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23/09/2010 | Election observers coming to Venezuela -- what will they see?

Jim Wyss

As Venezuela gears up for parliamentary elections, there will be few foreign observers here to watch the critical race.


As international delegates begin trickling into Venezuela to oversee Sunday's National Parliamentary election, some in this nation of 27 million say there are too few coming too late to watch the hotly contested vote.

While the delegates will be a welcome set of eyes, their role will be largely symbolic, said José Albornoz of the center-left Country for All party.

``The observers will be like that Shakira song,'' he said, referring to the Colombian pop-star's song Ciega Sordomuda. ``They'll be blind, deaf and mute.''

Both sides say there is more at stake than just the 165 seats in parliament.

President Hugo Chávez has said his allies must control at least two-thirds of the body in order to ``radicalize'' his socialist revolution.

For the opposition, it's a chance to flex its political muscle after boycotting the parliamentary race in 2005 and to put the brakes on the executive branch.

Unlike in the previous parliamentary race in 2005, delegations from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the Carter Center -- the foundation created by former President Jimmy Carter -- were not invited to watch the run-up to the vote.

Instead, each political coalition is allowed to bring up to 30 witnesses from abroad. But their ability to report and comment on what they see is being tightly controlled.

To emphasize that point, a full-page newspaper ad welcomes them to Venezuela and then warns them ``not to interfere with the nation's internal affairs.''


The real work of monitoring the race is being fulfilled by four nongovernmental groups who are allowed to register 624 observers each. Those 2,496 observers will have to oversee some 36,733 voting stations nationwide.

Venezuela is not alone in keeping international observers at bay. Brazil and the United States, for example, don't invite multinational organizations to scrutinize their elections either.

But with so much at stake in Sunday's vote, both sides are hoping to score political points with the observer issue.

The opposition has said the clampdown on observers is part of the government's larger strategy to hide its electoral shenanigans. The government has countered that the opposition is using the issue to cry fraud because it's not going to win at the ballot box.

According to pollsters, this South American nation is almost evenly divided between supporters of Chávez's Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela and his foes in the Unity coalition of opposition parties. Almost one-third of the voters say they are undecided.

If Sunday's vote is like those of years past, the international observers will see very few problems at the ballot box, said Leonardo Carvajal, of the Asamblea de Educación, one of the four national groups monitoring the race.

Experts have checked the voting machines and they have proved to be secure and secret, he said.

``Everything should be normal that day,'' he said. ``The abuses come before the vote -- during the campaign.''

Over the past month, the opposition has accused the government of flooding state-run television stations with propaganda and pouring government resources into buying votes.


``We fought with the [National Electoral Council] to get them to invite the U.N. or the OAS or any organization that specializes in election observation,'' said Ramon José Medina, a spokesman for the opposition coalition. ``If observers were allowed to watch the campaign, they would have seen the abuse of power and of public resources and public media.''

Roy Chaderton is Venezuela's Chávez-appointed permanent representative to the Organization of American States. He said it's dishonest for the opposition to call foul because OAS members from Bolivia and Argentina will be in Venezuela on election day.


``This is part of the media terrorism they like to practice,'' he told The Miami Herald. In the past delegates have come and always vouched for the quality of the elections. He also warned the opposition parties against trying to break the 30-delegate limit.

``We understand that Spain's [conservative] Popular Party may be sending a sort of invasion flotilla to Venezuela just so that we will throw them out,'' he said. ``And that's exactly what we'll do.''

In an e-mail, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said she was not aware of any U.S. House or Senate members that had been invited to observe the race.

But with Venezuela's track record of jailing dissidents and shutting down opposition media ``for Chavez to try to limit scrutiny of his actions comes as no surprise,'' she wrote. ``It is crucial that all eyes be on Venezuela this weekend.''

Miami Herald (Estados Unidos)


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