Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have claimed they gathered enough signatures to demand a presidential recall, but government officials say there are widespread problems with the petition and that there may be cases of outright fraud. We go to Caracas to speak with a freelance journalist who interviewed Chavez over the weekend. [includes transcript]
Several thousand demonstrators protested in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas this weekend, a day after the National Electoral Council promised a decision later this month on whether a referendum will be held on President Hugo Chavez’ future. Opponents of President Hugo Chavez have claimed they gathered enough signatures to demand a presidential recall.
The opposition says its petition to hold a referendum was signed by 3.4 million people. But government officials say there are widespread problems with the petition and that there may be cases of outright fraud. The recall effort marks the third time since April 2001 that opposition leaders tried to remove the populist leader Chavez from office.
Meanwhile Chavez says intelligence services have uncovered an opposition conspiracy to launch a new coup d’etat attempt but that he had been able to act quickly to thwart it.
- Sharmini Peries, journalist with Frontline India who interviewed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez over the weekend. She joins us on the phone from Caracas.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas this weekend a day after the national electoral council promised a decision, February 29 on whether a referendum will be held on the president’s future. That’s Hugo Chavez. A top election official said the results of an opposition petition to hold a referendum on his rule would be delayed, citing irregularities in the some 3.4 million signatures on the petition. Opponents of the president are claiming they have gathered enough signatures over the past four days to demand a presidential recall. The recall effort makes the third time since April, 2001, that opposition leaders tried to remove Chavez from office. In Venezuela, protests in the streets, we turned to Sharmini Peries, who is a freelance reporter with Frontline India. She interviewed president Chavez on Saturday. Welcome to Democracy Now!
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about what has been happening in Venezuela?
SHARMINI PERIES: Well, there’s a cloud — a stormy cloud, I should say, of controversy related to the constitutionally mandated presidential recall that is underway. As you stated, Amy, there is tremendous irregularities in terms of the collection signatures which is being led by the the opposition, which is backed by the about half a dozen television and radio broadcasters that is calling for a referendum as well as a recall vote on the presidency of Hugo Chavez, and this has led to a great deal of instability over the last week in the country as the opposition is demanding a statement from the national electoral council. And as you had already referred to, since Friday, there has been incredible amount of tension here in Caracas as this protest has mounted in order to have force the C.N.E to make an announcement. The Carter Center here, who has been looking into the controversy about the irregularities has claimed that there is enough evidence here to call into question some of the signatures that have been gathered, and therefore, that the C.N.E. should take their time in looking into these signature collection processes, and its irregularities before they make an announcement.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharmini Peries is joining us from Caracas. We’re on the line also with a U.S. Congress member, with California congress member Maxine waters, you have put out a statement as well on Venezuela.
MAXINE WATERS: Well, I think that it doesn’t take a lot of delving into what is going on in Venezuela and Haiti and Cuba to understand that there has, and I do believe, has been a decision by the white house that they’re going to get rid of these leaders no matter— they were constitutionally elected in both Venezuela and in Haiti. They have decided for those leaders who could do not cry uncle and dance to the music of this right wing government that we have, that they are going to undermine them. I do think that the hand of United States is in Venezuela. It is in Haiti. And it’s going to get stronger in Cuba. I think that this is policy decisions that are being made about undoing the leadership in these countries, and trying to decide who should be leading these countries. And it’s quite unfortunate, you would think that we would have our hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan and other hot spots in the world. But clearly, this administration has decided to top these leaders in these countries.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break and we’ll be back. Our guests, U.S. Congress member Maxine Waters from Los Angeles, and on the line with us, Sharmini Peries, who is a freelance reporter talking to us from Caracas where major protests have taken place this weekend and the president Hugo Chavez is calling for international observers to look at the recall signatures on the petitions that have been handed in to the government. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The war and peace report. I’m Amy Goodman as we continue with California congress member Maxine Waters recently back from Haiti, also issued a statement on Venezuela, and we’re also joined by Sharmini Peries, who is a freelance reporter who interviewed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this past Saturday for some 12 hours. Is that right?
