OAIPress- Caracas June 17, 2004 - “Súmate represents a threat to any person or institution that does not wish for an electoral solution in Venezuela.” Perhaps this is why its representative, María Corina Machado, believes that it is a paradox that an organization formed by citizens is being persecuted, when it is specifically engaged in strengthening the country’s republican political system and defending its democracy "it is quite intimidating to feel all the power of the State against us" said Machado. But this is the case: Machado and Alejandro Plaz, representatives of this civilian association, are being accused of “conspiracy” by the Public Prosecutor’s Office: This crime carries a jail term of 8 to 16 years, and all because they received funds from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) of the United States, for that very same purpose: to strengthen the development of democracy in Venezuela.
Súmate is considered a symbol of reliability and efficiency in an extremely polarized society. Súmate inspires confidence when most institutions in Venezuela lack even the slightest credibility. Furthermore, Súmate has filled an information gap during the citizens’ consultation processes since the institutions responsible for the same never did so. Actually, Súmate came into being at a time in which the awareness of Venezuelan citizens reached its highest peak as to electoral control mechanisms that must be continuously activated, as stated by its representative.
This civilian association, organized in the year 2002 by a group of professionals with no political experience, is now deeply involved in a situation that is far from easy. Its mission: to promote, defend, facilitate and support the full exercise of the political rights that the Constitution grants to all Venezuelans; and it is for playing this role that they are being persecuted. In fact, it is perfectly legal and contemplated in the Venezuelan laws for non-profit organizations to request international cooperation with a view to strengthening their projects.
For this reason, Machado defends such financing, so debated by the regime and “grounds” for the accusation. In this regard, she explained that financing from the NED was requested because of the need to initiate electoral education and training programs, since local financing was very difficult to obtain. Consequently, Súmate presented the project to the National Endowment for Democracy, aimed at guiding citizens in electoral matters and systems. The amount of $53,400 was approved for this project, exclusively for educational and training purposes, intended for community leaders and citizens in general. All these expenses are recorded in our books and are auditable. “Obtaining funds from the NED is far from representing a crime, we are proud of having obtained it. The program, as well as its terms, is available to anyone who wishes to know about them.”
There is something else that Machado wants to make clear: there is no substantive juridical element that leads to suspect of a potential crime. The question is that a persecution is in progress, for political reasons, with no grounds, intended to frighten, intimidate and paralyze Súmate’s work. She observes that public institutions of the country may be successful in pulling some of the persons of the organization out of the game, but Súmate’s mission is not going to stop in seeking a pacific solution for Venezuela. Thousands of devoted and qualified citizens will continue with their volunteer work. “This arbitrariness only makes us more determined to carry on”.
In defense of the citizens
María Corina Machado defines Súmate as a civilian organization, independent of the structures of political parties, seeking to defend all citizens with no differences. “This generates conflicts because pro-government allies –who are against promoting an electoral solution- label the organization as anti-government and we have never thought of ourselves in this way. On the other hand, some democratic forces, whose structures are very party-oriented, feel threatened because they consider that citizens are assuming a kind of representation that is different from the traditional ones of political parties. For this reason, as an organization we are under constant strain when we interact with State agencies and political parties.” Actually, Machado clarifies that what Súmate wants is to claim spaces that eminently belong to the citizens and must be respected by all political parties.
Súmate’s experience resulted in the collection and processing of signatures for the Consultation Referendum and the Constitutional Amendment, as well as in the design, planning and coordination of El Firmazo, El Reafirmazo, Operación Remate and the most recent signature ratification process in Venezuela – the “reparos”- to re-activate the Recall Referendum against President Hugo Chávez's mandate. All these tests have made Súmate come through with flying colors and strengthened. It is recognized as the technical power of pro referendum supporters that is seeking a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s political crisis. And this may just be the reason why Chavez himself has accused its directors of being “traitors and conspirators.”
