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Venezuela Trip Report: Jan. 25-27, 2004

By Jimmy Carter

Except for nations ripped apart by civil war, for several years Venezuela has been the most divided country in which The Carter Center is involved, and there are few evident means by which this division can be healed from within. We have been deeply involved in electoral and other matters in Venezuela since the general election of 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected overwhelmingly as president, defeating candidates from major parties that had become almost totally discredited among citizens.

Since that time, Chavez's fiery rhetoric and lack of respect for many elements of the "power structure" and the reciprocal condemnation and absence of support for his government have brought about sustained confrontations and self-destructive economic shutdowns.

One unique provision of the new constitution written by the Chavez administration is that major office holders are subject to recall half way through their terms. Consistent with a recommendation I made last January, there is now an effort underway by the opposition to pursue an option provided for in their constitution and gather enough signatures to force a referendum to decide whether the president will serve his term, which ends December 2006. The National Election Commission (CNE) consists of five members and is responsible for orchestrating this procedure, and enormous political pressures are being exerted on the members to influence their decisions. (About 60 of the members of the National Assembly also face such a recall, which would be held later this spring, and regular elections for governors and mayors are scheduled for August 1.)

The role of The Carter Center is to monitor the procedure for the president's and deputies' recall petitions, to help assure that the whole process is transparent, legal and fair, and then to remain involved in subsequent elections and reconciliation efforts through the next presidential election in 2006. We have had a team in Venezuela almost constantly for the past year and a half, headed by Francisco Diez, and we have attempted to maintain communication with the various political and economic groups and to promote peaceful dialogue among them whenever possible. We work side by side in these efforts with representatives of the Organization of American States and the United Nations Development Program.

Dr. Jennifer McCoy, director of our Americas Program, and I arrived in Caracas Sunday afternoon, 1/25/04, and after a brief press statement, a briefing from our staff, including Rachel Fowler and consultant Marcel Guzman, and discussions with an advisory group of distinguished Venezuelan leaders, we met with executives of the state news media, all loyal to Chavez, and then with owners and managers of private media, almost uniformly in strong opposition to the government. Our immediate effort was to learn as much as possible about the recall process and to assure media support for the CNE so long as its decisions are legal and transparent. In the evening we attended dinner in a private home with some of the wealthiest and most influential leaders in commerce and finance, whose economic well-being has survived the nation's problems. They expressed deep concerns about government economic policies, but pledged full support for an effort for reconciliation among the contending groups after this year's referendum processes and elections are concluded. It was apparent that international support will be necessary, from The Carter Center, the OAS, the UN, and others.

Monday morning we first visited President (Chief Justice) Ivan Urdaneta Rincon and other members of the Supreme Court. They were very proud of having formed the CNE and of its membership, whom they had appointed. Rincon made it clear that any appeals of the CNE referendum decision would be decided quickly and without interrupting preparations for the recall voting if the decision is that a referendum is to be held. He could not envision that any electoral or judicial decisions would be delayed past August 19. They will decide later whether the referendum for president and members of the National Assembly, if approved, will be held on the same date. On a separate but important issue, their opinion is that it will take only a simple majority vote of the Assembly to expand the membership of the Supreme Court.

The National Assembly (AN) has been deadlocked on two primary issues: reforms to their internal procedures to punish misbehavior of deputies and reduce debate time to eliminate filibusters; and changes in the size of the Supreme Court. With some degree of violence, opposition members have physically blocked attendance of the government members when these two items were on the agenda. For us, however, they arranged for an equal number from each group to meet and explain their positions on these and other controversial issues. I urged them to restore dialogue and seek accommodation on reforms, and I reminded them that there are some protections and delays that will prevent any rapid changes in Supreme Court membership.

Our next meeting was with President Francisco Carrasquero and the other members of the CNE. Two of the members represent the opposition, two represent the government, and the president is supposed to provide the balance. They admitted that there may be a few days' delay after February 13 in making their final decision about the adequacy of sufficient signatures to force a referendum, but assured us that the process was going well and they had adequate financing and access to additional personnel and computers to complete their formidable task before March 1. I reminded them that any delays would have to be fully explained to the public, with all five members assuring complete transparency. A major question was whether the OAS monitors would have access to the deliberation over problematic signature lists and cover sheets (Actas), since two CNE members had announced recently that this would be an infringement on their national sovereignty. Without this access, we feared the OAS would withdraw from Venezuela if excluded. My arguments with the members were inconclusive.

The results of our meeting with opposition leaders were predictable, with their vehement and concerted condemnation of the government, their belief that they had gathered enough valid signatures, and their fear that the CNE might rule against them. I promised to convince the CNE to permit unlimited access to its proceedings and urged them to be patient and to help me persuade the OAS not to withdraw even if excluded from the detailed examination of problem signatures. The Carter Center will have all the final results of these deliberations and can assess the process and its fairness. Opposition leaders were not prepared to state that they would accept a CNE decision that signatures were inadequate, even if the process is constitutional, legal, and transparent.

We then met with President Hugo Chavez, who regaled us with reports of progress being made in the economy, education, and health. He seemed to have little concern about the CNE deliberations, stating that he would accept a negative decision if the CNE so concluded, would seek to defeat a recall referendum, would leave office if he lost, and would run for another term when legally qualified. I expressed my concern about the OAS and The Carter Center's having access to all CNE proceedings, and he announced to the news media after we left that complete transparency was required.

I went by our Center's office to get a report from our staff on their continuing work in Venezuela and then met with the ambassadors of the six "friends of Venezuela" (U.S., Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, and Spain). I reported on our visit, and they pledged support for our efforts.

Tuesday morning we met again with opposition leaders, who presented an impressive demonstration of their computerized records of the documents relating to the recall petition, including clear pictures of each signature and thumbprint. They seem certain that adequate signatures have been collected to force a referendum.

We then had an impressive briefing from four leaders of poor citizens who live in the barrios around Caracas, the rural areas, and the indigenous people. They claimed that their lives have been transformed by the 1999 constitution and the unprecedented respect and attention they are receiving. They stated that the government had made this possible, but that most of the credit should go to the people themselves, who now have self-dignity and hope. We had time only to discuss health, education, and the granting of ownership of small tracts of property on which families had lived for many decades. They maintained that almost everyone now has health care, both for treatment and for prevention of diseases.

In a nationwide equivalent effort in education, Venezuelan volunteers are teaching illiterates to read and write and are helping others learn at higher levels. One stated that it was now impossible to have any kind of meetings at night "because everyone is studying." We had no way to confirm or refute these reports, but at my final press conference I asked the news media to investigate their claims.

We then had a light lunch with President Chavez. We were informed after leaving the palace that the CNE had decided to grant us and the OAS the unimpeded access that we desire as monitors. After giving a report on our visit at a press conference, we returned to the United States.

Conclusions: Despite the deep divisions, confrontations, demonstrations, and interruptions of commerce, the Venezuelan people have demonstrated clearly their commitment to democracy and their aversion to violence in the resolution of problems. Regardless of what happens during the next few weeks or who might be president after August, there will be a need for The Carter Center and other interested organizations to remain involved in the country. My personal opinion is that the CNE, strongly influenced by the Supreme Court and the presence of international observers, will make the proper decision and that subsequent political events will be acceptable.

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