More Links in News & Events

Trip to Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua

By Jimmy Carter

SUMMARY: The purpose of our trip was to set the stage for monitoring elections in Venezuela and to prepare for our anti-corruption conference next May. Dr. Jennifer McCoy and other Carter Center Latin American experts made extensive preparations for these visits. I also wanted to visit Nicaragua, where we have been involved for 15 years, to assess the ravages of Hurricane Mitch and explore ways to be of assistance.

Although Venezuela has had democratic elections since 1958, all the candidates and the Election Commission have urged us to participate in this one. There is an overwhelming desire among citizens to initiate drastic but peaceful political changes, and only one of the formerly dominant major parties is even putting forth a candidate. The leading candidate, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez, was imprisoned as leader of an attempted coup in 1992, and later pardoned by President Caldera. Chavez now advocates a public referendum to form a "constituent assembly" that would quickly disband the congress and write a new constitution. Senior military officers are fearful of him, while most junior officers and enlisted men are supportive. He seems to be a good learner, and has modified some of his more radical proposals, hoping to gain support in the business community. His primary challenger, Salas Romer, is also an independent candidate, and seems to be gaining ground. The third candidate (in poll results) is Irene Saez, mayor of a medium-sized city and former Miss Universe, whose popularity dropped when she was endorsed by one of the major parties (COPEI). The only party candidate (Acción Democrática) is Alfaro Ucero, an older, somewhat bland campaigner who will probably receive less than 10 percent of the votes (he has the highest negative ratings) but whose party could do well in governor and legislative elections this weekend.

Our purpose is to reassure voters that the election will be honest and fair, that the results are important to other nations, to have some moderating effect on the more radical and provocative issues, and to influence winners and losers to accept the election results peacefully and gracefully. At the same time, we will lay the groundwork for Venezuela's next president to participate in our anti-corruption conference.

There is unanimity among officials at the World Bank, IMF, InterAmerican Development Bank, and in many countries that corruption is a serious affliction on governments (and especially on fragile democracies) in this hemisphere. Our conference will be built around the testimony of three nations; Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Jamaica, whose leaders will describe their problems with corruption and their attempts to address the issue. Other nations will participate, and the results and recommendations will be widely promulgated by the international institutions. Transparency International, an organization that has adopted this as a global responsibility, will play a key role. Our conference will be coordinated with CNN's 1998 Global Report, which will have an anti-corruption theme.

VENEZUELA: We flew to Caracas on a plane provided by Jay Pritzker, who has also joined us as an observer in other elections. We first met former Bolivian President Sanchez de Lozada, one of the 31 presidents and prime ministers who serve on our Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government and who would accompany us to Ecuador. After a briefing by U.S. Ambassador John Maisto, we met with members of the National Election Council who described by far the most complex election we have ever encountered, with hundreds of political parties and thousands of candidates for governor and the national congress, some of whom are endorsed by 8 or 10 political parties.

Designed to bring some order out of chaos, a $150 million electronic system has been produced in the United States and installed in 7,000 polling places by Spanish experts to scan each ballot, tabulate the count, and transmit the results to central locations. The new system will cover 92 percent of the voters, and the remainder will be handled manually as before. Early tests have been successful, but everyone has their fingers crossed for the elections this Sunday.

The presidential election a month later will be simpler and will benefit from lessons learned in the first election. We then met with President Caldera, who assured us that the armed forces will honor the results regardless of the outcome. We spent the next day meeting with six of the major candidates.

The first was Luis Alfaro Ucero, who represents Acción Democrática, and has low popularity and the highest negative rating. He hopes that success of his party candidates for governor and the congress will boost his chances. The next was Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe. Still young, she has been an outstanding mayor and is very popular with female voters, but her popularity dropped to about 10 percent when she accepted a party endorsement. She also hopes to benefit from the first elections if COPEI party candidates do well.

Our next meeting was with Hugo Chavez, the former coup leader, who is leading in public opinion polls, at about 40 percent. Candidates pledged to him will probably do well in the first elections, and he is likely to remain as one of the two most likely victors. President Sanchez and I had a forceful exchange with Chavez about his proposal to have a constituent assembly established by referendum, which would not only write a new constitution but also abolish the congress or replace it in some of its important legislative functions. We emphasized that the international community would most likely question this move unless the elected congress could continue to serve until a new constitution is approved. He listened carefully, but seemed reluctant to change his position.

The other leading candidate is Henrique Salas Romer, a Yale-educated economist who has been a successful governor. His personal popularity has been increasing lately, but early indications have been that his candidates in the first election may not fair well.

We also met with Alfred Ramos and then Miguel Rodriguez, who do not expect to be elected but hope to prepare themselves for future elections. We received pledges from Chavez and all the others that they will accept the election results peacefully and gracefully, and they later confirmed these statements to the waiting news media.

We observed the new system for counting votes and reporting the results to central headquarters. Each marked ballot will be scanned, and the ballots retained in a container to be examined later if questions are raised. At the end of the voting day, the machine is unlocked and the results can be read. They are then transmitted by modem and telephone or satellite to the central offices, where the final results of the campaigns can be determined. The military are responsible for preventing violence and for protecting the paper ballots and the electronic software. About 8 percent of the voters live in places too remote for the new system, and their votes will be handled manually, as before.

Since some questions had been raised about whether the military would accept the election of Lt. Colonel Chavez, we met with the Minister of Defense (an Annapolis graduate), and all the service commanders. They assured us that they will honor the constitution and the results of the election.

