Introduction

A delegation of US citizens and residents spent September 30-October 8, 2006, in Caracas, Venezuela meeting with a broad cross-section of people representing the Venezuelan government and its opposition, civil and social organizations, the media, the OAS, and the US government. The delegation looked at factors influencing the upcoming December 3, 2006, presidential election with a particular emphasis on the US government role in that election.

The delegation was organized by the Venezuela Solidarity Network and the Marin (CA) Interfaith Task Force on the Americas. The Venezuela Solidarity Network was formed at a conference in Washington, DC in March 2006 to oppose US government intervention and support the gains of the Bolivarian revolution. The Marin Interfaith Task Force was founded in 1985 to help end human rights abuses in Central America and has since expanded concern to all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

A list of the delegation members and those with whom we met is included at the end of this report in Appendices 1 and 2.

The delegation was met with unfailing courtesy by every Venezuelan organization we interviewed ranging from Sumate (Stand Up!), one of the best known opposition groups, to the vice foreign minister for North American relations on the government side. The most difficult meeting to arrange was the meeting with the US embassy which was unwilling to approve our meeting until the last day of our visit, requiring us to cancel meetings with other groups. Our request for a meeting with the US ambassador was turned down in favor of a meeting with the political officer and our request to meet with USAID officials housed in the Embassy was denied.

Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, a new constitution has been approved by popular referendum and the “Bolivarian Revolution” – called “el proceso” by the Venezuelan people – has been initiated, instituting a participatory system of democratic control and diverting petroleum revenues from a small elite class to social services and economic programs for the impoverished majority. While some of those whose privileges have been eliminated are supportive of the process, others, including the owners of the major print and broadcast media, are viciously opposed and their anger occasionally surfaces in daily life.

We witnessed the extremes of this polarization at the end of our first day of meetings when we went to dinner with a law professor from the Central Venezuelan University and with lawyer and author of The Chávez Code, Eva Golinger. Golinger’s book exposed US government support for opposition efforts to remove Chavez from office, including the failed coup of April 2002. Some opposition supporters recognized the professor, who was born in Argentina, and then Golinger. Some of them began screaming at the two of them and at the delegation, calling us “assassins,” “Cubans,” and “Argentines.” The verbal abuse went on for long minutes. After some minor pushing between a pro-Chavez patron and those who were shouting at us, waiters escorted the most out-of-control anti-Chavez woman out of the restaurant. We were later told by someone in the restaurant that she worked for the government in the attorney general’s office. If true, this would highlight one of the many contradictions arising from the fact that Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution came into power democratically through the ballot box rather than by force of arms. Armed revolutions generally sweep opponents out of government jobs and places of influence such as the media, but in Venezuela we were told that many in the opposition are still in the civil service and that most of the media is virulently anti-Chavez.

We found that the one issue that unifies both the opposition and the supporters of the government is rejection of the Bush government’s foreign policy. Nearly everyone we met with criticized President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their public efforts to discredit Chavez. The opposition uniformly volunteered that statements from the White House or State Department only strengthened Chavez. Government supporters remember the attempted coup, which most believe the US played a key role in or at least knew about in advance, and ongoing US hostility to the democratic advances they feel they have made.

Hugo Chavez is running for his second six-year term for president, as allowed under the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution. Although there are 18 presidential candidates, only Chavez and opposition candidate Zulian Governor Manuel Rosales are considered to have a large popular backing, and all but a single US-owned polling company have Chavez well in the lead. Two other viable opposition candidates withdrew earlier in the summer in favor of Rosales, who now appears to have unified the opposition for the first time since Chavez was first elected in 1998.

For the Dec. 3, 2006, election there will be 33,000 polling places all with automated voting machines with paper trails. There are 16,083,986 registered voters. 162,000 of them are foreign residents who can vote for local offices but not president. The official campaign started Aug. 1. As a result of many years of corrupt government funding, the new electoral law allows no State funding for campaigns. The National Electoral Commission (CNE), the autonomous branch of government responsible for conducting elections, has a mechanism to oversee spending and there are fines of $3,000-$10,000 for campaign spending violations. Polls show that 60-70% percent of registered voters intend to vote. The CNE is planning a massive media campaign to promote the greatest possible participation. The term of office for the new president will be Feb. 2007-2013.

Summary and Conclusions

1. Conditions and systems are in place which will allow a free and fair election for president on Dec. 3, 2006.

2. The electronic voting machines – with their paper trails, audits, and controls are far less subject to manipulation and fraud than those in many states in the US, and national and international monitors will be present at every voting site.

3. US involvement in the 2006 election is less public than, for instance, it is in Nicaragua’s close presidential election. A clear majority of the electorate favors Chavez, so public US efforts to defeat him electorally would only redound to Chavez’ benefit.

4. The US government strategy to delegitimize the current election is part of a broader strategy to destabilize Venezuela in a manner similar to what it did in Chile after the presidential election of socialist Salvador Allende in the early 1970s.

