Venezuela has turned election monitoring on its head. Which is why, in keeping with the Bolivarian Republic’s newfound appreciation for socially conscious language, election observers are called acompañantes, or accompaniers. Suffice it to say, the Bolivarian Republic and its independent branch of government administering elections, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or “CNE”), have confidently acknowledged that there is not much to monitor, or at least not much Venezuelans can’t monitor themselves. Instead, there is value in international delegates simply accompanying the electoral process, leaving with a firm belief in its legitimacy and an aspiration to import the Venezuelan model into their home countries.
So it was with the National Lawyers Guild delegation. Eight Guild members, hailing from diverse geographic, ethnic, generational and professional backgrounds, joined more than 200 delegates from around the world to “accompany” the 2012 Presidential elections held on October 7 where incumbent President Hugo Chavez faced his strongest challenger yet. NLG International Committee Co-Chair Susan Scott can be credited with not only selecting a remarkable group that the NLG, and the U.S., could be proud of, but also campaigning tirelessly to increase the size of our delegation. As a result, once joined by Alex Main from the Center for Economic Policy and Research and James Early from the Institute for Policy Studies, we were one of the largest delegations participating in the CNE’s weeklong program. Quantity was surpassed by quality; our group was comprised of walking political encyclopedias and Venezuela veterans, Scott, Main, Early and law student Eric Sterling, our resident voting rights’ expert, Joanna Cuevas Ingram, labor and human rights advocates, Natasha Lycia Ora Brannan, and Robin Alexander, and NLG’s then outgoing and incoming presidents, David Gespass and Azadeh Shahshahani, respectively.
As un-stereotypically American as our group’s overwhelming fluency in Spanish, many of us arrived early in Caracas to broaden our understanding of the current state of affairs in Venezuela through meetings and interviews with NGOs, labor activists, journalists and civil servants. The richness of these varied perspectives only further bolstered our confidence in the legitimacy and openness of the electoral process.
In stark contrast to traditional election monitoring in places marred by fraud, violence, or procedural irregularities and the resulting dismay that follows, the Venezuelan experience offered a democratic breath of fresh air. Try as we did to find fault with the system, with the fervor a teenager might in finding fault with his or her parents, it proved to be a challenge. For those of us committed to keeping a critical, or even cynical eye, we sought refuge in complaining about the long lines. Unfortunately for us, this did not bother many Venezuelans, who seemed to embrace that election Sunday is dedicated fully to exercising one’s nonnegotiable right to vote.
The Venezuelan process is impressive for several reasons. First, Venezuela has invested in the Rolls Royce of automated voting systems or the Smartmatic (versus the hand me down Nova we use in some places here in the U.S.). Among other top-end amenities the system includes biometric voter authentication and a voting receipt confirming one’s selection, uniquely identified with a random, non-sequential code to ensure voter secrecy. The process further contains 17 auditable phases that are each witnessed by representatives from the opposing parties, making it so foolproof that even the opposition acknowledged that fraud was impossible. There was also great uniformity and standardization among the 39,322 mesas, or voting rooms, at over 13,850 polling centers throughout the country. The result of this precisely orchestrated system was a striking 81% turnout rate (versus 57% here in November’s elections). Venezuelans may love or hate Chavez, but even those opposition supporters who filled planes from Miami to return home to vote admitted by their actions that each and every vote counts.
Of course, there are no Pollyanna-esque misgivings about the Venezuelan government’s intention in strategically inviting activists, academics, and journalists from around the world to witness the process firsthand. Venezuela must counter widespread media depictions of the country being an autocratic near-fascist state where the opposition is systematically repressed. The media has been one area where U.S. interests and intervention have been most apparent. Examples of these printed misrepresentations include:
- Fear Persists Among Venezuelan Voters Ahead of Election, published on October 5 by the New York Times. The young star of this article, lamenting her fear of losing her government job if her support for the opposition was discovered, has countless pro-Capriles tweets on her Twitter account, and previously had a picture of herself bestowing a kiss on a poster of Capriles.
- Election system in Venezuela: High tech, but low trust, published in the Miami Herald and Christian Science Monitor on October 1.
- Tired of Iron-Fisted Leader, Youth May Swing Venezuelan Elections, published by Fox News Latino, October 1. Like many other media outlets, this article boasts the polls are “virtually tied,” in order to be able to later claim that the landslide victory was a result of fraud.
It’s no wonder that Venezuela recognizes the value of inviting influential movers and shakers from around the world to witness and later spread the true story of Venezuelan style democracy.
Still, there is ample room for criticism–there are rampant problems with crime and unemployment, and Venezuela is nowhere near the socialist utopia it aspires to be. There are also certainly concerns regarding the structural advantages that come with Chavez being in power and using state resources to bolster his campaign. Then there is his cult of personality. Still, with open eyes, our delegation was struck by the integrity of the electoral process, society’s commitment to participatory democracy, and the citizenry’s extraordinarily high level of engagement. No democratic system is perfect, but at least when it comes to participation and voting, there is much to be learned and little to be scorned in Venezuela.