Opposition candidate Henri Falcon cries foul. We speak with journalist Lucas Koerner of Venezuelanalysis.com, election observer Roger Harris, and Venezuela analyst Greg Wilpert about the legitimacy of the results, and what is next for Venezuela
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro won re-election, with sixty-eight percent of the vote, on Sunday. Participation, though, was at its lowest we have seen in Venezuela in decades, at just forty-six percent, compared with, say, the turnout in 2013 following Chávez’s death, at eighty percent. But it is not unlike some other recent elections we have seen, say, in Europe. For example, the last set of presidential elections in France, when Emmanuel Macron won, he was elected with just forty-eight percent.
In Venezuela, however, the low turnout is attributed to the boycott by the opposition parties. Maduro’s closest rival, Henri Falcón, who did participate, got twenty-one percent of the vote. Falcón, who had originally promised to recognize the results as a condition of his participation, reversed himself late Sunday night, saying that he would not to recognize the result because the conditions for his participation had been violated, and he is demanding a new election to be held in October. Let’s listen.
HENRI FALCÓN: It’s obligatory for us to denounce that the agreement signed was not respected and does not exist. And from there, we don’t recognize this electoral process as valid and as haven taken place. For us, there were no elections. New elections in Venezuela need to take place.
SHARMINI PERIES: President Maduro, meanwhile, while recognizing his victory, promised to engage in intense dialogue with the opposition to resolve the country’s problems, particularly the economic crises.
NICOLÁS MADURO: And I turn over the page and look to the future. And I propose Henri Falcón, Reinaldo Quijada, Javier Bertucci, and all the other leaders of the opposition, let us get together, let us meet, let us talk about Venezuela. Let’s talk about ideas, solutions, and proposals. I do hear and accept total responsibility of this initiative, this democratic initiative, this needed initiative.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss the elections and analyze the results are Lucas Koerner, a staff writer for Venezuelanalysis.com. He joins us from Caracas, and also joining us from Caracas is Roger Harris. He was an electoral observer during this Sunday’s election. Mr. Harris is with the Task Force on the Americas in San Francisco. And finally, joining us also is Greg Wilpert, who’s joining us from Quito, Ecuador. He’s a longtime Venezuela analyst and the author of Changing Venezuela By Taking Power. For full disclosure, Greg’s wife is Venezuela’s ambassador to Ecuador. All right, Lucas, let’s start with you. Now, what are the major complaints from various players in Venezuela as to why these elections should not be recognized?
LUCAS KOERNER: Well, I think, beginning with Henri Falcón, the opposition front runner- he, together with Javier Bertucci, who was the evangelical candidate, they’re saying that the election is illegitimate. And they point to, basically the main gripe that they cite, is the so-called “red points” or “red tags,” which are basically Socialist Party points that are basically set up within, you know, supposedly one hundred, two hundred meters by law, two hundred meters of the voting centers, and basically monitor- they’re used for exit polling, that after voting, Chavistas, or government supporters, voluntarily go to these sites, and they basically register they had voted and it helps the Socialist Party tabulate projections for the outcome of the vote.
And they’re saying that these “red points” are used to coerce voters, or to distribute patronage, or any other type of irregularities. They have not really cited any other evidence for why they think- or any other claims for why they think the elections are fraudulent. The main opposition parties are- that boycotted the election are also thankful that this election was fraudulent, but they are not even- they’ve already said that it was a fraud months ago. And they have not cited any evidence. Both Falcón and Betrucci are calling for the elections to be redone in October, and Bertucci actually goes as far as to call for Maduro to be prohibited from running. Maduro has, of course, called on his defeated rivals to recognize the results of the election and to sit down to dialogue, and for national reconciliation, beginning today.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Roger, let me go to you. You toured various centers in the state of Vargas, along Venezuela’s coast. What did you see at the polling stations and what did people tell you? And focus, also, in on these “red tents” that were up. From my experience, being at Venezuelan election polling stations, these “red tents” exist two hundred meters away and they are there in order to, I guess, capture the different voters that have come to the polling station, to make sure that their registration with the certain parties are still updated, and they usually have celebrations or treats given out. But at the same time, now the opposition is claiming that these “red centers” or “red tents” were giving out certain prizes for having voted. And so, Roger could you comment on that as well?