5. $26 million in grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) have been made to opposition groups, many of which are undisclosed, and additional funding has come from other US agencies to serve the needs of opposition groups, without Congressional scrutiny. USAID’s grants of $23 million are managed though the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), an office established shortly after the 2002 coup which the Bush administration supported. In a Christian Science Monitor article earlier this year, OTI described itself as “overtly political.” Its name alone indicates that US “democracy building” efforts are not nonpartisan.

6. Due to a US-supported strategy of boycotting last year’s National Assembly elections, the opposition sacrificed political spaces their parties otherwise would have commanded. Only “pro-process” parties won seats in the National Assembly after opposition parties pulled out at the last minute. The five rectors of the National Electoral Council (CNE), a separate branch of government responsible for running elections, are nominated by civil society and elected by the National Assembly resulting in only one non-Chavez supporter directing the current CNE.

7. A united opposition behind the candidacy of Zulia State governor Manual Rosales may improve the opposition’s share of the vote, but it will be difficult for the opposition to lure some of its voters back to the polls after last year’s effort to convince them to abstain.

8. Chavez has won with roughly 60% of the vote in the three elections in which his name has been on the ballot and numerous others when his policies were at issue. His vote in this election is likely to be within a few points of that 60%.

9. The US government and the most hardline groups of the opposition will not accept the results of the election regardless of the assessment of international observers as to whether it was “free and fair.”

10. US government “democracy building” programs through the NED and USAID are designed not to build democracy but to promote the perceived interests of the US government. All US so-called “democracy building” grants to Venezuela should be terminated.

Political Background – Before and After Chavez

To understand and evaluate the electoral landscape of Venezuela’s 2006 presidential election it is necessary to have some understanding of what came before. From the end of the last dictatorship in 1958 until Chavez’ election in late 1998, two political parties, Accion Democratica (AD) (Social Democrats) and Copei (Christian Democrats), dominated the elections and divided the spoils of government, pursuant to a written agreement called the Punto Fijo agreement. Although Venezuela’s petroleum reserves were “nationalized” in 1976, the ruling parties permitted the state-owned oil company, PdVSA, to become a private fiefdom benefiting only a small portion of the population. Chavez has turned this situation around, re-establishing public control over PdVSA and channeling its revenues into services and development projects for the majority poor and small business people.

Elias Santana, founder of Queremos Elegir (We Want to Choose) which is opposed to the Chavez government but has also pushed, since its 1989 founding, for reform and transparency in elections under previous governments, gave us his thumbnail history of the loss of support for AD and Copei and the rise of Chavez.

He said, “What ruled before was Acta Mata Voto (The Tally Trumps the Vote). The ruling parties split the other parties’ votes between themselves. In 1995, for the first time, Queremos Elegir began observing the count and doing quick count sampling. In 1996-97 Queremos Elegir put forward proposals for electoral reform but it was too late [for the ruling parties to save themselves]. In 1993, Rafael Caldera had won the presidency without the support of either major party. A small party, La Causa R, went from 3 to 42 seats in the National Assembly. People wanted change. It was a turbulent time but did not bring the change people wanted. In 1998, AD and Copei couldn’t even nominate a candidate. A beauty queen who was mayor of Caracas’ richest area was high in the polls until she accepted the endorsement of Copei. It was the kiss of death. She dived in popularity and Chavez went from 3% to win the election.”

Chavez has won presidential elections in 1998, 2000, and the 2004 recall, each by 56-59%, and “pro-process” candidates and initiatives have prevailed in non-presidential elections – from the 1999 Bolivarian Constitutional referendum, to municipal and local elections, to the 2005 National Assembly election.

In the 2005 National Assembly election the opposition made a series of demands of the National Electoral Council (CNE) including dropping the use of fingerprinting machines intended to insure that people only voted once (instituted in response to opposition complaints of multiple voting). Although the CNE agreed to every opposition demand, the opposition still dropped out of the election and called for voters to abstain. The result was that pro-Chavez parties won every single seat in the National Assembly.

The Opposition Candidate

Much has been written about Hugo Chavez and his government’s use of petrodollars to fund the ubiquitous “Missions” – social and development programs that provide health care, education, housing, discounted food, and co-operative training in support of the vast majority of Venezuela’s previously excluded poor. We also learned about the vast system of participative democratic structures, called community councils, by which local funding and development decisions are made.

Manuel Rosales, the major opposition candidate for the presidency, is also announcing his intention to deliver the petrodollars to the people, by means of a small debit card, called Mi Negra. At his speech at a large rally in central Caracas, he waived the card and denied charges that the name Mi Negra was a racist or sexist term – although it is well known to be the term of endearment used by an employer in reference to his dark-skinned servant or a husband in reference to his wife. Rosales insisted “negra is the color of our petroleum, and that is the color of the card that delivers its benefits to our people.” He claims the card will deliver basic expenditures worth approximately $300 per month to each household (it’s unclear whether the rich will also be eligible or what kind of income guidelines he would establish), slightly more than the current minimum wage, and says he will somehow manage to continue the “Missions” at the same time.