SHARMINI PERIES: I would say during the 12 hours he was off to other meetings as well. I have two-and-a-half hours of an interview with the president. I would like to jolt the memory of the listeners here to recall and remember that on April 11, 2002, that there was a — an attempt on President Chavez’s presidency through a coup that was basically organized by the opposition, and facilitated by the opposition-owned media here in Venezuela, which amounts to about six television stations that is supported financed by the oil conglomerates here in Venezuela. Remembering that Venezuela provide as large supply of the U.S. Oil, and there is serious connections here to Texas oil industry, and that these are things that we need to recall as we look at the situation here currently, which is quite turbulent in terms of trying to erode president Chavez’s leadership here.
AMY GOODMAN: What is President Chavez now calling for, this issue of international observers at the news conference which, we’re hardly getting any news right now of Venezuela.
SHARMINI PERIES: This is something that we need to pay a little bit more attention to. There is a great deal of misrepresentation going on in the local media here, because the resources available to the opposition-led media here is tremendous, and the international media itself has been picking up information from these media outlets and therefore, misleading information is getting released internationally. So, then we need to pay a great deal of critical attention to this. What is happening in terms of President Chavez is that he’s at the moment trying to shed light and provide evidence of the irregularities in terms of the collection of the signatures for his recall election. And part of his case is that he providing us evidence of how some of the local N.G.O’s are being financed by U.S. Organizations and foundations supposedly supporting democracy here, but also supporting the opposition, and the opposition is rather powerful here, so they’re not the underdog, and in fact, the government itself is really being misrepresented by this media. And President Chavez is asking people to be more critical of the information, that is being sent out internationally and also locally here. The signature collection process is being financed and supported by your local organizations called Sumate, which is also being supported financially — financially supported by a U.S.-based organization called National Endowment for Democracy. And this organization has provided funds for the signature collection process and for the administration of it. And president Chavez is claiming that this funding process is unfair, and that this is interference with local democratic procedures.
AMY GOODMAN: Maxine waters, I was wondering about some connections between Venezuela, Haiti, also Iraq. When Sharmini Peries talked about the Venezuelan media being very much a part of the attempted coup against Chavez, I was thinking about one corporation in particular that Chavez supporters has pointed out have been in control of the technology for — for oil, which so key to Venezuela, SAIC, Science Applications International. This is a company that is also — has also been deeply involved in Iraq. In fact, it had the contract for running Iraqi media, and it was such a failure that the government had to give it to another company. And also, the players. When you look at Haiti, for example, the head of the central intelligence agency during the first coup, was James Woolsey. In fact, part of why he was brought down as director of central intelligence at that time is that investigative reporter, Allen Nairn exposed that Emmanuel Constance, who is the leader of the paramilitary death squad, was on the D.I.A. and Intelligence Agency payroll and James Woolsey was brought before a closed senate hearing, and questioned about this. Now you have James Woolsey very familiar on television. His law firm backing lobbying for the I.N.C., the Iraqi National Congress. Can you make some connections for us?
MAXINE WATERS: Well, I perhaps can make some connections. First of all, when you listen to the description of what is happening in Venezuela, it mirrors exactly what’s happening in Haiti. Number one, you have the media in both of these countries controlled in certain ways. In Haiti, the elite business families that are connected to the right wing conservatives and the United States Congress and to the State Department are in control of the television and radio stations just as it is being described in Venezuela, where you have the control by the oil interests. And they literally put out all of the information. They simply distort, they lie, and the international media pick up exactly what they tell them. I’m so disappointed, in what is happening with journalists who are supposedly covering Venezuela and Haiti, because they don’t appear to do much investigation. They don’t appear to check out the facts. They simply appear to carry what the local controlled media is putting out there. I was so pleased to hear this independent journalist who is on with you this morning, because the information that we have been getting out of Venezuela and Haiti has just been wrong for the most part. We are trying to send down some journalists to Haiti, for example, to help the government get its message out. Because what we’re getting back here is just awful. As a matter of fact, for an example, I was in Haiti twice. I was there for January 1, for the bicentennial celebration, and there were 300,000 people out to celebrate in support of Aristide and the bicentennial celebration. "The New York Times" put out an article that said there were about 10,000 people there.
