In breathless praise of Sumate:

(or, Essay on the difference between voter intimidation and colossal bullshit)

From: “Erica Stephan” Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003 1:06 AM

To: “Francisco Toro”

Subject: & what about

These reports that people were having slips of paper stamped as they

signed, to take to their employers?  if you’re going to rant about pdvsa

pressuring their workers to sign, you should acknowledge/address the

accusations on the other side, no?

From: “Francisco Toro” Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003 10:41 AM

To: “Erica Stephan”

Subject: Re: & what about

Sigh. I’d been hoping not to write about this, simply because it is a fairly technical question, and I thought it would be horrifically boring. But since these stories are now percolating up to first world consciousness, I might as well set the record straight.

About a month ago, as Chavez blustered again and again about imminent opposition fraud and insisted repeatedly on the need to check the opposition signatures “under a magnifying glass, one by one,” the opposition started to get nervous. We know the guy, we’ve had plenty of occasion to get used to the way he and his cronies operate. We’ve come to realize that he’ll often announce his dirty tricks publicly ahead of time, though through their mirror image. The second Chavez says the opposition is planning a given dirty trick, it’s a pretty good bet that’s what he intends to do!

As President of the durn Republic, Chavez was in an excellent position to carry out any such a plan. His government had already started intimidating state workers. They had already started offering jobs to the unemployed provided they did not end up on the list of those who had signed against the government. Chavez had personally thrown a number of hissy-fits demanding elaborate security procedures for the signature gathering drive which I described in yesterday’s post.

(Said hissy fits, satisfyingly enough, have reverted dramatically against his interests, since all those security measures now make it exceedingly difficult to “prove” a fraud that did not take place.)

So the opposition was nervous, understandably so.

One wave of rumors that swept the opposition had to do with the electoral registry. The registry, which by the way is publicly available for anyone to look at online, had started to throw up some weird inconsistencies.

The most widely publicized bit of weirdness was the Case of the Missing “De”s. In Latin America, when a woman is married, she does not stop using her last name. Instead, she adds a “de” and then her husband’s last name. So if you Erica Stephan were to marry, say, a Paul Cheney, your new married name would be Erica Stephan de Cheney (unfortunately, I guess he has a wife already – bet you two would’ve gotten along great!)

Now, the problem is that as women started checking the CNE’s online registry, they started to find their “de”s had mysteriously vanished. They had become merely Erica Stephan Cheney, which is just not right. Of course, in normal circumstances, this would be seen as a very minor thing. But with Chavez ranting and raving about the coming fraud, it started to seem anything but benign.

Married antichavista women started to get very concerned that the government would move to have their signatures invalidated en masse because they had signed under a name that did not quite match the names as they appeared in the Electoral registry. CNE assured people this would not happen, but paranoia roams free, and people were understandably concerned. We are only too aware that we get ONE shot to recall Chavez per each 6 year term, so it was crucial to get it right this time.

As the missing “de” hubbub started to spread, other inconsistencies in the Electoral Register began to become apparent. Birthdates, for instance, seemed to be all over the place. When my sister Ana went to sign, the old lady in front of her in line found, on checking her registry entry, that her birthday had been switched to February 30th!

Why was all this weirdness taking place?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the government had recently appointed a couple of criminals to run the National ID system? There goes Toro, exagerating again, is what some of you are thinking!

But this is not hyperbole, Erica. This is just what happened! It’s a matter of public record!

At this point, I’ll allow myself to quote at length from this remarkable, mind-altering article from the Miami Herald, signed by Phil Gunson, who heads Venezuela’s Foreign Press Association and is, for my money, the best foreign journo in town.

Hugo Cabezas and Tareck el Aissami were appointed last month as director and deputy director of the Identification and Immigration Directorate, in charge of border controls and issuing passports and national ID cards. The agency also works with electoral authorities on voter registration.

Both were top student leaders at the University of the Andes in the western city of Merida, described by senior school officials as a virtual haven for armed Chavez supporters and leftist guerrillas.