ROGER HARRIS: Yes. We were part of a large team, over three hundred internationals, looking at polling places in Caracas, throughout the country, and also on the coastal state of Vargas, where I was, as well as in Caracas itself. We didn’t see any irregularities, but that was just anecdotal. I kind of would say that the big news is there is no news. People were very worried about violence and obstruction of voting, and stuff like that. We didn’t see that. It was a very orderly process.
I spoke to a young militant in the state of Vargas, his name was Jose, and the way he describes the voting process was, it was their celebration of democracy. The Venezuelans that we came in contact with were extremely proud of their democracy, very proud to have a building to have elections, and very proud, specifically, about the technical parts of their voting system. It was so fraud-proof that from taking fingerprints, to using a photo I.D., to having a paper ballot beneath the electronic ballot. They were extremely proud of the foolproof-ness of their electoral process.
SHARMINI PERIES: Lucas, you spent most of the day in Caracas, going to voting centers in different parts of the city. What do you make of the- Falcón’s claim here, that the election agreement that he signed with Maduro and the electoral council were violated? What was supposedly violated, and is there any evidence?
LUCAS KOERNER: Like I said before, Falcón’s main complaint here is the presence of these “red points,” which are supposed to be two hundred meters away from the entrance to the voting center- that these were used to coerce or intimidate voters, or to otherwise distribute gifts, or basically control the voting of voters. We talked- spoke to witnesses for both Falcón, Progressive Advance Party, and Javier Bertucci’s Hope for Change Party. And almost every voting center which we visited- and it’s important to recognize that in Venezuela’s electoral process, opposition parties, as well as pro-government parties, all parties have witnesses present, ideally, in all voting centers in the country, in order to basically monitor any irregularities, as well as they will basically have access to the results of the printed out paper ballot- the tabulation of the results at the end of the day, which they can cross-check with the electronic results, in order to make sure that no irregularities take place.
And they told us that they had found they had no issues with the that it was taking place, that it is all going smoothly, without irregularities. And these opposition witnesses- they did complain that these “red points” were too close to the entrance to the voting center. Nonetheless, they stressed that in no way was the right of people’s-people’s right to suffrage being interfered with in any way whatsoever, that people voted their vote. And given that Venezuela has a secret ballot, regardless- even Chavistas go and register with this, you know, “red point.” They could they could have voted for the opposition, the government. It’s just an exit polling mechanism.
So, I think that that’s the bottom line, that there- I think it’s lastly important to recognize, these “red points” had been used by as standard practice by the government for the past- excuse me, by the Socialist Party and its antecedents, for the past twenty years. It’s part of its mobilization strategy. And that it had even been used in elections, like the December 6, 2015 parliamentary election, in which the opposition won by a landslide, scoring nearly two thirds of the seats at that time.
So, it doesn’t appear to be a lot of real evidence for the fraud claims. And in fact, the opposition, the other parties, the opposition that boycotted the election, under the MUD, they similarly cried fraud in 2015- excuse me, in last year’s October 15th elections for governor, they cried fraud. They did not cite any evidence. And at that time, Henri Falcón’s economic adviser, Francisco Rodriguez- he actually conducted a study that dismissed those fraud claims, that actually really confirmed the standing results. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of water in these claims.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg let me go to you. The opposition just released a statement, claiming that the turnout was just eighteen percent. Now, Marco Rubio also tweeted that Maduro claims to have won with more votes than people actually went to vote. What is your response to this?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, It’s quite ridiculous. I mean, the first thing about the 18 percent- it was actually something that was released earlier that had to be retracted, because there’s just no evidence, really, whatsoever. The thing is, over fifty percent of the ballot boxes are actually counted by hand. And it would really represent a tremendous stuffing of ballot boxes that supersedes the imagination. I mean, it would be completely unprecedented in the history of elections to basically fake what they’re claiming is millions and millions of votes. It’s just completely out of the question.
