This is a Blog of my trip to Venezuela with the Venezuela Information Office from August 13-18, 2004, as an observer for the referendum on the Hugo Chavez government. Here are stories I wrote for The Monitor and the Network Institute for Global Democratization on the referendum, as well as a longer and more detailed essay. Here are my photos.
Thursday, August 19, 2004
On Monday, we met with Maria Egilda Castellano, the Rectora of the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (UBV). This is a new public university that began a year ago to provide a higher education to people who cannot afford the cost or do not have the test scores necessary to attend other universities. UBV is housed in a building that PDVSA, the state oil company, abandoned. The university is completely free, including books, photocopies, medical services, transportation, and even lunches. Seventy seven percent of the students are from the lower-class, seventeen percent from the middle class, and four percent from the upper class.
More interesting, however, is the philosophy which drives the university. It is designed to break with old models of universities, and instead focuses on participatory democracy, social justice, and Latin American integration. It considers the political, ethical, and cultural bases for education, with a goal of building better citizens. Rather than following traditional academic divisions, the programs are interdisciplinary and emphasize service-learning aspects. The university seems to me to be a cross between Popular Universities common in Latin America the 1920s and current thinking in the United States on liberal arts education.
On Tuesday, we visited Caribe Itagua, Las Casitas, in the Parroquia la Vega on the outskirts of Caracas. It is a neighborhood that has benefits greatly from social programs under the Chavez administration. Before there were few social programs, but now there are education, literacy, medical, food, and other programs. Because of these programs, it is an area strongly supportive of Chavez. Witnessing the depth of this support makes it easy to understand why and how Chavez won the referendum on Sunday. </Marc> <!--12:35 PM-->
<Marc> Felicitaciones de Ecuarunari a Chávez y al heroico pueblo venezolano (Quito, 16 de agosto de 2004) </Marc> <!--11:03 AM-->
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
<Marc> While the rest of the world has gone on under the assumption that Chavez won the referendum fairly, and even the Bush White House has seem to have come to terms with this reality, the conservative elite opposition in Caracas categorically refuses to recognize the results. Their attitude is "if we lost, there must have been fraud" because no one in Venezuela would wait in line 10 hours to vote in favor of Chavez. They have called on Carter to "open his mouth" and denounce the results as fraudulent, and are calling for a full manual recount of the vote. The CNE has agreed to an audit of the count, but two things are already completely clear: a recount would only verify the validity of the results, and the opposition will not accept the results of the recount. The only thing they are willing to accept is victory for themselves and the removal of Chavez from office. This is their concept of democracy.
Part of the reason why a Chavez victory appears so improbable to them is that people voted in this election who have never voted before. Voter participation was at an unprecedented level, which is part of what caused long lines at the polls. The new voters are primarily from poor neighborhoods where there is die-hard Chavez support. The opposition based its projections of a Chavez defeat on polling in wealthy neighborhood that up until five years ago defined the political landscape of the country. They have not adjusted their model to a new reality of a mobilized and empowered lower class, which led to some inaccurate polls depicting a Chavez defeat.
Meanwhile, celebrations on the streets of Caracas continued through Monday nite, with people converging at Miraflores and caravans of cars and trucks loaded with people waving "NO" flags and honking their horns. The sustained energy reflects how important of a victory this was for the Venezuelan people.</Marc> <!--6:09 PM-->
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
<Marc> In a nutshell, the opposition is trying to declare the election fraudulent, even though observers, etc., are saying that it is the cleanest election ever here. They are like little children who are unwilling to accept the loss. So far their has been little violence, but the next couple days are probably important in order to see how things play out.</Marc> <!--7:31 AM-->
Monday, August 16, 2004
<Marc> We went to Miraflores to listen to Chavez's speech and watch the victory celebrations. At 4:30 am, there were few available transportation options so we walked there in the pouring rain and got completely soaked. The crowd at the palace was a sea of red and completely ecstatic. Chavez's speech was very conciliatory, but it is clear that this is an important victory and solidifies the direction of the political project here in favor of the poor and marginalized.
On TV, the opposition is crying fraud. They claim that their figures showed them winning the vote by 60% to 40%, and pledge to put forward evidence supporting their charges. At this point, though, it does not appear that their is any basis for their position. It is unclear whether they simply were victims of believing their own lies about the level's of Chavez's popularity, or whether this is yet one more anti-democratic ploy to press elite class interests against those of the people.</Marc> <!--7:44 AM-->
<Marc> We were woken up w/ fireworks and shouts. The CNE announced that the "NO" vote won. Channel 8 (the government TV channel) is celebrating the victory of the people. The commercial stations are deep in mourning and pointing out the "irregularities" in the vote (even tho int'l observers are emphasizing the fairness and transparency of the vote). One station shows a split screen with the wild celebrations at Miraflores and the dejected and half empty hall were the opposition had gathered. What a historic day!
BBC has just reported that Chavez won with 58% of the vote. It is a rather wide margin of victory.
