Venezuelan compromises are presented by Carter

U.S. ex-president suggests cutting term of office or agreeing on referendum

January 22, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter offered two proposals yesterday for ending seven weeks of bitter political stalemate between President Hugo Chavez and a broad coalition of opponents that has left the country's economy in shambles and its people poised for violence.

In one proposal, Carter urged the government and its foes to support a constitutional amendment that would cut the president's term from six years to four. Under such an amendment, Chavez's term would end this year and new elections could be held soon after.

As an alternative to that plan, Carter suggested that the conflicting parties agree to hold a recall referendum in August that would allow the people to vote on whether Chavez should remain in office.

"Our feeling is that both sides now want to reach an agreement to end the impasse that is destroying the economy of this country and the social order," Carter said during a news conference yesterday morning. "I don't think anyone imagined that the strike would last 50 days. And no one wants to see it last for 70 days or 100 days.

"In my opinion," he added, referring to Chavez and his opponents, "the proposals we have put forward encompass the basic demands of both sides."

Carter's proposals were drafted after four hours of private meetings with Chavez on Monday and many hours of meetings with important business leaders, union officials and political parties who lead the opposition movement against the government.

The proposals are aimed at ending a national strike that has shut down most major businesses and crippled the state-owned oil industry. Oil is the lifeblood of the nation's economy, and Venezuela supplies about 14 percent of the oil that the United States imports.

An umbrella opposition group, the Democratic Coordinator, has upheld the strike for nearly two months in a bid to force Chavez from power. However, while Venezuela loses more than $50 million a day in oil sales, a determined Chavez has defied the political pressure.

Chavez has kept the economy moving, if only at a crawl. He fired more than 1,000 striking oil workers and begun sporadic imports of food and gasoline to ease critical shortages. Last week, he began seizing warehouses of soft drinks and bottled water that have been closed during the strike.

Carter said he was confident his proposals would be well-received by the opposition. And he added that there was a "positive reaction" from Chavez. But he acknowledged that Chavez also expressed reservations about shortening his presidency and rehiring striking oil workers.

About 30,000 oil workers reportedly have joined the strike.

Carter said he urged Chavez not to fire oil workers who joined the strike because of their political convictions. But he said Chavez had told him some workers had been accused of sabotaging refineries and tankers.

"That is a criminal act," Carter said. "But the decision about the punishment of those people would be made by the court, not the executive, and based on evidence."

He added, "I hope there is going to be some backing down on both sides, which is always a crucial element in every dispute in which I have ever been involved."

Carter said the strike showed that Chavez, elected four years ago by an unprecedented majority of voters, and the opposition, whose demonstrations against the government draw hundreds of thousands of people, had seriously underestimated one another.

"I think now they both see the strength of the other side," Carter said, "and now is the time for them to accommodate those strengths."

Carter said he presented a written version of the proposal to Chavez yesterday morning. The proposals were also presented yesterday at negotiations between the government and opposition leaders that are being overseen by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria.

Carter said the proposals would also be presented Friday in Washington at a meeting of the so-called "Group of Friends." The six-nation group -- the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Spain and Portugal -- is scheduled to discuss strategies for pressing Chavez and government opponents to reach a peaceful settlement.

He flatly rejected Chavez's recent calls to add more countries to the group, including Cuba, China and Russia.

"This group will not be changed," Carter said. He said later, "Although President Chavez has made a proposal for other countries to be members, in my opinion they will no longer be considered. The group is fixed."

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