We also arranged to cooperate with other international observers, especially the European Union and the Organization of American States. All of us will have only a few observers on 11/8, but a larger number for the presidential election. It was gratifying to observe the enthusiasm with which both political leaders and the general public welcomed international observers.

While we were in Caracas there was a fire on our private plane when it was being serviced, and the pilot received 2nd degree burns. President Caldera loaned us his presidential plane to carry us to Quito Wednesday morning, after our final press conference.

[Note: In Sunday's election, Chavez supporters won 34 percent, Acción Democrática 22 percent, COPEI 11 percent, and Salas 12 percent. These percentages may not represent the final number of congressional seats for each party.]

ECUADOR: The recent administration of President Bucaram was so incompetent and corrupt that he was forced out of office, and the citizens and honest leaders of Ecuador initiated a series of anti-corruption steps. President Jamil Mahuad was very eager to have The Carter Center join in these efforts, and welcomed us warmly. On previous visits, Jennifer McCoy had prepared a list of proposals, some of which implied serious remaining problems in his country. However, he accepted them all, and we formed an alliance with his government, the World Bank, and Transparency International that should have far-reaching benefits. One example is that the emerging Commission for Civic Control of Corruption (CCCC) requested a working alliance with our Center. This is a new group of seven civilians, already established as an independent constitutional body, that expects to have subpoena powers, its own source of funding, and appointment independent of government officials. CCCC will have the responsibility of exposing and investigating allegations of fraud and presenting their findings to the Comptroller General or Public Prosecutor for indictment and punishment. This body will be unique in this hemisphere, and is using a successful system in Hong Kong as a model. Although the judiciary is being reformed, some corrupt judges are still active, especially in the Guayaquil area. They have levied huge and ridiculous fines against some American corporations under an old law (now repealed) that was passed by a former dictator.

We also met with former President Osvaldo Hurtado, leaders of the Ecuadoran-American Chamber of Commerce, and representatives of other international organizations. Before leaving Quito, we conducted a seminar on corruption that included Ecuadoran leaders in religion, news media, education, business, the judiciary, and the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank, UN, USAID, and Transparency International. Then Presidents Mahuad, Sanchez, and I had a press conference to describe the steps we will take together. President Mahuad will be one of the key participants in our May conference, which will be held in conjunction with CNN's annual convening of their World Report news leaders. This will give us an opportunity for maximum global publicity for this crucial effort to reduce corruption, which is a problem in almost all countries.

COSTA RICA: (Council member President Hurtado went with us.) This country has one of the best reputations in the hemisphere as an honest democracy, but recent polls have shown that the #l concern of the citizens is corruption, and the Transparency International rating compared to other nations is 27 out of 85. The reasons became clearer when we met with Public Prosecutor Carlos Arias. He told us his office has been expanded dramatically in the last year, from 80 to 260 investigators (fiscales). He described several scandals recently revealed, many involving influential political leaders, serious problems involving customs and export credits, and increasing money laundering and drug crimes. He has not been pressured, but feels that his own office should have the protection of constitutional status. Our next meeting was with Comptroller General Luis Fernando Vargas, who confirmed the seriousness of corruption problems in the country.

Former president Rodrigo Corazo, another of our Council members, joined us for our meeting with eight influential civilian organizations, and then with leaders of the two major political parties and the five minor ones. We informed them all about our anti-corruption efforts, and they pledged to help.

We then had lunch with President Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who will participate in our conference, and he invited the Minister of Justice, the Attorney General, and a few others to join us.

A few of the suggestions that have emerged on the trip:

a) Tight legal controls on bank transactions in cash, with full revelation of all over $10,000.

b) Graduate level education in the combined subjects of law, auditing, and investigation to help combat sophisticated fraud.

c) Quantification of government corruption by techniques developed by the World Bank and now proven in Latvia, Albania, and Republic of Georgia.

d) Revelation of personal assets by all public officials, when entering and leaving office.

e) Maximum transparency and citizen participation when government-owned industries are either sold or competition is permitted. Massive corruption is possible in privatizing telephones, electricity, oil products, etc.

f) Standardized and simplified forms for contracts, concessions, and services, so that winning bids can be determined easily and publicly.

g) Prohibition or at least public revelation of nepotism.

h) Legal status and independence of civilian investigative groups and ombudsmen.

NICARAGUA: Because of our involvement in the country for the past 15 years, through the Contra war and several elections, we feel especially close to these people. Guided by the Managua control tower, we flew low over the devastated areas in NW Nicaragua. Every stream had become a torrent, villages and bridges were wiped out, and deep walls of mud from the montainsides covered wide areas. We then received a briefing from Vice President Enrique Bolaños, who is coordinating relief efforts, from military commander Cuadras, and from U.S. Ambassador Lino Gutierrez and his staff. Despite our promises of massive assistance, the U.S. has so far provided only one large (Chinook) helicopter and 5 smaller Black Hawks. Food is available in the country, but it can't be delivered because no roads are passable. One serious need is chlorine tablets for water purification, since inflammable liquid chlorine can't be carried on aircraft, and the dangers of cholera, dengue fever, malaria, and other diseases are imminent. I was disturbed to learn that our military commanders cannot go into the country to assist the people because "military relations have not been reestablished." We promised to help with their most urgent needs, held a brief press conference, and returned home.

Back home, I invited Senator Paul Coverdell, chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, to join me as co-chairman of the Venezuela observer team. I also called Marine General Charles Wilhelm, Commander-in-Chief of the Southern Command, and gave him a report on our visit to Nicaragua. He has been visiting Honduras, was grateful for our report on Nicaragua, and will take immediate steps to deploy more helicopters, improve communications with Nicaragua, and resolve their most urgent problems.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top