[Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright recently visited Venezuela as an international observer of the democracy of the election process and found it in many ways more democratic than in the UK. Wainwright also ended up observing the internal democracy of the Chavista movement itself and found at its grassroots an inspiring commitment to pluralism, critical debate, and popular autonomy from which we also have much to learn. For a Spanish version of this article click here.]
By Hilary Wainwright - Red Pepper
Hilary Wainwright reports from Caracas on Venezuela’s referendum – and the next steps towards reform
Referendum day in Caracas began unofficially at 3am with voters letting off firecrackers and sounding horns to celebrate the dawn of the day of decision on the fate of President Chavez’s proposals for constitutional reforms. These reforms contained an ambitious mix of social rights for housing, social security, education and a shorter working week along with proposals for entrenching community councils, formalising Venezuela as a socialist state, giving the president a wide range of emergency powers and allowing Chavez to stand again as president after his second term expires in 2012.
Observing the vote
For me, referendum day began at the more leisurely hour of 7am with donning the grey jacket and baseball style cap of the ‘observación internacional’. We were an international group of around 80 people from academic, media or civil society organisations observing the voting procedures of the referendum. We were allocated to ten mini-vans and dispatched across Caracas and its hinterland. I found myself in Grupo 10 visiting six polling stations in the neighbourhood of Catia La Mar, a lower middle class/working class area near the airport, and returning at the close of polling to observe a manual audit of the electronic votes in a large secondary school in central Caracas.
As we arrived at our first assignment, people were queuing to check their names on lists pinned up on the wall of the polling station to find out to which of up to eight ‘tables’ in the station they had been assigned. They went to the appropriate room with their ID, signed and also marked their fingerprint by their printed name. A treble check on their identity – quite a contrast from the casual polling card system at home in the UK.
They then caste their vote in secret behind a makeshift cardboard screen, or rather they pressed their chosen button on an electronic machine. The same machine then printed out the vote for the voter to check and put in a ballot box as a basis for auditing the electronic voting. A random 54 per cent of machines were audited in this way and later in the polling station in central Caracas we saw 360 or so paper votes from one of these the ballot box being carefully counted and checked against the electronic votes. Much to everyone’s relief they tallied.
Finally every voter had purple indelible ink painted on one of their finger tips as they left the polling station. At one polling station a voter challenged its indelibility and he and the observers were taken through a thorough experiment with bleach and ammonia to put the purple ink, successfully, to the test.
The whole process was conscientiously run by the young staff of the National Electoral Council (CNE) an institution set up as part of the Bolivarian constitution of 1999 with dedicated responsibility for developing and implementing the procedures for running elections. It is autonomous from the government, with a board appointed by the National Assembly of academics, civil society organisations, and the ombudsman. The stations were guarded by equally youthful members of the armed forces – many women as well as men – with machine guns slung over their shoulders. The police evidently are not to be trusted.
Each ‘table’ had a president and a secretary appointed on a random basis from the local neighbourhood and trained to take an active part in the process. Then there were two witnesses, one for the ‘Si’ and one for the ‘No’, who in all the stations that I visited agreed on the fairness of the rules and the integrity and openness of the process. In most cases, these local partisans showed a degree of mutual respect totally at odds with the polarised picture conveyed in the national press and enacted on the streets of downtown Caracas. At one station a ‘No’ witness started ranting against the proposals and at another we heard that the cocky manner in which ‘Si’ voters behaved as they voted had driven the ‘No’ witness away. But otherwise they were all smiles.
State of shock
By the end of the day, the smiles of ‘Si’ supporters were gone and there was simply the glaze of shock. It was widely known that the results would be close but exit polls had indicated a lead of 6-8 per cent for the proposals. We were told the results would all be known by mid evening. (The electronic process was devised partly to ensure speedy results and avoid the tensions of a delay).
We assembled in an extension of the CNE building in downtown Caracas and waited and waited. It was going to be closer than everyone expected. That much was clear.
By midnight still no result. Rumour had it and then television screens confirmed it that opposition militants were storming the CNE building, interpreting the delay as a sign that something dodgy was going on. The truth was that the polling stations had closed late (the rule was to keep the station open beyond the closure time of 4pm so long as there was anyone queuing to vote) and the auditing process had taken longer than anticipated.
Behind the scenes the atmosphere was tense. Only the day before polling there had been considerable violence, including someone killed in political fight. The careful, ever-prepared CNE organisers had planned to take the international observers back to the hotel but it was decided that this would be too dangerous. When on several occasions there was a rush towards the platform, it was easy to think that some kind of attack was underway. But it was just people rushing in from foyers to the main hall thinking an announcement was about to be made. Soon after 1am the president of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena walked calmly on to the platform and, facing a battery of cameras and microphones, quietly announced the results.
Two women hugged each other in front of the stage but generally there was a stunned silence. The international observers were shepherded protectively out to the bus. We walked to the car park flanked on either side by an armed guard. In fact, everything seemed calm (the next morning several people remarked that had the results gone against the opposition, there would have been multiple outbursts of violence across Caracas).
Left critics of Chavez
In the bus we listened to Chavez, humble and confident at the same time. The ‘people have spoken’ he said, noting the way the result strengthened the legitimacy of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. The constitutional proposals were defeated, he accepted. ‘Por ahora’ he added, echoing a resonant phrase, ‘for now’, that he’d used at an earlier moment of defeat that was also a precursor of victory: in a broadcast following the failed military coup he had led in 1992 against the reactionary oligarchs of the corrupt Venezuelan state.
The legacy of these institutions still lives on. Bureaucracy and corruption are still pervasive at every level, blocking Chavez’s ability to get the oil money down to those who need it. For Chavez, the constitutional reforms were aimed at transforming this oligarchic state, destroying its legacy forever. But while support for his presidency continues to be high – the polls indicate over 60 per cent support – his proposals for reform are deeply controversial among many who strongly support the Bolivarian process of democratisation, popular power and the creation of a new kind of socialism.
Indeed, a less comfortable sign of the strength of Venezuelan democracy for Chavez has been the flourishing of debate and criticism among his own supporters. For example, one of Chavez’s most cogent critics from the left is Edgardo Lander, a widely respected socialist academic who was one of the Venezuelan negotiators on ALCA (the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas). Lander stresses his support for the Bolivarian process while criticising the degree to which reforms centralise power in the hands of the president and treat popular power as part of the state rather than as a source of autonomous power over the state. While having no truck with the right wing opposition he also insists that the reforms involved such a thoroughgoing overhaul of the constitution that they should have been subject to a real constituent process of popular participation. (See www.tni.org for a translation of his arguments.)
The view from the barrios
How significant are the arguments of such socialist critics? What is going on among Chavez supporters to explain the rejection of his proposals at a time when support for his presidency rides high?
(click here to view entire article)