Venezuela's troubles

August 12, 2004

VENEZUELANS determined to recall President Hugo Chavez face a formidable challenge this weekend: They must vote in numbers greater than the 3.8 million who elected the leftist-populist to office in 2000. The challenge for Mr. Chavez is to keep his government from interfering in the referendum Sunday.

In a country of 13.9 million registered voters, opposition groups managed to gather the millions of signatures needed for the recall vote. They got the signatures not once, but twice, after the national electoral counsel invalidated thousands of them in March. Now they deserve a free and fair chance to exercise their constitutional right.

A coalition of labor unions, oil workers, business owners and citizens groups sought the recall because of Mr. Chavez's leftist philosophy and policies that they say have driven down the standard of living. In contrast, Mr. Chavez draws his support from Venezuela's poor, who are demanding a share of the country's oil wealth. And Mr. Chavez has responded, in part, with social programs for the poor and citizenship (and voting rights) for Colombian immigrants.

The run-up to the election has been marked by demonstrations for and against Mr. Chavez. The Venezuelan president's anti-American rhetoric and chummy relationship with Cuba's Fidel Castro have made him unpopular in Washington -- and a cause for concern. He has undermined democratic institutions by padding the Venezuelan Supreme Court, politicizing the military and interfering with the Central Bank. But Venezuela is the United States' third-leading supplier of oil and a great source of business for American refineries that process the country's crude.

The Bush administration has recognized there is little political gain in taking on Mr. Chavez directly.

Its support of a brief coup in 2002 was an embarrassment and cost Washington credibility in the region. Now it is relying on the Organization of American States and the Carter Center to monitor Sunday's election even with the restrictions placed on them by Mr. Chavez.

As much as Mr. Chavez wants to retain the presidency, any hint of electoral fraud would affirm the worst said about him. A tainted outcome could lead to civil unrest and a disruption of the country's oil industry.

If Mr. Chavez loses the recall vote, an election will have to be held within 30 days and the winner will serve out the remaining two years of his term. But the victory may be short-lived: The opposition has offered no candidate with the popular appeal and credentials to serve as president. And more important, a win at the polls for Mr. Chavez or the opposition won't end what's ailing Venezuela. The issues of the poor must be addressed and an equitable distribution of the nation's oil wealth realized. The government lacks proper checks and balances, and corruption remains a problem.

A former military officer, Mr. Chavez led a failed coup in 1992. He was jailed, and after his release twice ran for president. Democracy served his political aspirations. It's Mr. Chavez's duty to uphold its principles now.

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