On Sunday, citizens of Venezuela chose 23 new governors. It was the 22nd gubernatorial election in the 18 years since the start of the Bolivarian Revolution. President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela won 17 governorships to the opposition’s five, leading to questions from the opposition, observation groups and the United States—among other actors—on the legitimacy and transparency of the election. But the Latin American Council on Electoral Experts (CEELA)—a body allegedly created to monitor, observe and legitimize elections across Latin America—declared the electoral exercise as successful, free and respectful. But, who are these guys and should we take their word?
Public information on CEELA and its structure is scarce. So scarce that there is not even an official website nor an organizational charter. But what we do know is that CEELA has observed elections in Venezuela for the past 18 years and in each and every electoral exercise, the body has declared the authenticity and the manifestation of citizen’s will as the true winner every time.
According to an article by El Nuevo Diario, CEELA was officially born in 2007 as a “leftist counterpart to electoral observation agencies sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS).” In the words of Jose Luis Villavicencio—Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council Justice back then—the idea was to create an international body that would allow support for Latin American leftist political parties in their struggle to gain power democratically.
But according to this same article, the organization of CEELA began as early as 2004—by former magistrates of the electoral institutions across the region and presumably receiving funding from the Venezuelan government—as an electoral observation body to legitimize the late Hugo Chávez’s mandate.
By 2010, CEELA and the OAS signed a Cooperation Framework Agreement to “promote the development of joint initiatives on electoral matters.” Through this agreement, CEELA joined other regional electoral institutions—such as Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE); the Superior Electoral Court of Brazil (TSE); the National Electoral Chamber of Argentina (CNE); and the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC)—and gained institutional recognition to audit electoral processes and outcomes across the region, especially those pertaining to Venezuela.
But still, there is no real information on the group’s structure, the process used to elect CEELA members and experts, operational or technical guidelines for monitoring elections, or even an explicit mission statement. It isn’t even clear what they have done under all those cooperative agreements they’ve signed.
So, we have compiled a list of council members who participated as election observers authorized by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE). These members also appeared at a press conference on Sunday to deem the election “respectful and successful.” It is also worth nothing that five of these members also participated in CEELA’s observing mission on the election of Venezuela’s National Assembly this past July.
Since 2005, Nicolas Moscoso has served as President of the Council of Electoral Specialists of Latin America (CEELA), an organization he co-founded. Moscoso has also participated in international observation missions for Colombia and El Salvador in 2014, among others.
Prior to leading CEELA, Moscoso was president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, a Congressman for the Guayas coastal province and Finance and Public Credit Viceminister in Ecuador. Moscoso is also a founding member of the Democratic Center Movement.
Guillermo Reyes, elections expert and CEELA co-founder, was the former president of Colombia’s National Electoral Council. Reyes has been observing elections in Venezuela since 2003. Between 2006 and 2008 he was Deputy Minister of Justice and an auxiliary justice at Colombia’s Constitutional Court.
In 2015, when aspiring to lead Colombia’s Civilian National Registry, Reyes was involved in a plagiarism scandal regarding his doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Law in Madrid’s Complutense University (UCM). The thesis allegedly contained over twenty plagiarized texts.
Walter Rene Araujo
Walter Araujo, also a CEELA founding member, served for more than 20 years in El Salvador’s political system as Chief Justice for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), President of the Legislative Assembly, Congressman and Head of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.
In 2015 he ran as a mayor for San Salvador with the “Great Alliance for National Unity” (GANA) party.
In 1992 Araujo was a member of the Unit for the Execution of the Peace Accords (UDAPAZ), Executive Secretary of the Government Dialogue Committee of El Salvador from 1990 to 1992, and Chief Operations Officer in the Data Processing department of the Central Elections Council from 1986 to 1988. Walter Araujo was also an advisor to former President Alfredo Cristiani.
Eugenio Chicas Martinez
CEELA member Eugenio Chicas is the current Communications Secretary at the Office of the President of El Salvador. According to public records, besides serving as a an international elections consultant, Chicas is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Exchange and Solidarity; a member of the FMLN Party at the National Directorate level; a columnist for El Diario de Hoy newspaper—yeah, the same one that wrote about the group mentioned above; and a Congressman elected to the Central American Parliament for the 2016-2021 term.
Prior to serving as Chief Communications Officer, Chicas was Chief Justice of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) from 2009 to 2014.
Ecuadorian CEELA representative Alfredo Arevalo is the former President of Ecuador’s Constitutional Electoral Tribunal. On Venezuela’s Sunday poll, Arévalo declared the election was one of the best electoral processes ever held, audited many times by all parties and political actors. Arévalo is the current Dean at the Industrial Engineering Faculty at the University of Guayaquil.
Among other observing participants of the Sunday poll were Victor Soto, former President of Peru’s National Election Jury; Augusto Aguilar, CEELA Director for Central America; Gastón Soto, former member of Peru’s National Election Jury and former adviser and president of the National Judicial Council of Peru; and Silvia Cartagena, former Justice at El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Why they were there and how they observed the process, though, we may never know. Without mentions of quick counts, voting sites monitored, and whether they were able to observe the vote tabulation process on site or in the national electoral council, it’s hard to know how they reached such a confident conclusion.