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Sociology professor to report on Venezuelan election assistance

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NORTH NEWTON, KS. -- The 2000 presidential election in the United States raised concerns about the role of election procedures in ensuring fair and democratic results. For Julie Hart, these concerns have been the focus of study on the international level during the past year. Hart, Bethel College assistant professor of sociology and peace studies, made two trips to Venezuela in 2004 to monitor election procedures. She will give the second Faculty Seminar lecture for 2005-06, where she will explain the "role of election assistance and monitoring in generating citizen trust, building stronger democracies and, in the long term, solidifying the peace."

Hart will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7, in the Administration Building chapel on the Bethel College campus (please note change in date from printed brochures). Her lecture, entitled "Peacebuilding through election assistance in unstable democracies: Observation from the Venezuelan process," is free and open to the public.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez, a socialist, won the Venezuelan presidential election, taking power away from parties that had dominated for decades. An attempted right-wing military coup in 2002 was unsuccessful, but stirred up a large-scale strike that crippled Venezuela’s economy. Chavez remained in power, but the country was suffering from the political instability and economic recession.

The Carter Center, based in Atlanta, in conjunction with the Organization of American States, responded to claims of unfairness by suggesting a presidential recall vote that would be monitored by objective onlookers. President Chavez agreed to this proposal. Hart was one of 150 election observers from the United States and Latin America who played a role in the two-part recall process.

The observers were dispersed throughout Venezuela to visit and monitor random election sites. "If we saw any irregularities or complaints from voters who didn’t get to vote or were threatened, then we were to contact the Election Center in Caracas," Hart said.

The Carter Center was established by former president Jimmy Carter with three main foci: international health issues, democratization and international negotiation. The Center raises funds to send employees and volunteers to unstable democracies across the globe. Hart has contributed to the center’s work multiple times since graduating from the University of Notre Dame’s International Peace Studies program.

"In terms of fledgling democracies, free and fair elections have great importance in establishing stability," said Hart. "In the case of Venezuela, I think the involvement of the Carter Center and the Organization of American States may have averted a civil war."

Election assistance and democratization is currently a part of the curriculum in Hart’s International Conflict Management course at Bethel College.

The United States government, said Hart, has historically had a vested interest in Venezuelan politics because Venezuela is the fifth-largest oil-producing country in the world.

"Because of concerns voiced in the presidential elections in the United States about fraud, and the fact that people are calling for election assistance, it is important to note how other countries in our hemisphere are handling these things," said Hart. "I think the United States has something to learn from Venezuela."

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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