Julia Buxton has been an observer at elections in Venezuela for nearly twenty years. In April 2013 this was the first election without Hugo Chávez since 1999. This is her report.
I have observed elections in Venezuela in various capacities for nearly twenty years. It was the issue of electoral transparency in the country that framed my doctoral thesis after a scoping visit revealed intense popular concern that Andrés Velásquez, leader of the leftist La Causa Radical (LCR) party had been denied victory in the 1993 presidential contest through election fraud. Every taxi driver, waiter and street vendor I met decried the electoral ‘theft’ committed by the traditionally dominant parties AD and COPEI, which it was believed had ensured the defeat of Velásquez and the victory of the octogenarian founder of COPEI, Rafael Caldera.
When I began the fieldwork for the thesis, I honed in on Andrés Delmont, the representative of LCR in the Venezuelan national election administration, the Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE). Allocated a seat on the CSE board under a proportional representation system, Delmont had a PhD in mathematics from Birmingham University and a wealth of detail as to how election fraud was committed.
At this point in time, Venezuela had a manual voting system, few polling stations and a huge swathe of its disaffected and alienated population missing from the electoral register. Residents of the barrios were unable to register without proof of address, something they were hard pressed to provide living as they did in the informal settlements that cascade down the slopes of Caracas.
Delmont showed me sheet after sheet of actas, the record of totalised votes submitted to the CSE from each polling station. Typically the thumb prints required as proof of identity from voters were anonymous black blobs, the number of votes cast rarely matched the number of registered voters, and the votes registered per party frequently did not match the final vote tally written into the acta. If LCR did not have witnesses present when votes were being manually counted and written up in the acta, the party ran the risk that votes cast in their favour would simply be ignored and not entered into the acta. And the election register was not up to date, enabling a significant number of dead people to rise Lazarus like in order to vote for the traditional parties. Acta Mata Vota (the acta kills the vote) was a popular expression at this time.
Twenty years on from the defeat of Velásquez, and I had the opportunity to observe the voting process of April 14th. One of 150 electoral ‘accompaniers’ invited by the Consejo Nacional Electoral (which replaced the CSE in the 1999 Constitution), I was sent to Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chávez. My team comprised an American lawyer, a judge from Argentina, a Panamanian diplomat, a Bolivian election commissioner, a German journalist and a Brazilian official from Mercosur.
We departed for the sweltering central plains after two intense days of briefing and training in Caracas organised by CNE officials and which included visits to voting stations as they began setting up, and an afternoon of meetings with representatives from the ruling PSUV’s Hugo Chávez Command and opposition MUD’s Simón Bolívar Command. From the MUD we were joined by María Corina Machado, (in) famously feted by US President George Bush. She worked the room of observers with finesse, weaving her magic and charisma around high-level election technicians dispatched from India, South Korea, Guyana, Jamaica … professional individuals that certainly do not qualify as the complicit patsies subsequently portrayed by the MUD and their supporters in Washington.
Machado had not figured upon redoubtable British journalist, Hugh O Shaughnessy. During their warm hand shake he asked her about her role in the April 2002 coup attempt that led to the temporary removal of President Chavez. Her claim to have had no involvement was undermined by a quick Google of signatories to the 2002 decree dissolving the Chávez government. O’Shaughnessy pressed on in the Q and A. She conceded that she had signed it, but by accident – she had just thought it a petition.
Barinas was hot but extraordinarily subdued. 2013 was not a rerun of the carnival atmosphere of the 2006 presidential election. There were no dogs died red in support of the PSUV, no festive rallies or swarms of Chávez supporters roaring around on motorcycles with flags and bandanas. A stop at a traffic light did not bring the throng of loyal Chavista hawkers wielding posters of the PSUV candidate Nicolas Maduro or the singing and chanting around stationary trucks, buses and cars I had seen in 1998, 2000 or 2006. Just a disconcerting quiet and barely any posters of Maduro – or even Chávez, the popular former president whose image and voice Maduro had corralled into his own campaign.
