Súmate (Spanish for "Join Up") is a Venezuelan volunteer civil association founded in 2002 by María Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz. Súmate describes itself as a vote-monitoring group; it has also been described as an election-monitoring group.
Mission and values
Súmate is a non-governmental organization (NGO) whose stated aim is to promote the free exercise of citizen's political rights, and the discussion of matters of public interest. The group's mission is to promote, defend, facilitate, and back the political rights accorded to citizens by the Constitution of Venezuela.
Súmate's espoused values are:
- The guarantee of civil and political freedom and rights
- Impartial and independent citizen participation in democratic processes
- Professional volunteerism with a high level of citizen participation
- Organizational transparency and efficacy
Other projects are the consolidation of a national network of volunteers; analysis of voter registration; planning and execution of parallel vote counts to strengthen confidence in electoral processes; and educational programs.
Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in 1998. Participation was 64%, with 36% of the electorate abstaining, resulting in a Chávez victory with 35% of the total electorate. In 1999 a new Constitution of Venezuela was approved, making Chávez eligible to run for president again in 2000, for a six-year term; and again in 2006, for another six years. This could result in a Chávez presidency of 14 years, compared to the previous presidential term limit of five years. He won the 2000 election with 60% of the votes cast, 33% of the total electorate, and 44% abstention.
These changes were made to the Constitution and electoral processes based on elections with an overwhelmingly support for Chávez but unprecedented voter abstention—a "poor showing" with most staying away from the polls.
Súmate was founded with an expressed goal of achieving a high level of citizen participation in Venezuelan elections. According to The Washington Post, Machado and Plaz had a hurried encounter in a hotel lobby in 2001, where they shared their concern about the course that was being shaped for Venezuela. Machado said, "Something clicked. I had this unsettling feeling that I could not stay at home and watch the country get polarized and collapse.... We had to keep the electoral process but change the course, to give Venezuelans the chance to count ourselves, to dissipate tensions before they built up. It was a choice of ballots over bullets."
According to Súmate, it is "not concerned with who governs but rather that those in power respect the rule of law."
Súmate was originally composed of a group of professionals, but now has grown to include 30,000 volunteers from across Venezuela and all walks of life.
Recall referendum, 2004
In 2003, Súmate organized a campaign to force a recall referendum revoking the remainder of the term in office of President Chávez, as provided for under Article 72 of the Constitution of Venezuela, which permits citizens to request a recall if signatures are collected from 20% of the electorate.
|Hugo Chávez's Election Results|
|— 2004 recall referendum —|
Recall Hugo Chávez?
Source: CNE data
The recall vote was held on 15 August 2004. A record number of voters turned out but the recall was defeated with a 59% "no" vote. The Carter Center concluded the results were accurate, but European Union observers did not oversee the referendum, saying too many restrictions were put on their participation by the government.
An exit poll by US company Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates (PSB) predicted that Chávez would lose by 20%, whereas the election results showed him to have won by 20%. Schoen commented, "I think it was a massive fraud". PSB used Súmate personnel as fieldworkers. Publication or broadcast of exit polls was banned by electoral authorities, but results of the PSB poll went out to media outlets and opposition offices several hours before polls closed. Jimmy Carter said that Súmate "deliberately distributed this erroneous exit poll data in order to build up, not only the expectation of victory, but also to influence the people still standing in line".
Following the recall vote, Súmate requested that Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University and Roberto Rigobón of MIT perform a statistical analysis analyzing how fraud could have occurred during the referendum. They concluded that the vote samples audited by the government were not a random representation of all precincts and that opposition witnesses and international observers were not allowed near the computer hub on election day. CEPR, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, reports that other economists have called the Harvard/MIT assumptions about how the alleged fraud was conducted unlikely.
Presidential elections, 2006
Súmate recommended procedures for a primary, to be held on 13 August 2006, to choose the opposition candidate for the 3 December 2006 presidential elections. Teodoro Petkoff, a Chávez critic, said that Súmate's procedure was authoritarian, comparing it to the Carmona Decree. Nine other candidates agreed to the terms for holding a primary, confirming their desire to allow the citizens to choose the opposition candidate. Another candidate condemned Petkoff's remarks against Súmate, saying that Petkoff's statements didn't help the country, and explaining that the conditions for holding a primary had been previously discussed between all of the candidates, including Petkoff. On 9 August, Súmate announced that the 13 August primary election would not be held, since the candidates had decided to back Manuel Rosales as the single opposition candidate. Machado said that the primary "initiative accomplished its goal and that Súmate would continue working to ensure clean elections and respect for citizens' rights."
