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Pressure Hugo Chavez to obey the law

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Febrero 23, 2004 - Hugo Chávez has accused President Bush of murdering 19 Venezuelans and wounding 300 others during the demonstrations in Caracas on April 11, 2002. What is the intent of such an absurd statement? Undoubtedly to escalate the crisis into which he has plunged his country by artificially heating up a conflict with Washington. Fidel Castro, his mentor, has taught him that the most efficient way to evade problems at home is to transform them into a confrontation with the United States.

It's the old story of the communist leader who surprises his wife in bed with a lover and immediately rushes to the street to stone the American Embassy.

The matter is simple: The opposition needed 2.4 million signatures to petition a referendum that would revoke the president's mandate. It collected one million extra. If that referendum were held today, two-thirds of all Venezuelans would vote against Chávez, and the colonel, who has turned out to be the worst president in the history of that country, would inexorably be defeated. But since Chávez is not willing to permit such a thing, he is resorting to all kinds of tricks and embracing every loophole to keep from obeying the law. At the same time, advised by the Cuban intelligence services, he lines up his supporters, civilian and military, for the self-inflicted coup that will end all freedoms and the fragile democratic institutions that still remain.

The barracks coup he has planned has few original elements. To start, the official propaganda apparatus would accuse the opposition of concocting plots to overthrow the government in cahoots with the American Embassy, those perfidious, oil-thirsty Yankees. Immediately thereafter, all constitutional guarantees would be suspended, and martial law and curfews would be imposed.

At once, in the name of the fatherland and the defense of its oil interests, the troops and militias loyal to Chávez, directed from the shadows by Cuban officers and commissars, would seize Parliament, ports and airports, banks, means of communication -- especially telephones, newspapers and television stations -- and would arrest their owners and round up the principal leaders of the opposition, the industry and labor unions, which number about 2,000.

Simultaneously, Chávez's forces would encourage the looting of commercial establishments to terrorize the whole of society. Thus, the images of the events seen worldwide will depict widespread public disorder, with undertones of a class struggle, that Hugo Chávez, responsibly, is trying to put down.

Why has Chávez not put into action his sinister project? Because he's not sure that he has the necessary forces. Every time he takes a genuine inventory of his probable defenders, he finds he can count unconditionally with only about 4,800 Cuban ''special troops'' strategically situated in various command posts, plus about 12,000 Venezuelan soldiers dispersed throughout various units under the command of a few dozen officers who are totally loyal to the president. To them, one could add 25,000 chavista militiamen, hurriedly armed during the first 48 hours of the conflict.

Therein lie Chávez's fears: What will probably happen -- if the military coup is launched -- is that the armed forces will split and the coup will trigger a civil war of uncertain results that could put an end to his government and even his life.

But his plans move ahead, and that bloody outcome could be prevented only by the vigorous action of the international forces, especially the two people who may have the fate of Venezuelans in their hands: César Gaviria and Jimmy Carter.

This is the moment when Gaviria, on behalf of the Organization of American States, and Carter, representing the prestigious center bearing his name, must enjoin Chávez, publicly and forcefully, to respect the law and call for a referendum without delay. They must ask the group of ''friendly nations'' -- Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, the United States and Chile -- to move resolutely in the same direction.

This is the moment when the OAS secretary general, who has a few months remaining on the job, should summon the Permanent Council. If Chávez stubbornly ignores the will of the huge majority of his compatriots, the OAS should ask for the enforcement of Articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Democratic Charter of the OAS -- a commitment solemnly signed by all the nations of the Americas except the Cuban dictatorship -- and expel Venezuela from the organization.

This is the moment when former President Carter, Nobel laureate, should throw his enormous moral weight into the fray and tell the world what is happening in Venezuela. Perhaps that way a catastrophe may be avoided.

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