While I am trying to connect to the modem here in our hotel room, we see Chavez coming to the window of the Miraflores palace and waving to the people gathered below.</Marc> <!--3:34 AM-->
<Marc> Still waiting to hear the official results. Mike says that he is setting his alarm for 2:55 to listen to the news report. 40% of precincts have reported back. goodnite.</Marc> <!--12:46 AM-->
Sunday, August 15, 2004
<Marc> Check out this story by members of our delegation, Justin Delacour and Diana Barahona: Can the Carter Center Observe Venezuela's Referendum Impartially? on http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/. </Marc> <!--10:35 PM-->
<Marc> The voting was originally supposed to end at 6 pm, and then it was extended to 8 pm, and now to midnite. we went back out this evening to see what is happening on the streets and in the polling places. Some polling places still had relatively long lines. But what was most striking was the difference btwn Miraflores and Altamira. Energetic pro-Chavista crowds have gathered at Miraflores chanting "Chavez ya ganó" (Chavez already won) and are parading through the streets shouting, honking horns, and shooting off fireworks. On the other hand, the traditional opposition gathering point, Plaza Altamira, is almost completely deserted. Although the few people there try to put forward a positive face, the dejected attitude is clear. There is an embargo on reporting final results until midnite, but at this point the outcome appears clear. We anxiously await the final results.</Marc> <!--10:17 PM-->
<Marc> Carter gave a press conference in which he noted that it has taken longer for each person to vote and that there are more voters than what the CNE had originally taken into account. The polls have been extended to 8 pm (from 6 pm) and it is important for people to be patient. Everybody can vote. It is important for the press or political parties not to make any early announcements as to the projected outcome of the vote. Everything with the vote so far is going well.
In our delegation we had several general observations:
<Marc> We went out to visit several polling places this morning (El Calverio, Carapita, and Colinas de Vista Alegre). The second place was a poor neighborhood with a high degree of Chavez support. We then went to a wealthy neighborhood where the anti-Chavez sentiments run strong. The contrast drives home the class nature of divides here. Everything seems to be going ok, tho the voting is going very slowly and the turnout rate is high which is creating long lines. Now we are back in the hotel watching reports on TV. The anti-Chavez opposition had initially said that it would report their results on the referendum, but apparently they have wisely backed off on that. Such statements would only heighten tensions, undermine the process, and potentially lead to violence.
We were woken up at 1 am last night with firecrackers, gunshots, and shouts. From 1 am to 5 am, both sides were out on the streets parading around (even tho there is a prohibition on political campaigns). But so far there haven't been violent conflicts, and we hope it stays that way. The commitment to the civic responsibilities and the political process is rather impressive, and is marked contrast to elections in the U.S.</Marc> <!--2:37 PM-->
<Marc> According to the news reports, everything with the vote is going well this morning. There have been a couple glitches, like a person being robbed on the way to working at a poll station and a couple people sleeping in and not opening the polling stations on time. We'll see what happens...</Marc> <!--7:57 AM-->
Saturday, August 14, 2004
<Marc> Tonite we met with an Afro-Venezuelan activist Jesus Garcia. He noted that the referendum tomorrow is not just about the figure of one man, but the hope of the people is at play with all of those historical contractions. Specifically, the Chavez gov't has redistributed 3 million hectares of land and 40 percent of that has gone to African and Indigenous peoples. The Robinson Mission has brought literacy to marginalized community. If Chavez is defeated tomorrow, these and other social programs will be ended. This, Garcia emphasized, is what is at play tomorrow. And the implications are not just for Venezuela, but for all of Latin America. It is an alternative way to organizing society that puts the needs of the people first.
Apparently Jimmy Carter said in an interview today that whatever happens tomorrow, the process here in Venezuela will be more legitimate and transparent than what happened in Florida in 2000.</Marc> <!--11:20 PM-->
<Marc> I arrived in Caracas yesterday afternoon. Driving in from the airport we passed seas of banners hanging from utility pools with competing "NO" (against recalling Chavez) and "SI" (for the recall) banners.
This morning we went to the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) which is in charge of overseeing the referendum. There is a lot of vote education going on, and the vote will be done on electronic voting machines. Campaigns were to stop on Thursday, so for the most part little is happening right now (at least in public--the CNE and the presidential palace is working overtime to get everything ready). We passed a person on the street selling both SI and NO flags. Nothing like capitalism, I suppose, to take advantage of such an event.
This afternoon we met with Orlando Chirino, the national coordinator of the labor union Union Nacional de Trabajadores de Venezuela (UNETE). The better known CTV is staunchly anti-Chavista, but this union is campaigning for Chavez. Chirino noted that the "CTV has lost its class character and is working in the service of imperialism" (it receives funding from the AFL-CIO and NED in its campaigns against Chavez). Chirino defended the importance of political independence of labor unions, as well as the international character of the working class struggle. Labor representatives from Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere who are also here for the referendum joined us in the meeting.
Tomorrow is the vote on the referendum to recall Chavez. We will see what happens!</Marc> <!--5:27 PM-->
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Monday, August 09, 2004
<Marc> I'm getting ready to leave for Venezuela.</Marc> <!--10:01 PM-->