Venezuelan opposition protests vote

BORIS VERGARA/EPA - Members of the opposition participate in a rally to commemorate May Day in Caracas.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Unable to force a sweeping review of last month’s disputed presidential election, opposition supporters marched in the streets Wednesday to demonstrate their fury at the ruling party’s efforts to blunt a recount.

On International Workers’ Day, Venezuelans from both sides of the sharp political divide staged rallies, as is custom in Latin America. But in Caracas, the capital, and in the provinces, thousands of the government’s adversaries heeded the call of opposition leader Henrique Capriles to demand a complete audit of the April 14 vote.

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Capriles, a 40-year-old governor who claims the election was stolen by Nicolás Maduro, characterized the protests as “the fight for truth against lies” and pledged to keep the pressure on the government.

But Capriles being forced into the streets was indicative of another reality: The opposition has limited options for redress in a country where the ruling United Socialist Party controls the electoral board and the Supreme Court, which Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, packed with loyal supporters.

The opposition is also unlikely to get a hearing in the National Assembly, whose president, Diosdado Cabello, a force in the ruling party, has thrown opposition legislators off committees and banned them from speaking for refusing to recognize Maduro as president.

When opposition lawmakers on Tuesday unfurled a banner reading “coup against the parliament,” Maduro’s allies delivered a beating that left several lawmakers bruised and battered, the government’s critics said.

For Julio Borges, a leading adversary of Maduro who was shown bleeding profusely in a video that went viral, it was the third time he had been attacked on the floor of the chamber.

“What we’re left with is to go into the streets to protest,” said Mayerlica Cedeño, 48, a teacher who joined anti-government demonstrators in Caracas. “We’re taking the streets but without guns. We do it with horns and signs and banners. We want the votes to be counted.”

‘Democracy or dictatorship?’

Opposition leaders and some human rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, say recent government actions against the opposition are raising concerns about whether officials are violating rights and becoming increasingly authoritarian.

“It’s getting completely out of control, completely out of line,” said JoséMiguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, which has compiled reports on abuses in Venezuela. “Is it a democracy or a dictatorship? I think Venezuela is on the verge of losing any serious claim to being a democracy.”

On Monday, a retired general, Antonio Rivero, was charged with conspiracy and inciting violence after a video surfaced of him appearing to coordinate protests. That came five days after an American filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, was arrested and accused of being a secret agent spearheading plans to destabilize the government.

The National Assembly has also announced an inquiry into violence that officials say left nine people dead after Capriles refused to recognize Maduro’s victory. The government contends that Capriles plans to use the unrest to take power. He was been warned that a jail cell awaits him.

“Sooner rather than later, he will have to pay for those crimes,” said Pedro Carreño, a ruling party lawmaker who is to lead a special committee empowered to investigate opposition leaders and their role in the protests.

Rights groups and labor unions allied with the opposition say that government ministries are trying to punish workers who voted for Capriles. In a widely circulated video, Housing Minister Ricardo Molina pledges before state employees to personally fire those who are activists in “fascist parties.”

“Let me say with total clarity, I do not care at all about labor rules. In this situation, they don’t matter,” he said, as workers cheered and shouted. “That’s how to govern!”

“I don’t accept that anyone can come here and speak badly of the revolution.”

Voting irregularities?

Political analysts and electoral experts, among them Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center, say the crisis could be defused with an extensive review of the automated voting system to address concerns raised by the opposition.

“The concerns are not about the machines and whether they counted accurately,” said McCoy, who is the Americas director at the center and has observed six elections here. “The questions are much more about who voted. Was there double voting? Was there impersonation of voters? And was there coerced voting?”

But the National Electoral Council made clear this past weekend that an audit set to begin Monday on 46 percent of the votes would be far more limited than Capriles had demanded.

Tibisay Lucena, head of the council, said that Capriles had generated “false hopes” and that the planned audit would “in no way affect the electoral results” issued by her agency on election day.

The opposition thinks there might have been irregularities in as many as 6,000 of the nearly 14,000 voting centers, said Humberto Villalobos, who has worked with a team of opposition technicians to identify irregularities. The opposition also alleges that government supporters used ID cards from dead voters to cast ballots, that some people voted multiple times, that prospective voters were walked through the voting process and instructed to endorse Maduro, and that opposition witnesses were forced out of voting centers.

Villalobos said the opposition is particularly interested in reviewing the electronic fingerprints taken by automated machines, which would show whether there were multiple voters or if some voters used other people’s IDs to vote. The electoral council’s more limited audit would only compare vote totals from machines with paper receipts for each vote. Capriles’s camp would not be permitted to participate.

“Their audit is one where they define the conditions and all the proposals,” Villalobos said. “It’s not an audit where we can participate.”

Facing scant possibilities of redress from state institutions, Capriles may want to detail the evidence publicly, said David Smilde, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America who has studied the political situation in Venezuela.

“Capriles still has people’s attention,” Smilde said. “And calling people’s attention to the government’s arbitrary actions can be quite effective. If they could present their evidence in the court of public opinion, and Capriles could keep denouncing some of these things, it could have an impact.”

Forero reported from Charleston, W.Va.

 
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