With the Recall Referendum less than two months away, and after the opposition’s success in overcoming all the obstacles for obtaining the signatures, Machado considers that we are living an absolutely extraordinary process in Venezuela’s history and truly exciting because it is the citizens who are promoting and leading the same. She believes that a turning point has been reached in which the civil society, and particularly its leaders, should not take impulsive and immature actions. “Although all this process that our country is going through has made the differences among Venezuelans stand out, our existing similarities should be highlighted since they are expressed in our passion for peace and democracy, and in that we are remarkably courageous people.”
In fact, Súmate’s representative points out that the polls reveal that 80 percent of the population favors the Recall Referendum as a means of achieving a peaceful and democratic solution, because we are a deeply polarized society. In her opinion, no government can maintain itself with poverty levels like the ones in this country. For this reason, our future’s greatest commitment is to eject poverty from Venezuela, include all citizens, and generate opportunities for all. The country’s true challenge begins after the recall.
For María Corina Machado, Súmate’s success is not only a consequence of its organizational work but also because of the excellence of its people. In a very short time it has positioned itself as an objective, efficient, responsible organization and autonomous with respect to political parties. It is integrated entirely by civilians and its greatest merits consist in having more than 30,000 volunteers throughout the country, whose only requirement to enter is to respect the laws, to believe in democracy and to have autonomy and impartiality in handling results. She assures that the commitment of all of Sumate’s volunteers is not to favor any electoral option and not to be involved in any political activity.
Machado also points out that, as opposed to other political organizations, Sumate’s future is precisely not having power aspirations because its role is to continue defending social control from a citizen’s perspective. Now then, if any of our members have political aspirations, they are completely free to pursue the same, but this member must first withdraw from Súmate.”
The Weight of the Persecution
María Corina Machado is an industrial engineer with a Master’s degree in finance and also the mother of three children. She talks about what this feeling of being persecuted and accused of “conspiracy” involves. She reveals that as a citizen she is not afraid of justice, but is very afraid of injustice. “It is really intimidating to feel all the force of the State against me. It causes a great deal of distress. What has been an extremely gratifying work, a once in a lifetime experience, has had a very high cost from a personal point of view. I have had to subject my family to this persecution. And she asks herself: How do you explain to your children that you are being accused of “conspiracy” when you have always inculcated upon them that you are working in the defense of democracy and the law?
In spite of the persecution, Sumate’s directors have received innumerable demonstrations of support, solidarity and confidence from all the country. Thousands of citizens have contacted the association and said “We trust you and you are not alone”. And for María Corina Machado, this support and her commitment with democracy is precisely what impels her to continue ahead in spite of all the obstacles…
FREEDOM IS A UNIVERSAL HUMAN ASPIRATION
* The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. With funds provided by the United States Congress, NED makes hundreds of grants each year for the support of groups in favor of democracy at worldwide levels, guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and values.
* In Venezuela, laws are recent in electoral matters and permit financing international cooperation initiatives,such as the support granted by NED. This induced Súmate to request funds for an electoral education campaign related to the Recall Referendum, at national levels. As a result of the NED’s grant, Súmate together with other organizations, trains voters in all Venezuela in all that involves electoral processes while stimulating their participation for the recall through a voting procedure.
* For this reason, the objects described by Súmate in the fund application process to the NED are aimed at: 1) developing a national network of independent volunteers with no political affiliation to work in the Recall Referendum and the elections; 2) strengthening non-government associations to work in different aspects of the referendum process; and 3) promoting popular support for the referenda.
* To pay for all these activities, Súmate received a total amount of $53,400 from the National Endowment for Democracy, discriminated as follows: 1) Travel expenses: $7,200; 2) Contractual Services: $24,760, and 3) other direct expenses: $21,440.
* The NED’s payment schedule for Súmate has progressively developed as follows: 1) $17,800 granted in September, 2003; 2) $13,350 in February, 2004, 3) $13,350 in May, 2004, and 4) the last payment of $8,900 to be paid next August for a total of $53,400.