion of the voters, the exit polls, everything indicated that the 'Sí' option (against Chavez) had won 60% to 40%. The celebration of democracy was about to start. But then, in the wee hours before dawn, the 'official' results started coming out, the 'No' had now won 60% to 40%.

A huge portion of Venezuela shouted "Fraud!" but then, it was only Venezuelans shouting, it was not Chavez, so who cares, right?. The CNE could care less about this, it grudgingly agreed to an audit, some days after the process closed, forced by the international observers. The political opposition did not take it anymore, and after being scolded by Carter himself, they finally did the only democratic thing left to them, walk away from a game in which all the cards had been stacked against them (and, through them, against us). Boxes of paper trails were found on the streets, installations with duplicate voting machines were found and documented. Data communication records showed that some voting machines had received more data than what they had transmitted. Evidence of bi-directional communications across the voting day came out. Testimonials of some of the now repented participants came out. But without a working judicial system, who cares?. It's only illegal if a judge says that it's illegal, what the law says is irrelevant.

All of us with some knowledge of statistics went into overdrive analyzing the results, the data looked suspicious, but there was nothing that could be explained in 10 words or less. A long scientific report indicating that the audit sample did not represent the total vote came out of this effort, but it was ignored by the Carter Center (whose own graphs verify this conclusion, though their written conclusion ignores it). Only Gaviria, in his intervention in the OAS, indicated the serious flaws of the process, gaining the title "traitor!" from the Chavez regime, and if Chavez says it, he must be right. At least the U.S. had a minor diplomatic victory by changing the wording of the OAS resolution from 'congratulate for your victory' to 'recognize your presidency.'

Today 47% of venezuelans consider the CNE, that impartial judge of democracy, the least trustworthy of all Venezuelan institutions, while the media, and the Church are among the most trusted (both of which continuously denounce Chavez as the dictator he is). However, we keep having elections, the CNE does not even need to give results anymore, nobody cares that they have to correct them every few days because these don't add up. The political opposition is either too stupid to realize how futile this is, or too afraid to loose whatever little power they have left.

So yes, we have election processes, but are they free?, can these be verified?. Has the government listened?. Would you consider this a democracy?. I would say that this is a sad state of affairs for what was the longest lived democracy in all of the spanish speaking world.

  1. Daniel's: The recall that matters
  2. The new CNE
  3. Court independence:Human Rights Watch report. Justice dismissed from the supreme court, Decision reversals by a packed court
  4. The Tascon List: Modern political apartheid in Venezuela
  5. The Súmate files

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