As journalist Gregory Wilpert of VenezuelaAnalysis puts it, for the first time since Chavez was elected in 1998 the opposition is running a candidate who is focused on concrete domestic issues that “resonate with the majority of the people,” rather than personal attacks on Chavez.

Opposition journalist and one-time presidential candidate, Teodoro Petkoff, said, “Rosales is running a good campaign. He goes in to a Barrio to see 100 people and comes out with 1000 or more.” He tells everyone that he will issue them Mi Negra debit cards so they can buy food, medicines, school supplies, or whatever they need. Petkoff says the Mi Negra cards “are viable.” Rosales, he says, should not be called a populist for Mi Negra. Like Chavez, Petkoff believes the State is necessary to create jobs, social programs for the 2 out of 3 people who are poor. He says Rosales wants to keep the Missions but eliminate the waste and make PdVSA, complaining that the National Assembly has no oversight or control of PdVSA’s budget under Chavez.

Geraldo Blyde, Rosales’ media campaign manager, said Datos, what he calls a credible polling agency in Venezuela, has “Rosales running within 9 points of Chavez.” He says that Rosales is concentrating in areas on which Chavez is considered weak: crime and personal security, unemployment compensation, pre-school to university education, dignified housing, government waste in the Missions, and preoccupation with international affairs, to the detriment of domestic issues. Blyde believes Rosales can win if more people who abstained from voting in the National Assembly elections last December turn out this December. He denied that Rosales’ call to abstain last December would work to his detriment this December.

Rosales is the governor of Zulia, the major oil producing state, and one of two “anti-process” governors in the 24 states of Venezuela. The CNE interpreted the electoral laws to allow Rosales to keep his office of governor while running for president. If he loses on December 3, he will return to his office in Zulia. This, and the fact that the National Assembly elected one opposition rector to the five member directorship of the CNE, shows that the pro-process forces have made a significant effort to keep democratic spaces open for the opposition despite the charge of US Political Counsel Robert Downes that “Chavez controls the process and is hollowing out the democratic institutions.” He did say that Venezuela had only one person the US considers to be a political prisoner.

Geo-Political and Bilateral Context of the Upcoming Election

The domestic programs implemented after Chavez took office in 1999, including de-privatization of petroleum and the use of petrodollars for a massive system of social and development programs, were seen by Washington as a direct threat to its control over Latin America and a threat to its ability to maintain the already fraying “Washington Consensus” of market-driven, neoliberal capitalism. It is beyond the scope of this delegation report to analyze in depth the growing strains between the two countries, but the Bush administration’s hostility to the Chavez government is certainly a factor in the Dec. 3 election.

The opposition is convinced that US hostility actually benefits Chavez.

Teodoro Petkoff, who was a top contender for the opposition presidential candidacy until he withdrew in favor of Rosales told us, “Some people in the State Department talk too much, and always in ways that help Chavez. We always see the Ugly American. Condi said Venezuela being elected to the UN Security Council would be unviable. I’m against the Chavez government having a seat on the Security Council, but it is unacceptable for the US to say that.”

He was less critical of Ambassador William Brownfield, saying, “The ambassador is more prudent. He doesn’t speak much. He’s not in sync with the US government. Brownfield speaks only in response, not on his own initiative.”

Gerardo Blyde, a former leader of the opposition Primero Justicia political party who served five years in the National Assembly and is currently in charge of the mass media strategy for the Rosales campaign, told us, “It is easy in this moment to know what the role of the US is in Venezuela. Personally, I think it probably helps most the person who least deserves the help. Especially if it comes from State Department and White House officials. It has cost the opposition a lot to get out from under charges that they are agents of imperialism, paid for by the CIA, etc.”

When we asked Henrique Capriles Radonski, opposition mayor of the wealthy Caracas district of Baruta, if he thought the State Department statements help Chavez, he replied, “That’s true.”

Elias Santana of the opposition NGO Queremos Elegir put it as follows: “2007 will be a complicated year. I appreciate many people at the US embassy, but the State Department has been incredibly clumsy for a number of years. They need to understand that Chavez is a factor in Venezuela and ask why his ideas resonate in other countries. The exclusion, the inequality, etc. I think Chavez is a crazy person, but he’s my crazy person and it’s not for President Bush to deal with. Every time they speak they strengthen Chavez.”

Ultimas Noticias political columnist Luz Mele Reyes asked the obvious question, “If they want them to shut up, why don’t they tell them to shut up?”

Venezuela’s ambassador to the Organization of American States and Vice Foreign Minister Jorge Valero told us, “The enemy is not the opposition but Mr. Bush. Millions of dollars have been channeled into the opposition parties and leaders, not only formally through the NED and USAID but informally. What right does the US have to fund parties in other countries when that is illegal if done in the US?”

And Jose Albornoz, General Secretary of the Patria Para Todos party and member of the National Assembly where he chairs the Committee for the Investigation of NGO Funding added, “Under Clinton we talked. When Bush came in the decision seemed to be to get rid of Chavez rather than work out our differences.”

Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor of Ultimas Noticias, the national daily with the largest circulation and the only paper considered neutral, told us about his book, Todo de Chavez. In it he analyzes Chavez’ statements from 1998-2005. According to Diaz, from 1998-2004 Chavez did not directly attack Bush or the US. He even avoided questions and said he wanted good relations. In 2002 a confidential investigation showed that US military agents were operating in the country and US forces were poised nearby. Chavez did not confront the US over this. He began to attack the White House in February 2004, after being president for five years, as a response to the constant attacks of the US on his government.

The issue of US military intentions is not far from the thoughts of many Venezuelans. The US war against Iraq is intensely unpopular across the political spectrum. Freelance journalist Gregory Wilpert said many members of the Chavez government “from the top on down” are convinced the US will invade Venezuela.

Even opposition activists concede that the US either participated in or knew in advance about the short-lived coup of April 11, 2002. Eva Golinger, the lawyer and author, told us that the US is building a new military base on Curacao, the Dutch deep-port colony off Venezuela’s coast within sight of the oil state of Zulia.

Golinger postulated that one possible outcome of the December election would be for the US to refuse to recognize Chavez’ election and for Rosales to go back to Zulia and refuse to recognize the central government. There is already a secession movement in Zulia. With US forces in Colombia, on Curacao, and nearly constant navy war games in the Caribbean, Golinger believes it is possible that Venezuela could be stripped of its major oil producing state.

Wilpert pointed out that Venezuela’s military budget is less than that of its neighbors Colombia and Brazil. He said it will go up over the next two years as Venezuela replaces US military equipment that it can no longer repair due to the US arms embargo. The US is trying to block Venezuela from rebuilding its military and recently pressured Spain to cancel a sale of military transport planes.

In January 2006, a US naval attaché was expelled from Venezuela for espionage. In August guards at the airport stopped US personnel trying to move six tons of material that had been shipped in as part of the “diplomatic pouch.” The shipment included 11 ejector seats for military fighters in addition to the household goods of an arriving diplomat and a large quantity of frozen chicken. The embassy claimed the shipment was illegally seized by Venezuelan police and that the military equipment was for the army. Downes claimed the equipment was ordered before the US imposed its arms embargo. He didn’t explain why they were shipped secretly as part of the diplomatic pouch. In an Oct. 6, 2006, article in La Nacional, an opposition newspaper, US Ambassador William Brownfield declared that he “considers the chapter closed.”

Chavez’ September UN General Assembly speech in which he called Bush “the devil” further intensified the tension between the two governments.

The Composition of the CNE

Although the Rosales campaign is scrambling to convince opposition voters that it is worthwhile to come out and vote on December 3rd, certain sectors of the opposition and the US embassy choose to focus on their complaints about the electoral system and the National Electoral Council (CNE). This section will examine those complaints and include the responses of both pro-government and politically nonaligned interviewees as well as some of the delegation’s conclusions. Included in this section is information from our meeting with Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Mission Representative Dr. Carlos Carbacho, a Chilean who has held his post for 13 years. His beliefs that “all Venezuelans vacation in Miami” and that Chavez is trying “to promote policies different from normal countries” puts him firmly in sympathy with the opposition. It also creates a high hurdle for the OAS election monitors to overcome to prove that they are unbiased observers of the upcoming election.

Much of the opposition’s criticism centers on the composition of the CNE. The CNE is a fourth branch of government, common in Latin American countries, charged with conducting elections.

Whereas, under the previous system, CNE members were appointed by the ruling political parties and approved by the National Assembly, the 1999 Constitution established an independent electoral power, on a par with executive, legislative and judicial and the fifth independent power – citizens power. CNE Rectors are not allowed to be political party activists. Now there is a nominating committee of 11 members of the National Assembly and 10 from civil society. Law faculties also present candidates. Three Rectors and six alternates are chosen from civil society for seven year terms, one Rector and two alternates are chosen from the universities for 3-1/2 year terms, and one Rector and two alternates are chosen from the Citizens’ branch of government also for 3-1/2 years. (The Citizens’ branch is a fifth independent branch of government created by the 1999 constitution.)

We met with German Yépez, one of the five Rectors of the CNE. He described the nomination and selection process. “There might be 200-300 nominees,” Yépez said. “They are all interviewed by the National Assembly and five are chosen as Rectors and 10 as alternates.”

Teodoro Petkoff complained, “The CNE has five members, four from the government and one not. This wouldn’t be accepted in any civilized country.”

Dr. Carbacho expanded, “The CNE is five gentlemen and ladies elected by the National Assembly. The opposition abstained [from the Assembly elections of 2005], so they’re all government candidates. So, they elected the CNE in a very democratic way, but they are all government supporters. This CNE has very low credibility. If the opposition doesn’t trust the CNE, you’re looking for trouble.”

US Embassy Political Counsel Robert Downes said, “My personal opinion is that Chavez controls the system. The new CNE has a more smiling face than the old one.” He also said, “In my personal opinion Chavez is in control and is hollowing out democratic institutions.”

