While even skeptics accept how impressive the “Firmazo” (The Big sign up) was yesterday, Government officials either ignored it, like Chavez did yesterday, or attempted to minimize it as a former Foreign Minsiter of Foreign Relations did today. The Vice-President at least had the decency to recognize the event as a “respectable” democratic event, while casting doubts that the signatures could be used for anything, calling them “not auditable”. But the truth was that it was a massive display of democratic spirit, combined with the desire to have Hugo Chavez leave the Presidency that led, according to the organizers, to more than 4.7 million people to sign most of the ten petitions presented to them yesterday during the event. (In the 2000 Presidential election Hugo Chavez received 3.7 million votes, indicating a recall referendum would pass easily)
But it was there for everyone to see, even if the US press appeared to mostly ignore it. As local newspaper Tal Cual said today, the people came down from the barrios (cerros)….to sign up…. and not loot, as it is commonly assumed. And they did it despite the social pressure not to attend or not to show that you are against the Government as well as the possible social stigma of abandoning the Chavista revolution. (In fact, many went far from home so as not ben seen). And it was not a matter of an audit or not, a petition is simply a list of signatures without any formal proof, so that the Vice-President’s statement is simply one more cynical comment from someone that no one has much respect for anymore. Yesterday was a huge display of democratic spirit. The whole affair was privately organized. It was done only in populated centers, but somehow it became international too (see the Pictures section) and a legion of volunteers handled the logistics. There was no support from the Government, little security was provided to protect people from intimidation by chavista bands of thugs and the whole country participated. The numbers, as reported, were indeed impressive; 4.7 million signatures were obtained for the Constitutional Amendment as well the other petitions. This, despite the fact that only 3,600 of the usual 9,000 polling centers were opened. In fact, interest was so high, that many polling places turned back volunteers simply because they were not needed. While some violent incidents were reported, where Chavistas tried to block people from participating or simply attempted to rob signed petitions, the only serious casualty was a former Chavista activist that lost his eye. There was also some material damage to property, including the burning of a car owned by a TV station.
But perhaps nothing demonstrated the frustration of the Chavista leaders more than the failure of their own activities yesterday. On Thursday, some Chavista Deputies announced they would counter the Firmazo with a day of “Citizens Assemblies” all over the country, where they would match the opposition by having assemblies near each polling center. In the end, very few of them took place and those that did, had fewer people than any single polling center of the opposition had during training on Saturday. That the chavistas are worried could be seen today as some members of Patria Para Todos were already talking about having the Supreme Court rule the petition for the amendment unconstitutional, even before it has been submitted to the Electoral Council. Their argument is that it is not an amendment but a reform of the Constitution, which requires a different procedure.
The Firmazo was simply, a huge success. It showed that the opposition is democratic, that it has the support that Government officials have always denied it had and that the Government will not survive any of the referenda proposed, when and if they are ever held. To the negotiation table and the world it sends a strong message that people in Venezuela are sick and tired of Hugo Chávez and his revolution. It is just unfortunate that the US press has chosen to focus on mostly irrelevant details (“the opposition is not united, they signed ten petitions!”) or on Hugo Chavez declaration of victory over the opposition, while he is destroying the Venezuelan oil industry. But the truth was that those that brought Chavez to power are mostly no longer with him and that the display of democracy by Venezuelans on Sunday, was the real story to report, even if they simply missed it.