When El Aissami served as president of the student body from 2001 to 2003, his armed supporters controlled the university’s dormitories, said Oswando Alcala, a professor and director of student affairs.

Cabezas and El Aissami declined several Herald requests for interviews.

Their appointments to the passport office raised eyebrows both because of the reports of Arabs obtaining Venezuelan ID documents and the possibility of fraud in an ongoing drive for a referendum to recall Chavez. His popularity stands at less than 40 percent.

[...]

Born in Venezuela of Syrian parents, El Aissami is the son of the president of the Venezuelan branch of Hussein’s once-ruling Baath Party, and nephew of Shibli Al Aissami, a top-ranking Baath Party official in Baghdad whose whereabouts are unknown.

Tareck El Aissami’s father, Carlos, defended him in an interview with The Herald as an outstanding student and said he was not a member of the Baath Party.

In an article the father wrote after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and showed to The Herald, he called President Bush ”genocidal, mentally deranged, a liar and a racist,” and al Qaeda’s leader “the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden.”

So it’s not like the opposition was pulling these concerns about Registry-tampering out of thin air. Since the registry is fully available online, lots of middle class Venezuelans who have net access could actually go there and check their registration info themselves. Too many were finding inconsistencies, data fields that would mysteriously change from one visit to the site to the next. With the National ID office in the hands of the gruesome twosome described above, anything was possible.

This is where Sumate, the opposition NGO, comes into the picture.

Sumate (which, incidentally, is NOT a for-profit corporation, as the lyingtie lying liars on the pro-Chavez side insist,) is a volunteer-run organization that organized the entire signature drive back in February, running the signing centers, transcribing the data, and auditing the results. CNE later ruled those signatures were invalid because they were collected too early. Still, Sumate, as an organization, had gained important experience and know-how. This, to my mind, is civil society at its best.

Sumate realized that, given the potential for confusion generated by the bum Electoral Registry, it would be helpful to set up laptop computers run by volunteers outside each the signing centers. That way, each prospective signer could check his or her official registry data right there, minutes before signing, minimizing the scope for inconsistencies between the information on the forms and the information on the registry.

The point was to minimize the number of signatures accidentally spoiled due to weirdness in the registry. After checking each signer’s data through their national ID card number, Sumate would then make a little print out of each person’s exact data as it appeared on the official registry. They would give each signer their paper as a cheat-sheet so they could fill out the form exactly right.

Abuse! Fascism! Conspiracy!

Now it’s true that CNE barred Sumate from participating directly in last weekend’s Reafirmazo. At the same time, as CNE board members said again and again in public, the elections’ authorities has the power to rule on what happens inside the signature gathering centers. What happens outside those centers is, as CNE accepts publicly, none of its business. Citizens have the same right to assemble, discuss, participate, organize and check their electoral registry entry and print one meter away from a CNE signing center as they do anywhere else or at any other time.

Still, the chavistas – who seem to have some magical idea of what a Laptop computer is and what it can and can’t do – saw the Sumate folk sitting right outside the signature gathering centers and freaked out. Manipulation! Fraud! Conspiracy! We’re used to these epithets by now…and to the peculiar brand of antilogic that sustains them (like a laptop sitting outside a signing center has some magical power to stamp signatures on a form 10 meters away!)

Sumate, not wanting to do anything to derail the process, agreed to place the data-base checkpoints further away from the entrance to the signature centers. 20 meters away was the rule of thumb. Note that they were not legally obligated to, they just did it to avoid problems.

In some cases, they were invited to set up shop in the living rooms of people living close to the signing center. This is scrupulously legal: since when does the government have the right to tell me what I can and can’t do in my living room on signing day simply cuz I happen to live next door to a collection center?

So this is ALL they were doing Erica. They were taking people’s IDs, checking the numbers against the CNE database and making triple-sure that the two matched. They then went over the information with each voter to make sure nothing was odd about it, and that if something was odd about it, the signer was aware that they needed to sign using the official registry data, even if that data was wrong. Sumate volunteers would even give people the chance to “practice” filling out the forms on non-official dummy papers to make sure there were no mistakes due to unfamiliarity with the forms.

