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On Aug. 27, Venezuelan electoral authorities confirmed President Hugo Chavez’s victory in the referendum. Though there were accusations of fraud by the opposition, the final official results totaled 59.25 percent for Chavez, 40.74 percent against. The Carter Center participated in an audit of the votes (see final report above) and concluded the results were accurate.

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council determined in June that sufficient signatures were gathered to trigger a recall referendum against the Venezuelan president and scheduled the referendum for Aug. 15, four days before the constitutional deadline of Aug. 19. This Web feature examines developments leading to the current crisis in Venezuela, and the Carter Center’s crucial role since 2002 in finding a resolution to the situation.

Q&A with Jennifer McCoy, Ph.D., Director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program

- Can you give some background on President Chavez and the current crisis in Venezuela?

- Venezuela is on the northern coast of South America and is one of the primary sources of oil to the United States. It had been a fairly stable, established democracy since 1958, but in the 1990s, growing poverty and plummeting confidence in the traditional political parties led to the election of Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez as president in 1998. He led an attempted coup six years before against the elected president at that time, failed, was jailed, and later pardoned. He then came back, formed a political party, and was elected president in 1998, which The Carter Center observed.

Despite early approval ratings exceeding 80 percent, his leadership style was confrontational, and the country became extremely divided and polarized, culminating in an attempted coup against him in April 2002. He was removed from office by the military, until the military reversed course under pressure from other Latin leaders and from the people on the street, and put him back in office two days later. How did The Carter Center become involved in Venezuela? After the April 2002 coup, President Chavez asked former President Carter to help him establish a dialogue with the opposition. President Carter had traveled several times to Venezuela, including monitoring the 1998 and 2000 elections, and he and President Chavez built a very good personal relationship.

As a result of this invitation, Carter Center staff started going to Venezuela frequently. The Center established an unprecedented relationship with two international organizations—the United Nations Development Programme and the Organization of American States—in a tripartite working group to lead a national dialogue.

- What was the outcome of the national dialogue?

- That national dialogue took place over several months and resulted in an agreement in May 2003. The two sides agreed that the constitutional provision for a recall referendum on the president could help resolve the deep divisions and questions about the president’s mandate.

In the United States, we have the possibility of recall in some cases at the state level—you remember the gubernatorial recall referendum in California. In the new constitution passed in 1999, Venezuelans put in this unprecedented provision for a recall on the president and every other elected official, which could happen halfway through their terms. So, both sides recognized that provision could be enacted if the opposition wanted to gather the required signatures.

The first thing they had to do to carry this out was to have an electoral agency in place. Because of the divisions that also affected the legislature (National Assembly), the National Assembly had not been able to agree on the appointment of the five-member board for the National Electoral Council. The Supreme Court had to step in and name this board: although formally an independent and nonpartisan agency, two members were seen to be government sympathizers, and two were seen as opposition sympathizers. The fifth was to provide a neutral balance. However, as it has turned out, we have seen a fairly regular pattern with three members voting together against two others on those occasions with a divided vote.

- How is The Carter Center involved in the recall effort?

- Because The Carter Center and the OAS had been working as facilitators and mediators, the electoral board asked both—the two organizations with election experience—to monitor the recall effort. We’ve never observed a recall referendum before, so this is a new process for us. It also has been a new process for Venezuela, and it’s been quite a learning experience all around.

- Why a recall?

- This is a recall on the president of the country, so obviously the stakes are very high. We’re talking about the struggle over the use of oil revenues and resources, and over how to address the country’s poverty.

When I was in Venezuela for the petition signing, I visited a barrio and was shown some of the programs that low-income Venezuelans are very proud of. They are happy that the Chavez government has provided clinics, using Cuban doctors; supermarkets offer subsidized food; there are literacy programs and adult education programs. So, many of the people in the barrios are very happy with these programs they are receiving, in some cases for the very first time. However, others in Venezuela are concerned that checks and balances are being weakened, and that President Chavez’ "Bolivarian Revolution" and his close friendship with Fidel Castro is leading the country down the path toward another Cuba. These two different perspectives have created the deep divisions.

- Is there an ongoing Carter Center presence in Venezuela?

- The Carter Center has been in Venezuela continuously since September 2002, at the invitation of the government and the opposition. We’ve been able to make a contribution by having a permanent representative in the country, Francisco Diez, an Argentine mediation expert, who lives in Caracas with his family. He has been very effective in providing the channel, the link of communication, between the government and the opposition when they have not been talking directly to each other.

- What was the process for gathering recall petitions and why were the reparos held?

- We began this process by observing when the citizens signed the petitions calling for a recall vote. The opposition gathered about 3.4 million signatures. They need 2.4 million, or 20 percent of registered voters, to qualify to have the recall. During the process, the citizens had to sign their name, make their thumbprints, and fill out basic data including birth date, ID number, and name.

Two of the controversies in determining valid signatures had to do with those thumbprints and the completed information. The workers at many of the tables receiving the signatures actually filled out the basic data and then gave it to petitioners for their signatures, and the validity of those signatures has been questioned. This has been a high point of controversy, and the electoral agency rejected about 1 million of the 3.4 million signatures collected on the basis that the citizens themselves did not appear to have filled out the basic data.

Trying to determine the validity of these signatures dragged out verification for four months, from December 2003 until April 2004, with the question not answered yet as to whether the final numbers have reached the 2.4 million threshold or not.

The reparos, or correction periods—May 21-23 and May 28-30—provided opportunities for citizens to say, "Yes, my name on the list is correct. I really did sign. I want my name on the list." Or, "No, my name shouldn’t have been on the list. That must have been fraud. Take my name off the list."

- What is the feeling in Venezuela about the role of The Carter Center?

- There has been a lot of distress, a lot of tension, the stakes are very high, and citizens are looking to The Carter Center and the OAS to be neutral judges of this process. There is intense press interest in every word we utter.

The polls show that Venezuelans have a very high level of trust in the international observers, while the institutions of Venezuela, unfortunately, have lower levels of trust. It gives us an extreme amount of responsibility. The international community is also waiting to hear our evaluation of the process. We’re also trying to mediate, to bring the two sides together to agree on the rules at different points in the process and to get a general acceptance of the outcome. Because if this process collapses before it’s completed, or is not seen as legitimate by Venezuelans, there is not much of an alternative for those who oppose the government to legally express their opposition.

The Economist