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Eye on Mr. Chavez

By The Washington Post, Comments by Pedro M. Burelli*

(14.12.03) - There was a remarkable democratic exercise two weeks ago in Venezuela, a South American country of 24 million, a major oil producer and the foremost of a number of troubled Latin American states that the Bush administration has badly neglected. Determined to oust their populist and quasi-authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez, before he can do any more damage to the country, more than 3.5 million people signed a petition, in just four days, calling for a recall referendum. This astounding turnout by some 30 percent of the electorate occurred peacefully. Observers from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States said they saw no evidence of irregularities. A commission will now validate the signatures; unless it throws out more than 1 million of them, Venezuela will have the chance to peacefully resolve a political conflict that has threatened to tear it apart.

The main obstacle, predictably, is Mr. Chavez, a self-styled revolutionary who over the past five years has triggered an implosion of the Venezuelan economy, trampled on the private business sector and the independent media, and alienated nearly all his neighbors save Fidel Castro. Mr. Chavez appears likely to lose his job if a referendum is held, and consequently is doing everything he can to stop one. He accused the petition-gatherers of "megafraud," though he produced no evidence; he summoned thousands of his supporters to a demonstration and vowed that no vote would take place; he sent his thugs to attack anti-government protesters in a plaza where the opposition was headquartered. Opposition media report that thousands of Cubans have entered the country in recent months and are busy organizing the president's strongholds. No one doubts that Mr. Chavez is capable of violence. His first political act, after all, was a failed coup, and last year he triggered an ultimately unsuccessful coup against himself by ordering police and the military to attack opposition demonstrations.

Mr. Chavez will allow a referendum and respect its results only if he is convinced that fraud or violence won't work for him. That's where the Bush administration should come in, along with Venezuelan neighbors such as Brazil. In the coming weeks, as the referendum process proceeds, they must insist to Mr. Chavez that he not disrupt it -- and be prepared to respond if he tries. If the president can persuade Venezuelans to keep him in power through a democratic vote, his country and the outside world will owe him a fresh chance. But he must not be allowed to complete his depredations on Venezuela by destroying the last vestiges of its democracy.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


The editorial staff of the Washington Post must feel vindicated, but frustrated, by the most recent events in Venezuela that prove – as if further proof were necessary - that Mr. Chavez is what they, and many of us, have always said he is. The past 12 months have been a period in which naiveté – and neglect - has triumphed over principles and responsibility. While the electoral path set in motion by the opposition’s successful petition drive must be cemented by lawyers, activists, political operators and international observers, we must not fool ourselves about the actual probability of accomplishing the task at hand via an electoral process.

What now lies ahead is the potentially nasty and fatal task of extracting an obstinate and potentially hazardous (keep one eye on his foreign leeches) charlatan from power. This is a job that will require the concerted action of committed locals and enlightened foreigners (i.e. some within the OAS and the US State Department need not apply). As you read what the Post’s editorialists seems to understand better than most (pay special attention to their historically accurate characterization of the fateful April events), keep in mind this stark fact: Mr. Chavez, crazy and mortally injured, still has the will and the power to end this game the way he chooses.

Pedro M. Burelli


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