President Carter's Trip Report on Venezuela, May 29-June 1, 2004

 Jimmy Carter
 4 Jun 2004

The Carter Center has been deeply involved in Venezuela election processes for the past six years, having monitored the contest for president in December 1998 in which Hugo Chavez was elected. Subsequently, we observed the referendum that approved a new constitution and then a new election in July 2000 in which Chavez was reelected and governors, members of parliament and local officials were also chosen. Subsequently, in April 2002, a temporary coup removed the president from office for about 48 hours, and domestic turmoil persisted after that political crisis. A belief that the United States gave at least tacit support for the coup attempt and harsh statements by President Chavez have strained relations between the two countries.

Multiple street confrontations and a two-month petroleum strike in December and January disrupted the normal economic, financial, and political processes of the nation. The major opposition forces were consolidated within an organization called Coordinadora Democratica. The Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) is a five-member commission that is in charge of all elections and referenda. Ostensibly balanced, it is generally known that the CNE president and two members are pro-government.

At the request of the government and opposition forces, we joined the Organization of American States in a sustained effort to mediate between the major political groups. Early in 2003 I went to Caracas, met with the president and his adversaries, and spelled out two options for resolving the conflict, both of which complied with provisions of the constitution. In May of that year, we helped to negotiate a pact based on one of the options, which would permit the opposition to seek signatures of 20 percent of the registered voters (2,436,000). This would automatically trigger a recall referendum on whether Chavez could complete his six-year term. In such a referendum, there would have to be the same number of votes against him as he received on being elected.

Following the collection of 3,477,000 total signatures, the basic differences persisted, and the CNE accepted 1,911,000 of them as legitimate, rejected 375,000 as invalid, and declared the authenticity of approximately 1.2 million names to be doubtful. This meant that 525,000 of the doubtful ones would have to be reaffirmed to meet the 20 percent requirement. After five months of this controversy, both sides finally agreed with an election commission proposal that a three-day period would be devoted to having these names reconfirmed by the individual voters, and the CNE also decided that previous confirmed signers could withdraw their names. The Carter Center and the OAS deployed approximately 100 observers throughout the nation, coordinated by Rachel Fowler, with Dr. Jennifer McCoy the leader of our delegation and Francisco Diez as our in-country representative. OAS Secretary General Gaviria and I returned to Venezuela to monitor this "reparo" procedure.

On arriving in Caracas on Saturday, May 29, we had a thorough briefing from the OAS and Carter Center staff, and learned that there was a strong turnout on Friday, the first day, with about 360,000 names having been confirmed and 35,000 withdrawn. Except for a few incidents of alleged intimidation and violence, the procedures were followed well and peacefully at approximately 3,000 voting places. I visited several of the sites in Caracas on Saturday afternoon and found no serious problems, but with fewer citizens coming forward than on the previous day.

President Chavez completed an extensive foreign visit at a summit with other Latin American leaders and European Union members, and invited me to meet with him in Caracas on Sunday morning.

In our meeting with President Chavez, we found him to be quite pleased with his meetings with a wide range of other leaders. There is no doubt that he is thoroughly informed about international issues, including the internal political affairs of many other countries.

He assured us that he was completely reconciled to participating in the recall referendum if the 20 percent level of signatories is reached. I had heard that he might resign from office and call for an election within 60 days, when he could claim that only 20 percent of the voters opposed him and run again for office against what would probably be a fragmented opposition.

He completely discounted this possibility. He invited us to return for supper Monday evening, after more definitive election results would be known.

During the afternoon we met with leaders of Coordinadora Democratica and political parties that support the government, which gave us a more vivid but not much clearer picture of the opposing opinions. We then visited with the five members of the CNE, who presented a reassuring report that the results of the polling will be completed as scheduled, with the final and definitive report no later than Saturday, June 5. They assured us that the CNE would not resort, as in the past, to searching for technicalities on which to base disqualifications of citizens' preferences. In fact, at every voting site the original and four copies of each day's report (acta) are signed and certified, and the CNE, the government, the opposition, Chavez's political supporters and we international observers all receive identical documents. In a final analysis, there should be no dispute about the total count.

On Monday, we met first with owners and managers of the private television stations, who have been openly aligned with the political opposition to Chavez. My request to them was to help in forming a compact with the government on the proper way to handle news reports and the broadcasting of government and opposition commercials during a possible referendum and to permit The Carter Center to act as mediator in formulating such an agreement, using the services of William Ury. They expressed their grievances and concerns about Chavez, but agreed to my proposal.

Our next meeting was with the "Friends of Venezuela," ambassadors from Brazil, Chile, Mexico, the United States, Spain, and Portugal. We thanked each other and answered their questions about the future roles of the international observers. Our next meeting was with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who assured us in eloquent terms of his objectivity and commitment to preserving the constitutional and legal premises on which the political life of Venezuela will be preserved. He also assured us that legal appeals on the recall process would not delay or suspend preparations for an eventual recall vote, unless the allegations were extremely grave.

Our observer teams returned from throughout the country and reported their experiences. A number of voters were turned away because of cedula (ID card) technicalities, and some who withdrew their names claimed to have been pressured by the government to do so, but the overall process was peaceful and orderly. During this time I became increasingly concerned because of our inability to contact the leaders of CNE and reports that all acta data had ceased being received and processed. Secretary-General Gaviria and I decided to go to the CNE, and we found our concerns to be justified, with only the two opposition members there and excluded from discussions and access to information. With them, we visited the computer and tabulation rooms and found them to be inactive. CNE President Carrasquero and Jorge Rodriguez called to tell us we had violated our role and that we would be disqualified from further duties as observers. I made a brief televised statement explaining the reason for our visit.

When Dr. McCoy, Dr. Diez, and I met with President Chavez for supper, we described the situation to him, he called Carrasquero, and a meeting was scheduled for the following morning. We gave the president our figures (about 650,000), which showed a margin of about 125,000 requiring a referendum. We had a pleasant evening with him, the oil minister, and the present and former ministers of information. They all expressed a desire for the early return of Bill Ury to continue his efforts for a compact between the government and the media owners. Before leaving the palace, we were informed that data were flowing in to CNE and being processed again.

Tuesday morning, we met with CNE President Carrasquero and two members of the CNE, who informed us that reparo results were now being received in an orderly manner, with more than 90 percent of the total being processed and data from the remaining three states expected this morning. They also assured us that there would be no changes in criteria for the acceptance of actas as legitimate. One of the government members was very critical of our role, and I responded in kind, but the final relationship between the CNE and us international observers was friendly.

Before leaving Caracas, Gaviria and I had a press conference, and we gave an accurate and positive report on our latest assessment of the CNE performance. If present circumstances prevail, there should be a clear decision that a recall referendum will be mandated. This will precipitate an additional responsibility for The Carter Center.

The electoral commission announced a day early, on June 3, that adequate signatures have been secured to require a recall referendum. This is a triumph for the democratic process in Venezuela, and all elements of the process deserve credit. President Chavez fulfilled his promise to us and made a positive statement accepting the challenge. We will continue our role as the prime mediator between the government and opposition forces and work for harmony and peace in the country. There will be a massive electoral campaign prior to the vote, which must be before Aug. 19, and The Carter Center will help to ensure a fair and transparent referendum.