As a matter of fact most of the journalists there put out that it was about 10,000 people and I later learned that they in a room together basically said that — agreed that we’re only going to do about 10,000. And there was one newspaper, the Miami herald, who put the right number out, and then I understand that the Miami herald reporter they’re put it out was kind of shunned later on by those journalists because he had disagreed with them and put out the right number of people who attended the celebration. And it goes on and on and on. President Aristide when the supporters show up as they did a week or so ago. A million strong in the street. No coverage. When the opposition shows up as they did Sunday, not only did they misrepresent the numbers. They will not give the facts about how these protesters are trying to trigger a confrontation with these police officers, and then blame the police officers for setting off violence. So, I think that, you know, when I held the press conference in Washington before I left last week, I challenged A.P. for example, to do a better job then they’re doing in Haiti. As a matter of fact, I’m very disappointed at what the A.P. is doing down in Haiti. They have taken sides with the opposition. And then they’re not sending out the correct information. And that’s a real problem both in Venezuela, and in Haiti.
SHARMINI PERIES: Just to shed some light —
AMY GOODMAN: Sharmini Peries, the reporter.
SHARMINI PERIES: Just to shed light on the level of miss-representation, on Saturday in Caracas, there was a demonstration mounted by the opposition calling for an announcement by the C.N.E on the recall referendum, trying to pressure the C.N.E to make an announcement in spite of the irregularities. Now the local privately-owned opposition-backed television stations misrepresented the turnout at the demonstrations by repeatedly showing footage of a previous demonstration held almost two years ago where hundreds of thousands of people showed up for a demonstration where on Saturday’s demonstration it is — I had served about 30,000 to 40,000 people.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the justification for doing this? Did they say they were showing two-year-old footage? Sharmini?
SHARMINI PERIES: They went through it as if it was a live demonstration. The numbers were very low. It was a short demonstration. It fizzled out to 10,000 to 5,000 by late afternoon. And this was not what the op opposition wanted to see. Therefore, they continued to carry footage from previous demonstrations where it appeared that there was a lot more in the crowd. And this is the level of misrepresentation that is going on, and it’s ruthlessly unethical for a media to do that. I think there needs to be some serious investigation and some of international media organizations, the International Press Institute, for example, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, the Defenders of Free Media, needs to pay a great deal of attention to what is going on in Venezuela because the media is running havoc with the levels of misrepresentation which certainly has a reciprocal effect in the international arena and also that a democratically elected leader like Hugo Chavez is being portrayed — his image internationally is that he’s a red beret commander in chief of the military here, which he is, but at the same time, he’s a democratically elected president with an enormous support from the popular movements here as well as just generally the populist, the people — people that are poor, people that are just regular citizens of this country. Unfortunately, his support is not rich, they’re not elite, they’re not backed by the media, they’re not backed by the oil industry. These are the kinds of investigations that the international press and media defenders need to look at, because the level of misrepresentation is enormous. One of the other points is that international observers that the Carter Center is trying to organize as well as what — who president Chavez is calling for international observation here in terms of what’s going on needs to also, you know, take a serious investigative look at the level of corruption into terms of the constitutionally mandated referendum call and the signature collection process is a valid process.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Congress member Maxine Waters, as we look at Venezuela and Haiti, the attention here is more on the presidential election, and Iraq. Is there any resolutions or legislation that you’ll be introducing on these other foreign policy issues?
MAXINE WATERS: Well, I don’t — I don’t know if it’s a matter of legislation at this point. I think it’s a matter of trying to get people to pay attention to what is going on. Because the formula that is being used on both of these countries is a formula that has been decided, that has been planned right inside our own government. The formula you just heard that is being used in Venezuela is precisely the formula that that’s being used in Haiti. The ousting or the attempt to oust democratically elected presidents, the support of — from —- in our own government here in the United States, and using some of the non-governmental organizations and the money that they’re being given to help undermine those governments where they are -—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being on with us. We’ll see if the democratic presidential candidates raise this as an issue in the debates and primaries to come. As they campaign to be the next President of the United States.
MAXINE WATERS: Thank you. We need to get their attention on it.
AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Maxine Waters and Sharmini Peries, an independent reporter, based in Toronto, just interviewed Hugo Chavez this weekend, President of Venezuela. She writes for "Frontline India."