Monday, February 16, 2009

A Sad Day in Venezuela

Late last night, I received an email from my friend in Venezuela, Andreina Pinedo, a student at Universidad Metropalitana, and one of the organizers of the International Observers program that I participated in during November, which brought over 20 young people from half a dozen countries to Venezuela to monitor the elections. Her message is a sad, but one that must be shared:
Today, Feb 15th, our nation's democratic values were once again put to the test, and honestly I do not know whether or not they have survived. For those of you that don't know the story update, a new referendum was held today, one which proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow all electoral positions to be reelected indefinitely, including of course, the presidential post [prior to this amendment, individuals were limited to two terms in the presidential office, and Hugo Chavez was in his second term]. Since it was proposed in December, Venezuelan's were confused, for Chavez seemed to have rushed the elections on Feb 15th, even though it was just close enough for the date to be approved by the national assembly; eventually, and not surprisingly, the assembly approved his proposal and on January 14th set the date for the referendum on Feb 15th. From that point on, students crowded the streets, some days more so than other days, since most of us were in exams during January, but definitely as enthusiastic as usual. Our strategies differed, but the mission was the same: call people to vote! The weird part is that there was a group of more-active-than-ever students, and more-apathetic-than-ever other ones, I must admit that I include myself in the latter. It makes sense when you realize this has been the third election in less than 1.5 years. The point is actually that the fight was ours, and every person made themselves useful in every way they thought was best, and I truly belief our effort was gigantic, amazing, and worth it.

Today, voting started slow... very slow... for two reasons: the process was very very quick so there were almost no lines, and the closing time was changed to 6pm so people didn't make an effort to wake up early and vote. A huge amount of students invaded the streets in cars with megaphones and vans with microphones calling for people to go out and vote, for either option, but VOTE! All other electoral actions, situation rooms, call centers, exit polls, and denounce centers worked great as well.

After a long day, the 1st official bulletin was released. We lost, 54 points for YES to the amendment... 46 points NO. The defeat is hard, and regretfully, it is real. We feel this means that the existing threat to our democracy and to our political future, has become a reality. In an evidently disproportionate campaign, where the YES spent millions on amazing posters and publicity, where the newly elected, pro government, mayor of one of Caracas's divisions was head of the campaign, keeping up with lack of resources and strength was difficult. In the end, today has made us realize and remember that this struggle is far from over, that Chavez's popularity is not so fragile, that we live in a nation who's citizens have not realized the importance of good governance as opposed to the fanaticism of a leader... and that we CANNOT stop. The percentage of people that abstained was 32% a few points less than during the Dec 2007 referendum. However when you take a look at the numbers, it was pro-gorvernment voters who voted and diminished our lead.

This email represents a way of reminding you all of how much we appreciate all the work you did in Nov with us. I never stop thinking about how important your job here was and how much it meant for us. I hope that you are still interested in our country's situation, and continue to spread our word.

This year still has another election waiting for us: legislative posts within each state (I completely translated that and have no idea if it makes any sense to you), which will be held in August. We will be there again and do our best to gain more spaces in Venezuelan politics. But 2012 already scares me, especially after listening to the president's "acceptance" speech, in which he obviously proclaimed his candidacy for yet another presidential period. Fireworks are still heard in Caracas.

Thank all of you who have sent us, in one way or another, messages of hope and patience for today. We are all sad and impressed, mostly confused by what comes next. But we are still here to receive your good thoughts and to inform you of our actions. Your support is truly appreciated!
What I am taking from Andreina's story is not that the students lost this time, but that this is the first loss they have had to experience. Ever since the Venezuelan students took to the streets in protest of the closing of the largest private television station in the country, RCTV, they have not suffered a defeat until this one. They were the first group to take on and defeat Chavez in not one, but two elections. And the only way that Chavez was able to win was by holding an election less than 3 months after a national election that he had already lost. When I was in Venezuela, there was much to be concerned about. There are threats to the cause of democracy and human rights, yes. But there is much hope for the country as well. There are people doing inspirational things in Venezuela and leading a cause with a passion not seen in many other places. This battle was lost, but the long war is not over. I believe in the cause of liberty that the students are undertaking in Venezuela. And I believe that they will continue to make a difference, making Venezuela a freer place.

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