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President Jimmy Carter: Venezuela Election Trip Report, Aug 13-18, 2004

By Jimmy Carter

After leaving Georgetown, I arrived in Caracas in the evening of 8/13 and was briefed by Ambassador Shapiro, Jennifer McCoy, Francisco Diez, Rachel Fowler, and other staff members of The Carter Center. I gave them an assessment of my visit to Guyana, and they reported high tensions in Venezuela with the approach of the referendum revocatorio scheduled for 8/15. The next morning I met with Organization of American States Secretary General Gaviria, with former presidents Raul Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde, both of Argentina, Belisario Betancur of Colombia, and Rodrigo Carazo of Costa Rica, and then our Carter Center staff to discuss our common approach to our monitoring duties.

Excluding the presidents, our group then met with President Chavez for about two hours. He appeared quite confident but pledged to resign immediately if he should lose the referendum vote and said in that case he would rest for a week and then resume campaigning for re-election. Toward the end of our meeting, I called on him to be gracious in victory, to make every effort to reunite the divided country, and to let us help in establishing a forum for dialogue between the government and opposition groups. He did not respond directly but was very quiet while I spoke and then said he had always wanted the nation to be united. Subsequently, he said he needed to spend more time with me and asked if we could have lunch together on Monday.

We then visited the National Electoral Council headquarters (CNE), where many of our questions were answered, including some about last minute personnel changes in the local polling places and election workers, and our access to all aspects of the voting procedures. In general, we were satisfied. We then met with military leaders, whose forces have always played a major role in elections. The minister of defense finally agreed to abide by all CNE directives and to cancel the military's plan to examine all voter ID cards, which may be seen as intimidation.

Our next meeting was with opposition leaders, where we heard a litany of catastrophic predictions about cheating, intimidation, and actual violence planned by the government for election day. We reported on the assurances we had received from CNE and the military, which answered most of their concerns.

Gaviria and I then had an overflow press conference, where we were able to answer many questions that had been raised about our freedom as observers and about rumored plans of the CNE and military. Our last meetings of the day were with state-owned and privately-owned news media. The latter group predicted that there would be violent attacks on their property and said that government military forces would not protect them. I promised to share their concern with the minister of defense, and he honored my request to strengthen security.

We were out early on election morning and were amazed at the incredibly large turnout, with thousands of people waiting in line an hour before polls were scheduled to open. Venezuela has a system of electronic voting (with a paper ballot backup) and voters' thumbprints are recorded electronically, transmitted by satellite, and compared almost instantaneously to prevent multiple voting. A "No" vote supported Chavez, and a "Yes" vote called for his removal from office. Starting was somewhat slow, but 99.5 percent of the voting machines were on the line by 10:30 a.m. Some of the fingerprint operators did not report for duty, but this was not permitted to interfere with voting. The great waiting crowds were in fine spirits, cheering loudly everywhere we showed up.

During the day, the opposition leaders presented to us and their supporters what turned out to be erroneous exit polling data that showed Chavez losing the vote by 20 points or more, and they also sent this information to their own people and to foreign news media. However, the news media honored the CNE ruling against broadcasting any kind of alleged voting results domestically. In the meantime, long voter lines remained intact past the 4 p.m. closing time, past an extended 8 p.m. closing time, and until midnight, when they finally closed. A few people voted as late as 3 a.m.

At about 12:30 a.m., we and OAS leaders were invited to witness the disclosure of the first electronic tabulation, which showed "No" votes at 57 percent and "Yes" votes at 43 percent among the 6.6 million votes counted at that time (of 10.5 million expected to vote). Gaviria and I decided to invite the private media owners and opposition leaders to my hotel suite to let them know about this and to tell them that this was compatible with our own quick count results. The media owners and some of the opposition said they would accept our judgment while others were angry. We urged them to check their own sample voting results and stated that we would obtain updated figures next morning before making a public declaration of our judgment. We were in Venezuela to remain neutral, to observe the electoral system, and to make a careful and sound final assessment regarding whether the will of the people is expressed. Chavez called me, and I urged him to wait on any claim of victory until after a CNE public announcement and to be generous and positive in his victory statement. He promised to do so.

Finally, after three hours, we offered to the still irate opposition leaders our services in resolving any of their remaining doubts before we had to leave (after two more days). Having insisted all during election day on a 20 point defeat for Chavez, their pollster (Súmate) admitted before leaving that their data now showed only a five point defeat and that quick count data were still being received. Early the next morning, they reported that these results were reversed, with 55 percent supporting Chavez, but opposition leaders still were claiming massive fraud and a victory for their side. Final voting results, including the centers with manual ballots, showed 59-41 in favor of Chavez, with his victory in 22 of the 24 states.

Gaviria and I had another press conference early in the afternoon on Monday to confirm the legitimacy of the CNE returns. I called Secretary of State Colin Powell to report our authentication of results, and he promised to issue a statement from Washington endorsing our findings.

On Monday, we had supper with Chavez and found him eager to begin substantive dialogues with responsible opposition leaders who are willing to reciprocate. We urged him to show generosity to Súmate and some others who are being accused of crimes going back to the coup against him and to ensure a balanced membership of CNE as local and state elections are planned late in September. He was receptive to these suggestions and supported an additional audit of electronic paper ballot backups from the machines that would assuage any remaining doubters.

Although the country was peaceful, some opposition leaders were still in anguish, as indicated by Tuesday morning newspaper editorial headlines, "Catástrofe," "El Fraude Permanente," and "Serias Dudas." After meeting with Súmate and other opposition representatives who claimed there were differences between paper ballot backups and electronically transmitted results, we agreed to have a second audit process to double check the correlation. We made it clear to them and to the public that this did not imply any doubt by The Carter Center or OAS regarding the integrity of the electoral process or the accuracy of the reported results.

After making these arrangements, we met with Catholic bishops and then had a final supper with a group of about 20 empresarios.

Jennifer McCoy and Rachel Fowler stayed in Caracas to oversee the second audit of the machines that we will do with the OAS and the CNE.

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