A Challenging Time for Venezuela

(Om Prasad, a leader of AISA in JNU, visited Venezuela on invitation from the National Electoral Council of Venezuela (CNE) to be part of the International Electoral Accompaniment Program. He recounts the experience.)

The Presidential Elections of April 2013 in Venezuela marked an important milestone in the struggle of the Venezuelan people for democracy and freedom from the imperialist shackles of the United States. Within a month of the death of their leader Hugo Chavez the people of Venezuela had to decide on the future of their country. The importance of these elections was not limited to the future of Venezuela alone, it was being closely followed by all the progressive and anti imperialist forces of the world, for the outcome of the elections would have an important bearing on the path that Venezuela would tread post-Chavez.

On the eve of my arrival in Venezuela, a huge rally in support of Nicolas Maduro totally filled up the central avenue of Caracas, which is known as the Simon Bolivar avenue. Argentine football champion Diego Maradona attended the rally in solidarity with Maduro’s campaign.

Being part of the International Electoral Accompaniment Program of the National Electoral Council of Venezuela (CNE), I had the opportunity to witness the electoral process at very close quarters. Like many things in this beautiful country, the electoral process too is unique and designed to ensure maximum participation of the population and safeguard the process from any external interference. Since Venezuela has a unique electoral process it is important to also understand the process and its significance in strengthening Venezuela’s participatory democracy.

The CNE: An Exemplary System of Transparent Democracy

The CNE was established as part of the new ‘Bolivarian’ constitution that was promulgated by Chavez and approved by a referendum in 1999. The CNE was created as part of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution and the imprint of this legacy is still visible. No other country in the world invites people and international organisations from all over the world to accompany the election process. It is to be noted that the delegation comprised not only of activists, trade union leaders, journalists from around the world, but also officials of the electoral bodies of different countries, including India’s Election Commission. The program is consciously called an accompanying program rather than a observing mission because of two reasons: firstly, it is an integral part of the electoral process of Venezuela and secondly, observing implies an asymmetric relationship between the ‘observer’ and the ‘observed’. Imperialist nations demand to observe and certify the elections of the third world but do not allow anyone to observe and monitor their elections! This program has also allowed Venezuela to firmly establish the credibility of the electoral process, and has also acted as an effective deterrent to any underhand means employed by the right-wing to destabilize and rig the elections. In a way the CNE has played a revolutionary role in Venezuela. It was after the forming of CNE that millions of Venezuelans who had hitherto not even been registered as voters were enlisted as the voters for the first time in their lives.

As activists of the left we always knew that every time an anti imperialist leader is democratically elected the United State wastes no time in declaring the elections a fraud without any evidence and starts planning ways to topple the popularly elected government. They did it with Salvador Allende of Chile, and they did it numerous times with Hugo Chavez. But the Venezulean electoral process is so robust, transparent and fool proof, that had a process as rigorous as Venezuela been followed, both George Bush in 2000 our very own Chidambaram would have found it very difficult to win! The whole process goes through 17 audits during which the representatives of all the political parties are present. The voting is done electronically but for every vote, there is a paper receipt which confirms the voter’s vote and the receipt is deposited in the ballot box. On the day of polling after the voting is completed, 54% of all the ballot boxes across the country are audited to make sure that the number of paper receipts tally with the number votes cast electronically. Any interested person is allowed to watch this process. Such a public scrutiny is yet another indication of Venezuela’s desire to involve people as far as possible in public processes.

Moreover, immediately after the polling gets over, results are transmitted by the EVMs if all the polling agents present agree that the polling process has ended in their booth. This is unlike the process in India where EVMs are sent to the DM’s office for ‘safekeeping’ – and results declared only the next day after the machines have been custody of the state machinery for several hours.

In another attempt to ensure more involvement of the people in the polling process, the CNE had placed dummy machines in public places like subways so that people could practice voting and get familiar with the process.

In summary, it’s a system which leaves no space for any fraud or tampering as imperialist forces claim.