Decisions of the CNE can be appealed to the Electoral Panel of the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices are also elected by the National Assembly rather than appointed by the president as they are in the United States. Supreme Court Justice Fernando Vegas told the delegation that a recent convention voted Venezuela as second in judicial excellence in the Iber-American justice systems.

Jose Albornoz, General Secretary of the Patria Para Todos (PPT) party, member of the National Assembly, and chair of the Committee for the Investigation of foreign funding of NGOs, added some historical context to the complaints against the composition of the CNE. He said that the failure of the general strike at the end of 2002 and early 2003 “brought about the collapse of the ‘Democratic Coordinator’ which was what the forces who engineered the coup called themselves.” He said, “That’s when Sumate became the coordinator of the opposition and took on a political role. [Maria] Corina Machado [executive director of Sumate] was received in the Oval Office to show that she would be the spokesperson for the US within the opposition. Their tactic was to destabilize the electoral authority (CNE).”

Mechanics of Voting

All Venezuelan voting is by electronic voting machine. Their voting machines differ from those in most US states in that they are a standard model, from the same company, with software shared by all election participants. Most importantly, the machines produce a paper receipt (paper trail) to allow the voter to check that the vote was correctly recorded. The voter places the receipt in a ballot box and, at the end of election day, 56% of the machines will be audited to compare the electronic tally with the paper trail.

Downes complained that “the paper receipt is not binding, the electronic is binding in the event of a conflict.” However, in practice, widespread discrepancies between the electronic and paper tallies would, without question, draw the attention of national and international observers. That is the reason the votes are audited. At any rate, it is clearly a more secure voting system than is in place in Florida or Ohio.

Another issue raised by some in the opposition is the machine that requires a voter to have his/her fingerprint matched to a national database to insure against multiple voting. Petkoff said, “Here we have fingerprint scans. We’ve never before had that. There was a possibility that it could be used to link the vote to the voter so the old CNE decided not to use it [in the 2005 election]. This CNE has decided to reinstate it. I’m certain that it is impossible to identify a person’s vote, but both sides had agreed not to use it.”

Jose Virtuoso, S.J. is director of Ojo Electoral, which all sides seem to agree is the only nonpartisan Venezuelan election monitoring organization. Virtuoso, while generally giving high marks to the process set in place by the CNE, said that Ojo Electoral would prefer to eliminate fingerprinting because of the perception, true or not, that a person’s vote could then be tracked to his/her identity.

On this issue Carbacho added, “The CNE decided to automate the voting process. People started saying they could reprogram the machines. That developed a first perception that the CNE is unreliable. They proved on one machine that they could link the fingerprint to the vote. People are scared that they’ll know who they voted for. That’s the perception among the population, not the truth. But, it is used by the opposition and the government to scare people.”

Sumate is the most adamant against the fingerprint machines. They want the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, although Ricardo Estevez, a founding member of Sumate, also claimed it is a common practice for the ink to run out, be knocked over, or just not be there. The many years of electoral fraud by Accion Democratica and Copei have raised the level of electoral distrust in Venezuela higher than it is in many other countries.

Estevez said that Sumate doesn’t believe the fingerprint scanners will insure people can’t vote more than once. “First,” he said, “they won’t be in every polling place. Lastly, there is no law preventing the person from voting anyway so that requires a challenge afterward. For us, it is fundamental that the fingerprint scanners be eliminated.”

CNE Rector Yépez stated, “The fingerprint machine has no connection to the voting machines. It sends the information to a central database solely to confirm that the person hasn’t voted elsewhere. The voting machine isn’t online until the end of the day so there is no way to track an individual voter’s vote.”

The Rosales campaign has not made an issue of the fingerprinting plan. In a televised speech we heard him say, “People in the Missions and the government agencies will tell you not to vote because the fingerprint will identify you. Don’t believe them. It’s not true.”

Another opposition complaint is the large increase in registered voters. Carbacho called it “carcinogenic.” In the past two years 3-1/2 million people who never had identification because their births weren’t registered in hospitals and for other reasons, were assisted through Mission ID to establish their identity and receive documents which now also enable them to vote and to receive benefits from state-sponsored education, housing and health care programs.

Downes said, “The electoral roll is in bad shape. The electoral roll grew explosively and some of that was good. The Mission to ID was great.” Ojo Electoral thinks there are problems with the electoral roll, “but that doesn’t mean it is bad. Overall the register is good,” Virtuoso told the delegation.

The delegation concluded that the electoral roll is at least as good as the voter registration lists in many US cities and states, and with the fingerprint system to prevent multiple voting, any inaccuracies in the electoral roll should be cured at the ballot box.

Poll Watchers – Non-Partisan, Partisan and Military

Another major concern of government opponents is poll watchers. Election day workers have been selected by a lottery of registered voters and their service is mandatory. Ojo Electoral monitored the process “to verify that the lottery was indeed random,” according to Virtuoso.

But Sumate and the US embassy are concerned about partisan poll watchers. Downes said, “Legitimacy of the tally depends on who’s in the room. The CNE has changed the rules from parties having observers to candidates having observers. I think some of these extra candidates are pro-government to get more people in the room,” a charge echoed by Sumate’s Ricardo Estevez.