As the CNE Barinas staff drove us around the state, we saw newly constructed hospitals, schools and houses. Our hotel was evidently part of the Barinas construction boom, brand new but, like much that we had seen, eerily empty. After a very long day, we met with representatives of the main parties, MUD, PSUV, UVIPA and Unidad Democratica. The MUD representative grumbled about the advantages of incumbency and state spending – nothing we could directly address so he closed with the claim Colombian guerrillas were being allowed to enter Barinas to vote for Maduro. This was an echo of Ms Machado the day before. When a colleague in my team stressed this was an extraordinarily serious claim and we needed evidence to investigate, the salience of the issue seemed to dissipate for the MUD representative.
We were at the first of the multiple sites we visited on voting day by 5.50am. We watched the plugging in of the electronic voting machines and the setting up of the boxes in which the receipt from the electronic machine was deposited by voters. This innovation provides the voter with proof their touchscreen vote has been read correctly, while serving as a mechanism for a thorough and transparent audit of the votes that are electronically received by the CNE in Caracas from each voting table around the country.
My team went out of their way to check the opposition MUD had witnesses present at each polling station and at the multiplicity of voting tables within each station. We asked each and every witness we spoke to if they had any concerns or issues to raise. No single problem was reported: no problems with the biometric finger print reader, with the touchscreen machines, with the election register, with the allocation of tables, with the time it took to vote. We noted how efficaciously the voting tables functioned, elections having acquired a level of routinisation that breeds capacity and speed of voting. Also observed was how communities worked together across partisan difference, sharing food, coffee and water at the polling stations throughout the long and hot day.
At no point did we see MUD witnesses or voting table functionaries being marched out of polling stations at gun point as alleged by the MUD after the votes were counted. We saw no attempt to block people voting or intimidation by PSUV supporters. On the contrary: election day in Barinas was a muted affair, begetting as much excitement and intensity as the parish council elections in my home town of Ilkley.
We were at a polling station with 7 tables when the voting process began to close at 6pm. We moved freely around the 7 electronic machines as they totalised the vote and issued final vote count receipts. Capriles, Capriles, Capriles – each time with a tiny margin. There was no reaction at the voting tables. Administrators simply got on with packing up. And there was no one outside when we left the polling station, no great throng of voters desperate to know the result, no party or anxiety.
We returned to the CNE office in Barinas, where my Panamanian colleague and I took occasional jaunts to the roof. Aside from a small group of young men in red t-shirts in the far distance, we saw nothing of interest, no cause for concern. We returned to our empty hotel and the television, where in the company of the Civil Defence and National Guard officers assigned to escort us, we watched CNE president Tibisay Lucena announce the results. One officer clenched a fist that might have been raised in triumph had he been in more convivial company. But the waiters and kitchen staff were more focused on keeping the buffet warm, his colleagues on eating supper. The fist was slipped back into his pocket. We waited for the Maduro acceptance speech, hoping for a final bit of magic to raise spirits on a flat day. But it was a disappointment.
In this context, the violence of the following day was not expected. When the gates of the hotel were thrown back to allow us to depart for the airport, we saw a street lined with soldiers holding back a noisy crowd of Capriles supporters. The transformation of the atmosphere, from relaxed and friendly to threatening and aggressive was astonishing, the tension of Barinas a perfect preparation for what was to greet us in Caracas.
Back in Caracas and holed up in the Tamanaco hotel on the ‘good side’ of town, the evening was spent listening to the endless honk of car horns and clatter of pots and pans as Capriles supporters responded to their defeated candidate’s request that they protest as yet unproven allegations of election fraud. Reunited with other British delegates and American colleagues from the US Guild of Lawyers we briefly contemplated venturing out, but a short trip to the local supermarket evidenced this was not a night for strolling the streets. Like Maduro’s supporters, we gave way in the face of the bitter fury of the defeated, a hunkering down that will inevitably characterise the years ahead for the new government.
 The Failure of Political reform in Venezuela, Ashgate 2001