To be an election observer is often controversial, but it's an important opportunity to go, see, listen and return prepared to share learnings.

A view of barrios in Venezuela from a hilltop.
Credit: Jim Hodgson / The United Church of Canada

On Sunday (May 20), Venezuelans will elect a president and other local officials. It will be the fifth presidential election and 25th election of any type to take place in Venezuela since 1998, when Hugo Chávez was elected. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, is the front-runner in the current campaign.

I work as Latin America program coordinator at The United Church of Canada, and I am getting ready to travel to Venezuela and to serve as an election observer. Given U.S. (and Canadian) antipathy to this particular vote, to be an observer is itself controversial.

That 1998 election set in motion a series of constitutional changes that changed how power functions in Venezuela — empowering the poor and their organizations, and ending the dominance of the rich and their control over the economy, the state and the oil industry.

For the first time, oil revenue was used to benefit the poor, both in Venezuela and in other countries. Beyond the political experiment, Venezuela has been generous to Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and that in turn has made difficult economic situations a little easier for partners.

For me, this observation group is a chance to return to Venezuela after a dozen years away. As someone who has followed events in Venezuela closely throughout these past two decades, I want to bring myself up-to-date, in part so that I can tell others what I see happening.

I have been an election observer before — in Haiti in 1990, in South Africa in 1994, in Mexico in 2000, and also for the recall referendum in Venezuela in 2004 (won by Chávez).

This election is a bit different. It follows protests last year and opposition demands then for early elections. After internationally-sponsored negotiations, some opposition groups agreed to participate, while others said no.  

These past few weeks, media reports are full of reports of new U.S. sanctions, and even threats of military intervention. The out-going president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, told an audience in Hungary that “regime change” in Venezuela was coming soon. Stella Calloni, a well-regarded Argentinean journalist, leaked an apparent U.S. Southern Command plan for a military invasion that would use troops from neighbouring countries, including Colombia. 

As I got ready to go, I found myself thinking of Nicaragua’s first post-revolution election in November 1984, and of a Canadian electoral observation mission then.

The Nicaraguan campaign unfolded at the same time as Ronald Reagan’s campaign for re-election to the U.S. presidency. Reagan was saying the Nicaraguans were importing Soviet MiG fighter jets, and had satellite photos supposedly "showing" them on the deck of a freighter — 1984-style fake news, of course — but the threat of imminent intervention was all that was being talked about.

Canadian NGOs, including churches, sent observers to the Nicaraguan elections, and some criticized their option. After their return, they held a news conference on the ninth floor of the old United Church offices on St. Clair Ave. in Toronto. As a young journalist with Catholic New Times in those days, I attended the news conference. The words of then-Moderator Bob Smith have stayed with me ever since (bolstered by a good clippings file).

“Each of us is a person of integrity,” said Smith, bristling a bit in response to a question about the observer group’s impartiality. “We had a sacred responsibility to assess the situation as far as humanly possible. I was relieved to find out I didn’t have to diverge from what would have been my uninformed opinion, but I was prepared to do so.”

I go to Venezuela in that same spirit: to go, see, listen and return prepared to share what I learn.

— Jim Hodgson is Program Coordinator, Latin America/Caribbean at The United Church of Canada.

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