“There were originally 25 candidates,” explained Estevez. “Seven resigned in favor of Chavez. They were in only to preserve their party status. The rumor is that the remaining 16 will have their poll watchers in favor of Chavez and outvote Rosales and Benjamin Rausseo’s poll watchers. (Rausseo is the only other candidate on the ballot who breaks 1% in the opinion polls.)

There will be 33,000 polling places for the Dec. 3 election. Each candidate is permitted a poll watcher and an alternate at each site. The Rosales campaign has hired Sumate to train its poll watchers. Estevez told the delegation, ” We have 480 trainers in place and are waiting to see if Rosales has 65,000 poll watchers for them to train.” If the Rosales campaign, which has the support of by far the largest coalition of opposition groups, has yet to recruit 65,000 poll watchers, the delegation thinks it is highly unlikely that candidates with less than 1% support in the polls could recruit 65,000 fellow citizens to poll watch for them. It seems equally unlikely that the Chavez campaign could or would recruit the 1,040,000 people it would need to implement the Sumate/US embassy scenario.

The final complaint of the opposition is the election day role of the military reserves. Baruta Mayor Henrique Capriles said, “For me, the problem is not the machines but that the army reserves are watching the ballots. Unlike the regular army the reserves are not an institution, they are political.”

CNE Rector Yépez explained that, since the last dictatorship ended in 1958, the armed forces have had the responsibility of helping, and having custody of the election machines and materials. “This constitution, and the previous one, included the military reserves” on election day, he said. According to Yépez, there will be 125,000 active duty soldiers and 7,500 reserves working on election day. “They transport the equipment because they have that capacity, he explained. “Most of the polling sites are in schools. The military will guard the perimeter, but civilians selected by lottery staff the tables,” he concluded. He explained that active duty military cannot engage in political activity or run for office. Reserves sign a statement saying they will act politically neutral on election day. The election day role of the Venezuela military is similar to that of many democracies in the world.

Observers – National and International

On election day, international observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States will be monitoring the election. It is unclear as of the writing of this report whether the Carter Center will also have a monitoring delegation. The Carter Center’s proposal to the CNE during the week of our delegation was rejected because it proposed, barely two months before the election, to conduct a new audit of the electoral roll of 16 million registered voters.

There may be additional international observers. National Assembly member Jose Albornoz told the delegation, “We want a wider range of observers this time. Before it was only the OAS and Carter Center. Now we want Mercosur, (the Southern Cone trading group of Venezuela’s neighbors) and the Arab League. The US has a big loudspeaker. The only way to counter it is to have lots of voices.”

Nationally, election observation will be done by the well respected NGO Ojo Electoral. Sumate, which is under legal pressure to register as a political party, is not certified by the CNE to monitor inside the polls. Ricardo Estevez said to us, “We’ll try to be at every table, but we’ll be there with a National Guard pointing his gun and telling us to get out.” Estevez told the delegation that Sumate believes there are five principles for a transparent election:

1. Electoral register is accurate.

2. The ballot is secret.

3. The tally sheets are shared with everyone.

4. The tally sheets are audited.

5. There is qualified international and national observation.

He concluded, “We believe that none of these conditions will be met.” It seems likely that Sumate will reject the election results regardless of the conclusions of national and international monitors.

Ojo Electoral has by far the most comprehensive monitoring system and it has been monitoring the entire election process.

Jose Virtuoso, Ojo Electoral’s director said, “Ojo Electoral is organizing national civil election observation to exert citizen control over the process. Government institutions involved can lose their credibility so it is important that citizens in general are able to pass judgment.”

He outlined the process that Ojo Electoral has put in place:

1. Station observers at voting sites during the entire time the polls are open.

2. Monitor the pre-election calendar.

(He said that Ojo Electoral checked to verify that the lottery to select election day poll workers was indeed random.)

3. Watch the campaigns in the streets and the large demonstrations to make sure they comply with the laws, especially with regard to public funds and government employee involvement.

4. Ojo Electoral is not monitoring the media.

(Virtuoso said, “The media is not that interesting. We already know that channel 8 will be pro-Chavez and all the other stations will be anti-Chavez.”)

5. Look at the electronic elements of the election. The law requires various audits of the electoral roll, the voting machines, the software, etc., before, during, and after the election. Fourteen audits in all are required involving the political parties, universities, and Ojo Electoral.

(“Ojo Electoral pushed hard for this process,” he said.)

6. Watch conditions outside the polling places, the people in line, etc., watching for the use of propaganda, intimidation, and police behavior.

7. Audit the closing of the voting sites.

(Electronic voting machines give a paper receipt which the voter checks and puts in a ballot box. Fifty-six percent of voting machines will be given a full audit comparing the electronic and paper counts according to Virtuoso.)

Virtuoso said that Ojo Electoral uses the process designed by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is one of the core groups of NED, and the Carter Center. Some of Ojo Electoral’s members observed elections in the Dominican Republic and Palestine. “Initially, we copied their process, but we have been transforming it to our experience. NDI has no experience with electronic voting. Venezuela has a long experience with electronic and statistical analysis,” he said.

