By Rick Sterling – Jan 4th, 2021
In early December, I traveled to Venezuela to serve as an election observer during the country’s national assembly election. I was part of a group of eight people from Canada and the United States organized by CodePink. There were about two hundred international observers in total, including the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts. I have served as an official election observer in Honduras and was an unofficial observer during Venezuela’s 2015 national assembly election.
Meeting opposition leaders
Before the election, our small group met with eight leaders from the Democratic Alliance, a major opposition coalition. Pedro Jose Rojas of Accion Democratica told us that U.S. sanctions were not doing what they claimed. Instead, he said, they are hurting average citizens. Bruno Gallo of Avanca Progressista proclaimed Venezuela needs negotiation, not confrontation. Juan Carlos Alvarado of the Christian Democratic Party said that Venezuelans have been “victims of politics,” and that dialogue and flexibility are needed.
Several leaders spoke about the importance of the national assembly and emphasized that the road to change is through voting, not violence. They expressed a desire for better relations with the U.S but said that Venezuelan sovereignty needs to be respected. The common request was to end U.S. sanctions and interference in Venezuelan politics.
We visited a factory where voting machines were assembled, tested, and certified. The staff was openly proud of their work. Last March, nearly all pre-existing voting machines were destroyed in a massive fire at the main election warehouse, sparking calls to delay the December election. But in six months, forty thousand new computers were ordered, built, assembled, tested, and certified in time for the December election.
On election day, Sunday, December 6, we began a tour of election sites. Typically, the voting takes place at a school, with five to ten classrooms designated as “mesas,” and each voter goes to his or her designated mesa.”
The voting process was quick and efficient, with bio-safety sanitation at each step. Voters first showed their identity cards and confirmed their identity with fingerprint recognition. Step two was to cast a ballot on a touchscreen computer and receive a paper receipt. Step three was to verify that the receipt matches the voting choice and deposit the receipt in a ballot box. Finally, voters would sign and put their fingerprints on the voting registry. The entire process took about three minutes.
As election day closed, we observed the process of tabulating the votes. At each mesa, (with observers from other parties present) paper receipts were recorded one by one, and at the end, the results were compared to the digital count and then transmitted to the headquarters for overall tabulation.
Election results were announced by the Council for National Election (CNE) which manages the entire process. CNE leaders are not permitted to be members of any party and the CNE leadership was recently changed at the request of the opposition. In our discussion with leading opposition members, we did hear complaints about incumbent party advantages but it was acknowledged the election process is free, fair and honest.
A PBS Newshour special
After having experienced Venezuela’s election firsthand, on December 29 I watched a PBS Newshour segment about that election and the overall situation in Venezuela. PBS reporter Marcia Biggs told how “Maduro’s party essentially ran unopposed in this month’s election.” This, despite my personal meetings with the very opposition parties that were participating in those same elections.
In fact, there were 107 parties and over 14,000 individuals competing in the December 6 election for 277 national assembly seats. While eight parties were in alliance with the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), there were over 90 opposition parties. The strongest opposition coalition was the Democratic Alliance comprising seven opposition parties and winning 1.1 million votes (18% of the vote). The LEFT opposition to the PSUV, under the banner of the Communist Party of Venezuela, received just 168,000 votes.
Reporter Marcia Biggs claimed that “politics permeates everything in Venezuela and can determine whether you support Maduro and eat or go hungry.” This claim is based on a campaign statement by PSUV Vice President Diosdado Cabello encouraging people to vote. Cabello facetiously said that women are in the forefront, and can say to their family, “No vote, no food.” His statement has been distorted out of all meaning and context.
When PBS showed Guaido climbing over a fence, they failed to mention that he was pulling off a publicity stunt to distract from the embarrassing news that Luis Parra was elected Speaker of the national assembly following Guaido’s own claim to be “interim president” was based on him being Speaker.
Election turnout was indeed lower than usual at 31%, yet this is likely due to the election taking place amid the pandemic and the fact that millions of registered voters have had to leave the country due to economic hardship. Transportation in Venezuela is also difficult due to gasoline scarcity. This was also a national assembly election, equivalent to a U.S. mid-term election, which typically generates a lower turnout. Still, 95% of voting-eligible Venezuelans are registered voters compared to just 67% in the U.S. Thus a turnout of 50% of registered voters in the U.S. equates to only 33% of eligible voters.
Election meddling in Venezuela
The star of PBS’s seven-minute report is Roberto Patino, the Venezuelan director of a food distribution charity. The report neglects to mention that Patino is associated with a major U.S. foreign policy institution. He is a Millennium Leadership fellow and so-called expert at the neoliberal Atlantic Council where the regime change goals in Venezuela are clear. His food charity Alimenta la Solidaridad is allied with Rescue Venezuela, funded by the U.S. with the apparent goal of undermining the Venezuelan government and promoting “interim president Juan Guaido.”
Patino says the Venezuelan government is “very paranoid and they see conspiracies all over.” Paranoia is defined as a mental condition wherein there is fear of imaginary threats. But U.S. threats and aggression against Venezuela are not imaginary; they are very real.
In 2002 the U.S. supported the kidnapping and coup against the popular and elected President Hugo Chavez. The years have gone by, but U.S. hostility persists.
* In August 2018 there was a drone assassination attempt on the Venezuelan President.
* In January 2019, the U.S. declared that it would not recognize the elected President Maduro and instead recognized Juan Guaido as “interim president.” His background is described in the article “The Making of Juan Guaido: How the U.S. regime-change laboratory created Venezuela’s coup leader.”
* In February 2019, President Trump threatened military intervention against Venezuela.
* In March 2019, there was a massive power blackout caused by sabotage of the electrical grid, with probable U.S. involvement.
*In May 2020, two former U.S. Special Forces soldiers and other mercenaries were arrested in a failed attempt to overthrow President Maduro.
* In June 2020, the U.S. Navy warship Nitze began provocative “freedom of navigation” patrols along the Venezuelan coast.
* In August 2020, the U.S. seized four ships carrying much-needed gasoline to Venezuela.
* In September 2020, in an attempt to undermine the Venezuelan election, the U.S. imposed sanctions on political leaders who planned to participate.
* The U.S. 2021 stimulus bill includes $33 million for “democracy programs for Venezuela.”
Based on the past twenty years, Venezuela’s government has good reason to be on guard against U.S. threats, meddling, and intervention. The PBS program ignores this history.
Another hero of the report is exiled politician Leopoldo Lopez. He was imprisoned in 2014 for instigating street violence known as guarimbas, which led to the deaths of 43 people.
Like Patino, Lopez is from the Venezuelan elite, studied in the U.S., and has major public relations support in the U.S. Like Guaido, Lopez is more popular in Washington than in his home country.
Will the US respect Venezuela’s sovereignty?
If the PBS Newshour reporters sought objectivity, members of the moderate opposition in Venezuela would have been interviewed. Viewers could have heard Democratic Alliance leaders explain why they participated in the election and why they are critical of U.S. economic sanctions and U.S. interference in their domestic affairs. That would have been educational for viewers.
On January 5, the newly elected national assembly will commence in Venezuela. The fig leaf pretense of Juan Guaido as “interim president” of Venezuela will be removed because he is no longer in the national assembly. In fact, he was removed as speaker of the national assembly one year ago.
But viewers of the PBS special did not learn this. Instead, they received a biased report ignoring the moderate opposition and promoting a few U.S.-backed elites. PBS ignored and denigrated the efforts of millions of Venezuelans who carried out and participated in an election that compares favorably with the election process in the U.S. You would never know it from PBS, and you might not believe it unless you saw it with your own eyes, as I did.
Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area of California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org