Saturday, February 08, 2003

VIGNETTES FROM EL FIRMAZO
February 2, 2003 and later

Although I have already mentioned some of this stuff, I cannot stress enough the magnitude of what happened Sunday 2.

The consultative referendum of February 2 having been postponed ad infinitum by the High Court on specious grounds, the opposition in barely a week organized what has to be qualified as one of the most spectacular grassroots manifestation on record. The questions offered were: 1) recall election for Chavez; 2) recall election for many a chavista elected official; 3) an amendment to the constitution establishing a shorter presidential period applicable now and a two round balloting for presidential election; 4) call on a referendum for a new constituent assembly; 5) a letter of support toward the oil industry workers on strike and 6) some other stuff according to local requirements ranging for a weird media defense proposal to overturning the enabling law of 2001 that was the trigger for all of the present mess. Some “polling” places had up to 10 forms to sign!

This mega sign-in petition drive was dubbed El Firmazo. Depending on the topic, it required that the electorate sign by 5% for law annulment to 20% for Chavez recall. With close to 11 million registered voters it is easy to do the math. The opposition hoped for a good turnout and reach close to 20% in a single day with securing the necessary votes on the following week or so since a certain numbers of signatures are bound to be declared invalid.

Considering that verifying these signatures even with modern scanning software is quite more arduous than counting votes, and that in view of Sunday success the drive was extended until Wednesday, no official results are still published. However, rumor has that there will be more than 4 million validated signatures. That is, at least 40% of the electorate is today on record as wanting to have Chavez out. If one considers a 30% normal abstention rate (it was near 50% when Chavez was voted in) it shows that at best 30% of the electorate is for Chavez, assuming of course that all that did not sign up are for Chavez. This would give the recall election at the very least 58% for Chavez out. Not to mention the additional hurdle that no matter what the percentage of “yes” is, they still need to total more than what an elected official obtained to get in. Thus, the opposition demonstrated without doubt that it had the percentage and the total votes needed to oust Chavez. Of course, this did not go down well with Chavez, but more of this in another post.

VOTING PLACES AND SECURITY

Normally the army ensures safety for voters. In addition, most public schools are offered for voting. Needless to say that the government forbade any school to open its locale and the army was nowhere to be seen. Yet, people organized an impressive army of volunteers, installed wherever they could from private schools to public squares with in some areas a meager police protection.

It seems clear that the government did not expect such a turn out. The hired scoundrels sent to some of downtown areas were few and late. They encountered larger crowds than expected and when the police fought back, the crowds gathered back swiftly to continue signing up. Still they did mange to burn out a TV network car that was sent to film (Televen).

Popular areas were untouched and it is quite likely that they did not expect much turn out there since chavistas were nowhere to be seen except downtown in Caracas and a few isolated points. However in the Catia neighborhood some locals did manage to make serious trouble hurting two people, one badly with the loss of one of his eye. The story will remember that the guy that got hurt was protecting his mother and that both were chavistas volunteers a year ago. So goes democracy in the chavista mind set.

RUNNING OUT OF FORMS

The Coordinadora Democratica, the opposition umbrella organization, had printed around 3 million forms. By mid morning many centers were stopped by lack of forms. These had to be photocopied in a hurry and undistributed reserves for the following days had to be dispatched quite fast. Yet, in spite of the wait many people stood under the sun to wait for the forms to arrive. TV has a field day interviewing these hardy anti chavistas! At noon the country was already experiencing quite a “frisson”.

THE CHAVISTA SIGN UP

Not to be discounted, belatedly the chavistas decided to put up a few sign up tables to call for recall elections against elected officials from the opposition. Attendance was pathetically meager and by late in the morning most of them had folded and left the grounds in spite of calls by some party leaders. It seems that they got more attendance to create a few small groups to throw stones elsewhere.

CAMEOS

TV offered many cameos for the voting day. They included a 102 year old lady, sharp enough to explain how come she came to sign up in spite the fact that she is confined to a wheel chair since she lost a leg years ago.

TV also offered plenty of cameos from popular sectors voting in large numbers, mostly mixed race folks who are “supposed” to be chavista die-hard.

CHAVEZ SPEAKS

While this was going on, Chavez made his week end show, Alo Presidente! It was a record breaking 6 + hour show, where as usual little was said, with most time occupied in reminiscences of things past, anecdotes and idiotic moments that he offers profusely. One wonders when Chavez does work and why some people have nothing better to do than to listen to the guy for 6 hours! Not to mention that he has his usual court of cabinet secretaries that seem to have nothing better to do than follow Chavez wherever he is. Reminds me to ancient courts where the king had all his ministers follow around wherever he was. Of course, no mention was made of El Firmazo. One supposes that if his cohorts attempts at counter signing had been more successful, and visually appealing, his own TV cameras would have taken a break to show them. However, at noon when the show started it was all over from that quarter except for the street violence. Really, his people need to learn how to put up shows! Or they were really surprised by the outcome…

CLOSING CEREMONY

The day ended with an apotheosis. The opposition called for a huge rally near Plaza Altamira that ended with a great firework. For an opposition that had lost its right to hold a referendum that day, what a come back!

OUTSIDE LOOK

CNN offered coverage but magnified the feeble chavista show, I suppose to show balance. Since Chavez TV did not dwell much on it one wonders why CNN takes so much care. Afraid of an April 11 faux pas again?

Major US papers seem to have ignored the event. French papers did notice the amplitude of the grassroots movement. Are US people that skeptic of grassroots activism?

CONCLUSION

I did go to sign up to my old high school which had opened in spite of some warnings. My old high school is located close to the residence of the president, residence that has not been used by Chavez since he separated a few months ago. He sleeps now at the presidential palace of Miraflores downtown. When I was there late in the afternoon over 7000 people had shown up. They had to ask twice for extra forms since they had expected to collect only 2500 signatures during the day!!!

I felt quite good as I signed, only sorry that since I was not in my home state I could not call for a recall for the local chavistas. Fortunately I have learned since that Yaracuy has gathered more signatures than what the few local chavistas collected when they got in! I was not needed.

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