And like Lucas was saying, they haven’t presented any evidence whatsoever that the result is that much lower. As a matter of fact, actually, I think opposition forces recognize that this is a completely false claim, and that’s why they’ve been relatively muted in stating it. However, the problem is that many media outlets have been picking it up, even though the opposition itself isn’t really making it or substantiating it. I just saw a report from Bloomberg, for example, that has been reporting and repeating that claim. And even the New York Times, they cited a thirty percent turnout figure- again, totally unsubstantiated. That hasn’t even been repeated that often by forces- I mean, political forces within Venezuela. But now it’s becoming amplified, because there’s nothing else that the media can hold on to in order to substantiate the claims that everybody is trying to make, which is that these elections were somehow fraudulent.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg. What happens now? As we saw in the clips at the beginning, Maduro is offering a dialogue, while the opposition, including Falcón here, is calling for new elections. Meanwhile, there are so many people trying to get in on this conversation, including the United States. And also, I should mention that in terms of that dialogue, Zapatero, former Prime Minister of Spain, who was in the process of mediating the dialogue between the opposition and the Maduro government, has reoffered to continue or start up those negotiations again. Your thoughts on that?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, the dialogue is going to be extremely difficult because the positions are so far apart. I mean, the big question is whether or not the opposition would agree to a dialogue. And if they’re making a call basically for a new election, it is very- I mean, if that’s the only thing that they want to talk about, it’s very unlikely that Maduro will agree to that. I mean, what he has said is that he wants a dialogue about the policies of his government, not about whether or not there’s going to be new elections. So, they’re completely diametrically opposed positions here between the opposition and the government. And so, it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible to actually have any kind of meaningful discussion, even though, like you said, Zapatero has offered to mediate again. I just don’t see it happening.
The big problem, the big danger, of course, is what is the United States going to do at this point? And we already saw the Lima Group declaring that they are not recognizing- this is fourteen countries governed- in Latin America- that are governed by conservative governments. And they’re basically suggesting, also, that they will impose sanctions of some sort. But the real serious sanctions would be if the United States imposes sanctions on oil exports from Venezuela.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now Greg, you mentioned the Lima Group has, of course, objected to these elections and are refusing to recognize them. That includes Brazil, Argentina, Canada- some of the big players in Latin America on that list. But at the same time, we have China and Russia, who will likely side with the Venezuelan government on this issue. China was already asked earlier today as to whether they recognize it, and they said that the sovereignty of Venezuela is their diplomatic position, and that they will honor what the Venezuelan people has chosen, which is the Maduro government. Now, I imagine Russia will also take that position, although we haven’t heard from the Kremlin yet on this. Any thoughts on this, Greg, before I go to Roger for the last word?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, I mean, that’s certainly going to be Venezuela’s, so to speak, life raft, is the connection to China and Russia, because if they cannot sell oil to the United States, then those will be the main alternatives. And that’s why it’s so important for Venezuela to maintain its alliance with both Russia and China. And that’s really going to be the only solution for them in that sense, in the long term, because the other left governments in Latin America, principally Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, are not going to be able on their own- considering that they’re some of the poorest countries in Latin America, going to be able to help Venezuela very much. So, it all comes down to really Russia and China. And I think that’s- and Venezuela will welcome, of course, allying itself- or has welcomed allying itself with these countries. And we’re seeing, really, a kind of a reshaping of blocs within Latin America, in that sense.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Roger. Now, you had gone to Venezuela to observe the elections. I imagine there was many observer delegations, including from the European Union. The European Union has not issued a declaration, at this point, about the elections yet, but I’m wondering what your thoughts are, and what you- whether you ran into any of the European delegation members- what they might be saying, and also what message you’ll be carrying forward as you head home?
ROGER HARRIS: Yes, I met a number of Europeans that were observers. Some of them were in the European Parliament. I don’t know if they were there in any official capacity, but let me answer your question in a much broader sense, because I’ve been coming to Venezuela even before Chávez was here, and there’s been a sea change in this country. Before Chávez, this country looked to the United States for their identity. Baseball was the national pastime, not fútbol, or what we call soccer.
Now, Venezuelans have a strong national identity and a dignity about themselves. Also, the society has become much, much more inclusive, especially for women and youth. I believe that there are some over three hundred mayoralties in the country, and about a hundred of them, the mayors are below thirty years in age. And finally, and I think this is the most important thing, not only for Venezuela but for the region, and for the entire society, for humanity, is that Venezuela led the “pink tide,” the so-called left leaning countries. That tide has been ebbing, but today we saw a staying of that ebbing. And that tide put socialism on the agenda for the twenty-first century. We have to see what happens in the future.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Roger. I thank you so much for joining us today. And Lucas, your connection wasn’t that great, but I hope we got the gist of what you had to say. Thank you for joining us today.
LUCAS KOERNER: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And Greg Wilpert, in Ecuador, in Quito, I thank you so much for joining us, as well.
GREGORY WILPERT: My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.