USA - REFERENDUM VENEZUELA
Miguel Rajmil/epa/sipa  /  Sipa Press
Venezuelans in the United States lined up to vote in the referendum to decide the future of President Hugo Chavez at the Venezuelan Embassy in New York on Sunday.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 8/16/2004 12:09:42 PM ET 2004-08-16T16:09:42

With most of the votes counted in Venezuela, it appears that President Hugo Chavez has weathered yet another political storm, declaring victory after an historical recall referendum that might have displaced him.

The opposition claimed fraud, insisting its own tallies showed a majority seeking the end of Chavez's reign -- and some expatriate Venezuelans in the United States appeared to share at least the frustration over the process.

Despite having previously registered and followed all the rules for expatriate voting, the Venezuelan Consulate in New York City estimated that 600-700 voters who registered here did not appear in the final “approved” list sent a day before by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), which listed 1,792 voters.

“I want to publicly announce that CNE did not include a large part of the electorate that registered in this Consulate,” said Consul General Eleonor Osorio.

Having noticed the gap between both lists the night before, she questioned the CNE and was told that only those included on the CNE list should be allowed to vote on Sunday.

In a controversial move two weeks ago, the CNE said only legal residents in the United States and tourists who had completed a transfer form before the July 10 deadline could vote in the recall.

“Only true residents may vote, these are rules set previously by the CNE,” said Hector Rodriguez, regional director of the CNE office in Caracas in a phone interview. He said he was unaware of any voting irregularities in New York City.

The problems arose despite a statement earlier in the week by a top Chavez aide, Chancellor Jesus Perez, that all those with valid documentation, including tourists, could vote. The mixed messages and lack of clear information outraged voters who stood in line to complain.

Lining up
“I registered a year ago because I knew the government would try their best to put all sorts of roadblocks, and here I am, waiting in this line because my name doesn’t appear on the list,” said Giselle Chollet, a 30-year-old who holds both a U.S. and Venezuelan passport. 

Chely Depablos, who is a legal resident and was able to vote, complained that everybody was not treated equally. “I registered with four of my friends at the same time, all of us are residents and only I was on the list.”

Jose and Florangel Salas, who were among the handful of Chavez supporters standing across the street from the Consulate were also excluded from voting.

“I suppose that there’s a norm and I’m happy to follow it,” Jose Salas said.

“People are saying that no Chavez supporters were denied, but look at us,” added his wife, as she pulled out her registration receipt.

Though the Salas family was not bothered by the decision to exclude them, many others holding national ID cards and receipts of prior registration waited to fill complaint forms at a booth set up a block away from the Consulate by Sumate, an opposition-friendly civic group. At the end of the day, more than 300 complaints were filed.

Elsewhere few complaints
Despite the irregularities in New York City, other parts of the country did not experience the same problems.

Julian Serafin, a 27-year-old waiter at Venezuelan-owned 1942 Tapas Bar in Chicago was an election volunteer at the consulate throughout the day.

“They came as far as Nebraska. We had an excellent turnout, everybody was animated,” said Serafin. At the end of the day only a few complaints were heard, he said.

Mara Hernandez, a Floridia resident, stood in line for seven and a half hours at the Coconut Grove Convention Center before she cast her vote.

Despite the long wait, she was satisfied with the smoothness of voting process and was hopeful that Chavez would be recalled.

“If I see it from this perspective, I feel optimistic -- the radio just announced that 97 percent of the people who voted here were in favor of the recall, but we’ll see, we have to wait,” she said on Sunday.

She was likely disappointed Monday when early results showed that 58 percent of voters cast ballots against removing Chavez from office.

With more than 8.5 million votes cast, the referendum shattered the previous record of voter turnout, when 7.5 million Venezuelans cast ballots in the 1998 presidential elections.

Rekha Matchanickal is a Researcher for NBC's Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

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