Venezuelan Democracy: Participatory Not In Name Only

But Venezuela today is much more than the elections. The vibrant participation in the elections of the populations (the turnout in this Presidential Elections and the previous was near about 80%) are actually a pointer to the political vibrancy of Venezuelan society and the participatory nature of Venezuela’s polity. In the week long stay in Caracas one got a sense of this vibrancy and the healthy politicization of the people of Venezuela which has taken deep roots in Venezuelan society. This was evident on the walls of the Caracas. With almost every wall in the city being used for political graffiti either expressing support for Maduro or remembering El Commandante Chavez, the walls truly belong to the people and they use it extremely creatively for their political expression. It was striking to note that the walls were almost exclusively used by the Maduro campaign, the opposition preferred to put billboards on top of high rise buildings. The walls of Caracas also tell us that the historical memory is very much alive in Venezuela, a memory which struggles against forgetting and remembers the anti-imperialist, nationalist, and revolutionary martyrs of South America and martyrs of the world who in many cases have been murdered by US sponsored right wing groups.

So one sees wall writing on top of a ten-storied building announcing ‘Col Salvador Allende Presente’, a tribute to the socialist President of Chile whose government was toppled by a US sponsored coup in 1973 and who was forced to commit suicide. The slogan conveys, beautifully, how Allende is present in Caracas as a living inspiration: because fighters for freedom and equality are never ‘absent,’ they remain by the side of all the fighting people of the world. A wall at the Bolivar Plaza near the city centre had a wall which was adorned by the portraits of Lenin and Che! There were hoardings of Hugo Chavez and Yasser Arafat together in the city. What does this say about the people? Once can only infer that a society which had resisted decades of loot of its natural resources by huge multinationals and imperialists and paid a huge cost at the altar of brutal repression, always wants to refresh its memory by paying homage to and drawing inspiration from the fighters and martyrs.

Through the Bolivarian Constitution, Venezuela has also managed to have a very vibrant participatory model of democracy. In Caracas, near the National Assembly the street corners are a place for intense public debate and discussion. The National Assembly when it is in session comes out to the streets for one day to take the opinion of the ‘street’ while designing a major policy. This was also a process which Chavez consciously put in place bring the people to the centre of everything. Today there is no place in Caracas where the people have not left their mark. Even the Miraflores Palace (Presidential Residence) is not ‘ set apart’ from the people: right in front of it is a newly built housing block for the urban poor as part of the massive social housing program undertaken by Chavez, called Mission Vivenda.

In fact it’s very difficult not to see the imprint of Chavez’s personality and policies in Venezuela. As one comes out of the airport one notices the Mission Vivenda housing blocks right outside the airport. In the urban slums – the ‘barrios’ - one sees ‘Popular Clinics’, medical clinics run with help from doctors from Cuba and also the Centre for Music for Social Action. This is a unique initiative of Venezuela which started before Chavez, but its funding was massively increased by Chavez. It is run by the Simon Bolivar Musical Foundation, which runs a network of youth orchestra across Venezuela. The foundation provides learning music as a means of social recovery and social assimilation for children from deprived backgrounds who have had histories of violence and drug use. This model has provided children with music not only as a recreation but also as a means of re-entering the world.

Chavez’s Final Resting Place

The visit to Cuartel de la Montana (Mountain Fort) - the final resting place of El Commandante Hugo Chavez - will be a memory that I will always cherish. The resting place of the Supreme Commander of the Bolivarian Revolution has been named as 4F in memory of his first attempted coup on 4th February 1992 which failed, but jettisoned him into the limelight. He had planned the coup from this very place and promised to come back even though he was arrested “Por Ahora (For Now)” (in his words). The entrance to the resting place is guarded by the flags of all the South American countries, countries who comprised the Bolivarian continent. We were visiting it on voting day and people had queued up to see him after casting their votes, most had tears in their eyes after paying tributes to their beloved leader. The Fort which is in the middle of a working class locality has been turned into a museum documenting the rise of Chavez in Venezuelan politics, from being a paratrooper in the army to being President. Many young soldiers with wet eyes were also there to pay tributes and salute their commander. The support of the army and Chavez’s success in ideologically winning over the military on the side of the Bolivarian Revolution, was an important factor in his successful 14-year stint as President. As a result of this, the chasm between the military and the civilians which exists in most countries is largely absent, and it was heartening to see many military personnel coming and voting with the civilian population in the polling centres. Anywhere in Caracas it is hard to miss that one is in Chavez’s city and Chavez’s country.