On 8 December 2006, Súmate announced that their count and audits of the final election results matched the official count of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, that showed a landslide victory for Hugo Chávez, highlighting that "balloting was not clean, transparent or reliable." Machado said the Government had stacked the odds against the opposition in the pre-election period, including "a climate of collective intimidation" due to the use of fingerprint-reading machines and an unaudited register of voters, and that if irregularities had been corrected, they could have impacted the final result. She clarified that the impact could not be assessed, saying "We will know only the truth about what Venezuelans really feel, the day when clean elections are held in Venezuela."
Other sources describe Súmate as an election or vote-monitoring group, a civic organization or civic society, a voting rights organization, an NGO or Venezuela's largest nongovernmental organization, a "nongovernmental organization resisting efforts by President Hugo Chavez's to turn Venezuela into a dictatorship", a Venezuelan group that helped organize the recall initiative, an organization that mobilized petitioners for the recall of Chavez, a pro-democracy nonprofit group, a volunteer organization of democracy activists, and a watchdog group or election watchdog organization.
Juan Forero of The New York Times referred to Súmate as an anti-Hugo Chávez election-monitoring organization, and an antigovernment group. The BBC has referred to Sumate at least three times as an "opposition group". Venezuela’s El Universal consistently refers to Súmate as an NGO, but has called it an opposition NGO in the past. The Christian Science Monitor says of Machado, “a friend invited her to create a pro-democracy group”, but adds that Larry Birns, director of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington says that Sumate's "pro-democracy pretensions are ... a front for its anti-Chávez goals".
Súmate and others have denounced the government for using the list of signers of the recall petition in violation of privacy and electoral laws. Luis Tascón, a member of the National Assembly representing Chávez' party (Fifth Republic Movement - MVR) and the Communist Party of Venezuela of Táchira state, under orders from Chávez to collect copies of signatures of the petitioners for the recall referendum, published on his website the identities of over 2,400,000 signers. Súmate alleged violation of privacy and electoral laws, considering reports that people who worked for the government were fired, denied work, or denied the issuance of official documents because of their appearance on the list.
Treason and conspiracy charges
The group is funded in large part by private Venezuelan interests, but also reportedly received up to 6% of their funds via a grant from the U.S.-backed National Endowment for Democracy in 2004. According to CBS News, Chávez branded the leaders of Súmate as conspirators, coup plotters and lackeys of the U.S. government. After the referendum, members of Súmate were charged with treason and conspiracy, under Article 132 of the Venezuelan Penal Code, for receiving financial support for their activities from the NED. The trial has been postponed several times.
The criminal charges triggered concern from Human Rights Watch and the NED-related World Movement for Democracy. The latter accused the Government of Venezuela of illegally "withholding case files from the defendants, using depositions of the defendants that were made before the charges against them were known, and refusing to accede to requests of the Supreme Court in the case." Tom Casey, acting spokesman for the State Department, expressed disappointment about the court's decision to try the founders and said the charges were "without merit."
Over 70 democrats, including prominent world leaders, wrote to Chávez on 11 November 2004, pointing out that "proceeding against nongovernmental organizations for receiving democratic assistance is a violation of both the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies, a document your government signed along with over 100 others four years ago." The letter indicated that the prosecution, "as well as the proposal to criminalize democracy assistance from abroad" are both "clearly inconsistent with international democratic norms and constitute a grave threat to democracy." Signatories of the letter included Czech President Václav Havel, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. Senator John McCain, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, former Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro, former Prime Minister of Bulgaria Philip Dimitrov, and Richard Goldstone, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Plaz is a Venezuelan engineer and management consultant, who holds three master's degrees (two from Stanford University), and was a Senior partner for McKinsey & Company in Latin America, before taking a leave of absence to co-found Súmate. Machado was hailed as "the best of womankind and the difficult times many women face around the globe" on a list of Women the World Should Know for International Women's Day.
Luis Enrique Palacios and Ricardo Estévez are also charged with complicity in treason and conspiracy.
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