Ojo Electoral’s total budget for this election is $700,000, and is being paid for by the European Union, Norway, Holland, Canada, and Switzerland. Virtuoso stated, “We could have gotten money from NDI, the Carter Center, and the US Ambassador. We told them no, that is not possible for credibility reasons. NDI has helped with advice and interchange.”

The Concerns of Pro-Government Forces

One of the major concerns of pro-government forces is to know what is being done with the US$26 million the US government admits is being spent in Venezuela through NED and USAID.

The Associated Press and other journalists have filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the US for information about the USAID grants which resulted in the release of basic, minimal information about 132 grants. However, USAID refused to reveal which organizations or individuals were receiving these grants for political “democracy building” projects, claiming that recipients would be subject to government harassment. Presumably, then, the political grants from USAID are going to opposition groups – a conclusion that is consistent with the information we gleaned in our meetings with the US Embassy and opposition groups.

We also learned about an additional check for $300,000 written to Sumate from the US Department of Health and Human Services. National Assembly member Jose Albornoz gave the delegation a copy of a $300,000 check that Sumate returned to US taxpayers. We asked Sumate and the US Embassy, where USAID is housed, what Sumate had proposed to do with the money.

Sumate’s Estevez readily admits to receiving grants from the US over several years and stated that the grants were proper and for legal “democracy building” purposes. He told the delegation that the $300,000 was a grant from USAID “to perform a new, more comprehensive audit of the electoral roll.” Sumate returned it because “facing all the national political pressure and the fact that the CNE never published all the addresses, we decided not to do the audit and gave the money back.”

Albornoz questioned the source of the money, stating “Sumate got a check for $300,000 from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), signed by HHS Secretary Michael Levin to challenge the accuracy of the voter roll. They [US HHS] should be giving money for inoculations not elections.”

The US Embassy’s Downes was vague about the purpose of the check and said he thought it had to do with training election observers. He told the delegation that the fact that the check was written from HHS was simply a matter of “cash flow” within the US government. He then declined our request to set up a meeting with USAID, noting that the MITF website indicated opposition to US policy in Venezuela.

Eva Golinger thinks that a lot of groups receiving US funding don’t really exist and serve simply as a way to funnel money to the opposition. “If you want $50,000 from USAID,” she said, “all you need is to fill out a one page form off the internet from the VICC of the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).” She pointed out that USAID grants, which are administered in Venezuela by the OTI, have doubled in 2004-2006 compared to 2002-2003. She also told the delegation, “NED has created a worldwide network to obscure the source of grants. Groups in Norway, Sweden, and Canada get NED funding and then redistribute it. There’s definitely a US/Canada/Venezuela connection through the Canadian organization FOCAL.”

Another issue of concern is that, if there is a high abstention level in the election, the opposition and US government will use that as an excuse to not recognize Chavez as the winner. Rosales’ media coordinator, Gerardo Blyde, showed us an elaborate PowerPoint presentation purporting to show that Chavez has never won an election with a majority on the premise that those who did not vote would have voted for the opposition. The delegation found that argument to be specious since by that standard George Bush has never won more than about 25% of the electorate. But, Blyde stated that the argument has convinced most of the opposition groups to reject pushing voters to abstain this time around, although his own party, Primero Justicia, has split over the issue.

Blyde told the delegation that he opposes boycotting elections but, “there are people who defend abstention as a way to delegitmize Chavez. They got their way on the National Assembly election, but now they’re a very small group. Who is organizing the abstention? Sumate. Sumate went beyond what its role should have been. Instead of a transparency group, it became a boycott group. They changed from a technical group to a political group.”

Yet another issue of concern is that US or internal forces might convince Rosales to drop out of the race at the last minute as a way to delegitimize the results, the same tactic that the opposition used to their own detriment in the legislative election in 2005. There was a range of opinion on the likelihood of this scenario, but Rosales appears to be running hard and Teodoro Petkoff, who might have been the opposition unity candidate if he had not withdrawn in favor of Rosales, told us that he had recently asked Rosales if he would withdraw and Rosales pledged not to unless there were “unforeseen circumstances.”

Petkoff told the delegation another interesting thing. He said, “After the coup, Chavez said ‘let’s talk.’ The opposition said no. After the recall, Chavez said ‘let’s talk.’ The opposition said no. That strengthened Chavez. If the opposition had been democratic from the beginning, I’m convinced Chavez would be politically dead. The opposition strengthens Chavez.”

The final concern of pro-government forces is that polls will be manipulated to give the appearance that Rosales is gaining momentum so that the opposition can claim fraud if he loses.

Ultimas Noticias political columnist Luz Mele Reyes explained that since 1998 there has been a “war of the polls.” She said polling results are filtered to the press. “Never do they give us the whole survey, who financed it, or their methodology. The national media publish the information and then international news agencies pick it up. It happens in the other direction as well. There may be a little story in the US and it will be front page here. If a US paper says ‘US Southcom says Chavez supports guerrillas, FARC etc.’, the papers here will say, ‘Chavez Supports Terrorism.'”

Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor of Ultimas Noticias, told us that there are eight polling companies in Venezuela. The oldest is DATOS which was founded in 1954 and, he said, continues to be the most credible. IVAD is new. Dataanlalysis and Hinterlaces are also credible, Diaz told us.

“DATOS and IVAD have Rosales at 24% and Chavez at 50% plus,” Diaz said. He said that in the 2004 recall, all the polls agreed that Chavez would win by 8-16 points. He won by almost 20%.

In 2004, “One US firm’s exit poll said Chavez had lost,” said Diaz. “That firm is back now. It is Penn, Schoen and Berland.” Diaz said that the Rosales campaign released a poll from Penn, Schoen and Berland claiming Rosales is at 35%. Penn, Schoen and Berland said that they assumed people who were afraid to say who they supported meant that they supported Rosales which means he has a lot more support. “None of the Venezuelan companies have encountered people afraid to speak,” Diaz commented.

Petkoff told the delegation, “I trust the polling firms IVAD and DATOS. The others I don’t.”

Freelance journalist Gregory Wilpert told us, “Rosales is going to do better than most people expect. He’s touching on issues relevant to ordinary citizens: crime, corruption, and housing. The polls are all over the place and some are manipulated. The worst is Penn, Schoen and Bernan from New York. Theirs is the exit poll that claimed Chavez had lost the recall election.”

Eva Golinger predicted, “By the time we get to the election, pseudo polling firms will say the race is neck and neck and then the US won’t recognize Chavez. Rosales will go back to Zulia and say he doesn’t recognize the national government. The US has a big base in Curacao and lots of troops on the border of Colombia and Zulia.”

Conclusion

The main goal of the delegation was to examine the role of the US government in Venezuela’s Dec. 3, 2006 presidential election. We concluded that the Venezuelan electoral system is robust and includes safeguards not available in most US elections. We further concluded that US interference in the election is not for the purpose of “democracy building” but to bring down the Chavez government and to reassert US political, military and economic control in the region.

In the US we urge people of good will to use the findings detailed in this report to counter an expected post-election disinformation campaign to invalidate the results of Venezuela’s election as part of a deliberate US campaign to destabilize that sovereign nation.

APPENDIX 1

Members of the delegation were:

Dale Sorensen is the director of Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas, a ecumenical non-profit organization based in California that is focused on human rights in the Americas.

Chuck Kaufman, national co-coordinator, Nicaragua Network and volunteer staff of the Venezuela Solidarity Network.

Susan Scott is a tax and employment lawyer from Sacramento, California. She is Chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s Task Force on the Americas.

Sue Severin is a retired health educator, works as an election official on election day in her home town, and has observed elections in Mexico and Central America.

Canela Saenz is a sociologist and Venezuelan national living in Los Angeles, California.

Tom Pratt a Middleburg, Virginia resident and small businessman is chairman of the Virginia Department of Peace.

George Friemoth is on the board of Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas and lives in Marin, California.

Robert Siegel is an investment manager in Florida and has observed elections in Central America.

Elliott Gillooly is a student at University of North Carolina at Asheville, majoring in Political Science.

APPENDIX 2

Who We Met

Jose Virtuoso, S.J. Director, Ojo Electoral

Gregory Wilpert, Freelance journalist. Editor of venezuelanalysis.org

Alonso Dominguez, director of Liderazgo y Vision (Leadership and Vision)

Eva Golinger, lawyer, author of The Chavez Code – Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela

Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily newspaper, Tal Cual, and former possible opposition presidential candidate. Currently supporting Rosales

Minnori Martinez, vice-president of Frente de Abogados Bolivarianos (Bolivarian Lawyers Front) and head organizer of lawyers for the Chavez campaign.

Julio Lattan, president of Frente de Abogados Bolivarianos

Jose Albornoz, general secretary of the Patria Para Todos party, member of National Assembly, chair of Committee for the Investigation of foreign funding of Venezuelan NGOs.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, opposition mayor of wealthy Caracas district of Baruta

German Yépez, rector, National Electoral Commission (CNE)

Fernando Vegas, Supreme Court justice from Electoral Chamber

Gerard Blyde, Prior secretary general of the opposition party Primero Justicia, former member of the National Assembly, and current member of Rosales’ strategy team in charge of mass media.

Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor of the daily newspaper Ultimas Noticias, Venezuela’s highest circulation newspaper, and author of Todo Chavez

Luz Mele Reyes, political columnist and weekend editor, Ultimas Noticias

Jorge Valero, vice-foreign minister for North American relations and Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States.

Dr. Carlos Carbacho, Chilean head of the OAS Permanent Mission to Venezuela

Elias Santana, founder, Queremos Elegir (We Want to Choose)

Dan Laughton, new US embassy staffer

Robert Downes, Political Counsel, US Embassy

Ricardo Estevez, founding member of Sumate, member executive committee, chair, Citizen Monitoring program.

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