The Election Results

The results of the elections left many of us a little disappointed. The public sympathy that one witnessed after his death led many to assume and predict that Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s appointed successor, would win the elections by a comfortable margin of 10%. However after the results came late 14th night, the margin was a slender 1.77%. Immediately after the announcement of the results, the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles rejected the results alleging fraud in the electoral process; but he did not formally demand a manual recount of the votes. The US rushed gleefully in, and ironically Al Gore who lost to George Bush in a very controversial election, proclaimed that there were serious allegations of election fraud in Venezuela’s Presidential Election. Even though the Venezuelan system allows a written request for a manual audit of 46% of unaudited votes, the opposition preferred not to as for it in writing, but to raise the issue in press conferences where the CNE was accused of fraud and bias towards the official candidate. During this period, seven activists of PSUV (Maduro’s party) were murdered in Caracas, and xenophobia against Cuban doctors was tried to be whipped up. Finally after two days of spewing venom on TV and bloodshed on the streets, the opposition put in a written request to the CNE for a manual recount which has been subsequently accepted. Maduro has publicly said that he will accept the results of the recount. But the conviction of the Venezuelans to defend their democracy and their democratic institutions need to be saluted. On the day after the results were declared and Capriles refused to accept the results put out by the CNE, thousands came out on the streets in defence of Venezuelan democracy. On the 16th of April the employees of the National Assembly organized a mass meeting outside the administrative building of the National Assembly to defend their democracy and warn against any external interference.

In this midst of all this, one also wonders as to why, in a country where the policies of Chavez have brought the poor and the marginalized to the forefront of Venezuela’s political discourse, the people vote in such large numbers for a political group that is avowedly right wing and in for a presidential candidate who is alleged to have played a crucial role in the US-sponsored coup against Chavez in 2002. Since the turnout remained more or less same as in the Presidential elections of October 2012, it is clear that many who had voted for Chavez in October decided to vote for Capriles this time around.

The reason for this has to be understood at two levels. Firstly, Chavez has left behind a polity where his policies dominate the political discourse. The opposition, learning from its earlier defeats, decided to appropriate the language and metaphors of Chavez’s campaign and issues. To start with they named their campaign ‘Simon Bolivar Campaign’! These were the same people who during the 2002 coup had publicly stamped on Bolivar’s pictures. The main agenda of the Capriles campaign was to raise minimum wages, reduce unemployment, continue the social programs started under Chavez and give Venezuelan citizenship to Cuban Doctors working in country. Even though this was a smart strategy by the Capriles campaign, there was enough in the campaign to unmask their real intentions. Firstly, the Capriles campaign kept terming Maduro’s agenda of moving away from a oil-dependent economy as ‘deindustrialization’, and secondly Capriles openly stated that if he is elected he would immediately put a stop to the oil that is given as ‘freebies’ to Cuba and other Latin American countries.

Maduro on the other hand was at an advantage because Chavez before his death had publicly appointed Maduro as his successor and disadvantaged because he was a new figure in terms of addressing the public. A lady shop keeper of a souvenir shop told me she wanted to know who Maduro is and what his plans for Venezuela are, and she doesn’t simply want to hear that he is ‘Chavez’s son’. Also the Maduro campaign probably couldn’t expose the hypocrisy of the opposition enough, except to point out that the opposition campaign consisted of many members who had signed the Carmona Decree which declared Pedro Carmona as the President after ousting Chavez in a coup in 2002. And the fact remains that during the last 14 years many problems have been solved and many newer problems have arisen like unemployment, crime, corruption and food shortages and these require real solutions and the people wanted to hear from Maduro what would the solutions to these problems. There seemed to be a lack of communication about these issues between the people and the Maduro campaign.

But the road ahead for Venezuela remains tough. Maduro has his roots in the working class movement, he himself is a bus driver and a leader of the Bus Drivers union, he would know the difficulties faced by the poor of the country. Also he himself has publicly admitted that this is not a victory to be celebrated. He has also warned the United States to stay away from the affairs of Venezuela and that he doesn’t care if the US recognizes his victory or not. As supporters of the Venezulean people’s fight for equality, justice and struggle against neo-liberalism and imperialism, we hope that the legacy of Chavez is carried forward as Venezuela enters a new phase of history. As Maduro said after being sworn in as the new President, the need of the hour is a ‘Revolution of the Revolution’.

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