Perhaps it was better to have been gone for a week. Anyone trying to discern what happened here during the last week, would be hard to explain every twist and turn that took place in the last seven days. In one week we have gone from megafraud charges and the barring of international obverses from certain stages of the signature verification process, to total openness at the CNE and the word fraud seems to have disappeared from everyone’s vocabulary.
Last week, both opposition and Government supporters began questioning the signature verification process for the recall referenda against President Chávez and Deputies from the National Assembly. Most of the charges centered on how slow the whole process was going, but there few specifics, except for the charge by the opposition that the CNE had issued a new directive barring international observers all but two of the seven steps in the verification process. The opposition then charged that while it understood that some decisions were the domain of the CNE alone, barring observers from two of the five steps was incongruous and in violation of the agreements made on the presence of international observers. A separate charge was that too much priority was being given to the regional elections at the expense of the recall referenda.
At this point, my feeling was that while there may be some bad faith involved, most of the problem was simply the fact that this electoral Board is composed of Venezuelans with little managerial experience and not by career professionals with expertise in such complex processes. This feeling was reinforced by a press conference to respond to the accusations held by the President of the CNE and one of its Directors. In it, the President of the CNE said things were developing “normally” and accused politicians of falsifying the truth. But what concerned me was that part of the defense was to say that in one week the CNE had processed 580,000 signatures, which corresponded to the expected number. Well, simple math told me then we were in trouble, at that pace, it would take 6 weeks to process the signatures for the Presidential recall alone and four more for the recall of the national Assembly Deputies instead of the thirty days imposed by the regulations. Thus things were certainly not normal at all. That same day, the National Assembly approved a resolution condemning the false accusations and slander against the CNE.
The next day Jesus Torrealba from the coordinating group of the opposition charged that it was the workers at the CNE that were given the institution a bad name and made a litany of specific charges, which I will not detail. What worried me about these is that I have felt that Torrealba is a fairly serious character who is not a “tirapiedras” (stone thrower). As if to calm the tempest, the President of the CNE, out of the blue said on Friday that if the required signatures were available, the referenda will likely take place in the month of May. That same day, both Chavistas and anti-Chavistas held demonstrations which were small by usual standards, diverting attention from the discussion. However, the words fraud, megafraud and cheating were voiced repeatedly at the pro-Chavez march, when referring to the signatures gathered by the opposition by Chavista leaders including the Vice-president, Deputies and Ministers. The same day the head of the CNE said that he accepted criticisms but not those based on lies.
That Friday, OAS representatives and those form the carter Center visited the CNE and in a very diplomatic style said that they were very happy with how the process was moving, called for more personnel to speed up the process and said: “we have requested from the CNE that we be allowed to participate in the physical examination of the signatures and in the meeting of the technical Committee”. Calling these two areas “neuralgic” Jaramillo said, that this was ‘simply” a request not based on any doubts about the process, which he called impeccable. However, rumors that day were that 24,000 forms (240,000 signatures) had been questioned in the physical examination process and sent to the technical committee for their evaluation. I understand that at that meeting Jaramillo and the representative from the Carter Center also told Carrasquero in a very diplomatic way that there simply was no way to disqualify the one million signatures needed to stop the referendum against Hugo Chavez by the opposition, based on the reports of all of the international observers present during the signature gathering process at the end of November. Supposedly they indiacted that their estiamte was that statiscally no more than between4-5% of the signatures could be disqualified, less than two hundred thousand of them in the worst case.
At this point things exploded. CNE Director Ezequiel Zamora made serious charges of boycott and delays by CNE workers which were immediately backed by the other pro-opposition Director of the CNE Zobella Mejias. Zamora and Mejias called for the immediate participation of the OAS in all stages. Carrasquero criticized the position by the two opposition Directors calling the “temerary”. He was joined by CNE Director Battaglini who called the request s by the OAS and the Carter Center “exaggerated’, arguing sovereignty and autonomy. Things were touchy that day as rumors flew that the OAS was ready to pull out of the process. By then charges of treachery in the CNE extended to limiting access to opposition observers and the creation of new “rules’ for disqualifying signatures.
In the middle of this mess, Jimmy Carter arrives in Venezuela on a scheduled visit to oversee the process. In very quick succession, Chavez himself says he has no nationalistic complex(!!) and that the OAS and the Carter Center should check everything if they want, in a tone much different than that of his own supporters who at that moment were calling for respect for the autonomy of the Electoral body on the part of the international observers. Not once does Chávez mention the possibility of fraud to the US ex-President. Carter meets with the president of the Supreme Court who says that there should be “no tricks”, paraphrasing words by Carter himself in an earlier visit. In quick succession, the CNE unanimously approves the OAS participation in all stages of the process with the vote of its fifth member Jorge Rodriguez, who had just arrived from Italy. Upon his arrival Rodriguez had said that he did not see any problem with the OAS participation in all the processes, siding with the opposition. Carter leaves, giving a press conference before his departure, in which he says things are going “slow” (surprise, surprise!), that it is due to normal delays and not bad faith. For the first time someone says it may be March before all the signatures are verified, which I have been saying all along. Carter even adds : “I have seen no evidence of fraud”.
Things were not as simple as they appeared. The OAS presented the CNE with specific charges of bad faith, change of rules, backing out of prior agreements, threatening to withdraw from the process. At the same meeting the OAS showed the CNE their own statistical evaluation based on the reports of all of the observers of the process in November, suggesting that the CNE would have to present an extremely strong case to eliminate one million signatures from the petition. Others apply pressure to the Government, fraud charges are silenced for the moment, international observers are welcomed, the lies become truth, the true lies are forgotten, everyone is happy.
-I have believed for quite a while that Chavez’ strategy is simply to proceed forward and go to the recall referendum. He believes that the magic number of 3.8 million votes by the opposition simply will not be reached as most Venezuelans are apathetic about the whole conflict. He may be right in his assessment. I never cease to remind people that in the heyday of his popularity Hugo Chavez never received more than 3.757 million votes. He was really popular among those that voted, but abstention was 43.7% of the registered population. A repeat of that, adding a bit of “Misiones”, some doses of populism, some threats and the number may not be reached. However, this also implies that Hugo Chávez may not get more than 2.4 million votes in his favor, severely damaging the President’s image. Abstention will in fact be the deciding factor, if it is near 50% the recall fails assuming the 60%-40% split against Chavez polls indicate. If it is near 40% the recall is successful.
-Even if Chavez were to lose the recall referendum, this week’s decision by the Constitutional Hall of the Supreme Court saying that the national assembly may approve the Supreme Court Bill with only a simple majority, opens the door for a Chavez candidacy to replace himself, however absurd this may sound. The new bill would allow the Assembly to elect Justices to the Court with a simple majority and it expands the Court from 20 to 32 to Justices in its latest draft. This would continue the very well executed policy in which Chavez always can argue that decisions are or were “Constitutional” and thus not subject by criticism abroad. This form of “Constitutional Dictatorship” has been cleverly and effectively used so far in the last five years. The recent decision by the Supreme Court and the approval of the bill (which I still think and hope will not happen) will extend the president’s control of the country.
-I really do not believe that Chavez will question a CNE decision in favor of the recall in front of the Supreme Court. To do so would disqualify the arbiter it needs to continue justifying his power. It would also raise eyebrows internationally, something the Chávez administration is being very careful with as demonstrated this week.
There you have it, optimists, pessimists and masochists, something for everyone after a week’s absence, sorry for the delays!