Don’t forget that going through this procedure was a rigorously voluntary decision. Nobody was forcing anyone to do anything. If I wanted to go straight through to the CNE signing center and sign without stopping to check my data at the Sumate stand, there was nothing to stop me.

So yes, the little papers do exist. There is absolutely nothing illegal or untoward about them. After signing, you were free to scrunch up your Sumate cheatsheet and throw it in the garbage…or save it, to show your grandchildren one day.

If anything, Sumate merely embodies the opposition’s determination to get it right, to outsmart any government plan to strip citizens of their constitutional right to vote yet again. This kind of careful planning and iron-willed determination not to screw up this time is driving the government crazy!

This, in my opinion, is the real reason they’re mad at the little printouts – through their volunteer operation, Sumate totally outflanked the government. Sumate nutralized their plan to claim massive fraud because the information on the forms did not match the registry information, which appears to have been their plan all along. If the government seems desperate it’s because Sumate has driven them to desperation. They now find themselves very much up a creek without a paddle.

Frankly, I’m tremendously proud of the huge amount of work Sumate’s volunteers put in. Think about the spirit of civic involvement this reveals. The thousands of unpaid Sumate volunteers who gave their time to help set up these database checkpoints are one of the seeds of idealism, citizen participation and grass-roots involvement that gives me the hope, the near-certainty, that the post-Chavez era will be one of real civic renewal. Six years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to find thousands of volunteers to get trained and give up four days of their lives to do anything at all political. These days, for Sumate, it’s a cynch!

This is how Social Capital is generated, Erica. My view of the opposition as a democratic awakening in waiting is not just something I made up in a fit of wishful thinking: there is solid evidence that their mindset has changed, and continues to change, as more and more opposition members realize that the “fast track options” (coups and strikes) were a huge mistake – and that re-institutionalizing the country is the only way out of the crisis. You, Erica Stephan, of all people, know that I’ve been arguing this point since 1999! (Remember those long emails about the central importance of the rule of law? If you can dig a couple up and send them to me, I can even put them up on the site!)

But I digress. You asked about voter intimidation. Think about this for a second. Even on the government’s own, plainly dishonest terms, the accusations literally makes no sense. It just doesn’t pass the test of internal coherence.

If employers wanted to pressure their workers, there was no need for any stinking bits of paper, because remember, tu voto es secreto, tu firma no. If I, evil private employer capitalist running dog oppressor businessman profeteer, want to find out if you, downtrodden revolutionary chavista proletarian, did or did not sign, all I have to do is go to CNE and get the list! It’s a matter of public record!

Now, this obviously does not mean that the shards of paper could NOT have been used to pressure private workers. If anyone really was asked to present those Sumate printouts when showing up to work the following Monday – who knows, maybe somebody somewhere did – I just have two things to say to them.

1-It was perfectly simple to just go to the sumate tent, get your printout, then walk off without signing the official petition. You’re a chavista under pressure? Just get your sumate form and don’t sign!

(a much better plan than Labor Minister Iglesias’s: she called on chavistas to break the law by signing with deliberate mistakes, which itself constitutes incitement to break the law and should get her arrested…but this is the chavista era, so…)

2-If you really were pressured and did sign, this is illegal, wrong, and destructive to the democratic process. Please protest. Get your act together. Document your complaint. Get witness statements from co-workers who had the same problem. Go to the labor ministry and get help with documenting precisely what happened. Then turn the whole mass of papers over the CNE (the 3-2 majority pro-Chavez CNE, may I add). If enough people were so pressured, then CNE will throw the referendum out. Simple! But remember, ONLY CNE can decide. And CNE can ONLY decide on the basis of official, documented complaints. So get to it!

*There was, incidentally, a rule in the CNE regulations saying that electronic machines could not be used over the weekend to publish partial results of the signature gathering process. It’s plainly evident to me that using a computer to check your electoral registry information is entirely different from using a computer to publish preliminary numbers.

**And yes, Sumate did once get funding from N.E.D. Your point being…?