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Interview with an International Elections Observer: Venezuelans Say Chavez Should Stay

By staff

Erika Zurawski traveled to Venezuela Aug. 10-22 to serve as an official elections observer under the auspices of the National Elections Council of Venezuela, which is overseen by the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, faced a recall referendum which aimed to remove him from office. Chavez is leading a national democratic revolution which aims to empower Venezuela’s poor and free the country from foreign domination.

Fight Back!: Why was this referendum so important? What forces were confronting each other?

Erika Zurawski: Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999. He came to power on a program of giving a voice to the poor. His first initiative was to create a new constitution. This constitution is the most democratic in the capitalist world – instead of simply the rule of law, you also have the rule of justice. Everyone has the right to health care, the right to education and the right to a decent quality of life. It guarantees the rights of women and indigenous peoples. The constitution was approved by 80% of the population, and that same percentage of the population is living in poverty.

Chavez’s ideas shook up Venezuela. The rich were used to getting exactly what they want. Their supporters, along with their U.S. backers, hate Chavez and the movement he leads – so they built an opposition movement to demand that he be recalled from office.

The referendum was a confrontation between two forces. At the voting centers, the Chavez supporters sang the widespread tune, “Uh Ah, Chavez no se va,” meaning Chavez will not go. At the same time the opposition sang “Se va, se va, Chavez se va,” or that Chavez is on his way out.

Fight Back! : You went to an opposition rally. What was it like?

Zurawski: It was mainly made up of middle class and rich people. I talked to about 50 people – some were lawyers, doctors. Some wore suits and others were waving American flags. The things they were saying seemed ridiculous. Everyone that I talked to thought Chavez was going to turn Venezuela into Cuba, and then repeatedly said that he should go live with Castro. Here we were at a rally of hundreds of thousands of people speaking out against Chavez, and their big complaint was that he does not allow any opposition. In fact, the opposition controls almost the entire news media in Venezuela, and the Chavez government has taken no action to censor them. They also allege that Chavez divided the country. The only thing that Chavez did was give a voice to those who did not have it before, putting an end to false unity.

Fight Back! : Why is the U.S. so opposed to Chavez?

Zurawski: The U.S played a part in the recall referendum by funding the opposition. This was through the National Endowment for Democracy. The U.S. is against the Chavez government because Chavez is opposed to corporate globalization, he will not agree to sign on to the Free Trade Area of the Americas unless it is approved by two-thirds of the Venezuelan people, he is a strong critic of Bush’s so-called war on terror, and most importantly, Chavez is using profits from the oil industry to meet people’s needs. The oil industry is being restructured so that more of the revenues are going to the state – not to private corporations.

The U.S. fears the example that the Chavez government is setting for the rest of Latin America. Chavez is an advocate of a Bolivarian revolution – bringing together the people of Latin America and ensuring self-determination and autonomy in the region. The U.S. is already losing control in many countries of the region and does not want to risk slipping its grip on Venezuela.

Fight Back! : The voter turnout for the referendum was huge. Tell us about it.

Zurawski: I went to observe the voting process in Zulia, the state that borders Colombia. On the day of the vote, Sunday, Aug. 15, the streets were filled with long lines. Thousands of voters lined up in front of each voting center to wait for hours in the hot sun. Many of the voters began lining up at four or five in the morning. I asked voters how long they were willing to wait. Everyone responded, “As long as it takes.” On one side they said they would stay “until our comandante does,” referring to Hugo Chavez. Yet others from the opposition said they would wait “until Chavez leaves.” At least for them, the average nine hours wait in line proves to be much shorter than what they will need to wait to get what they want.

Fight Back! : The opposition claims that the referendum was fixed. What about that?

Zurawski: There is no possible way that this referendum was fixed or tampered with. The electoral machinery is the most advanced in the world – even more advanced than the U.S. Voters’ identification was checked three times over – each voter had to present identity documents, give a fingerprint and sign a registry. The process was transparent and the observers were welcomed at every poll. Everyone got to cast their ballot in secret in an atmosphere that was free from intimidation. People said the process was slow but safe, meaning that they had confidence that their vote was going to count.

The opposition is claiming fraud because they can not accept losing. Even before the vote took place the opposition refused to admit that they would accept defeat. After their loss they called for a recount, which Chavez immediately granted. As an observer of the recount I can safely say that no evidence of fraud exists. The opposition is not interested in democracy and what the Venezuelan people want. They are only looking out for their own interests, which for the first time in Venezuelan history are being put behind the interests of the vast majority of the country’s population

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