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Venezuela's democracy teeters on the brink

By Francisco Toro

While US newspapers focus their attention entirely on Haiti, prospects for a peaceful resolution to the two-year old political crisis in Venezuela deteriorate by the day. The weekend saw riots in most large cities in the country, and an atmosphere of palpable tension grips the air. Having, for all intents and purposes, successfully aborted a recall vote on his term in office, President Chavez seems to be preparing for a future of outright dictatorship.

In the last 72 hours, Venezuelans have seen thousands of soldiers round up on a large peaceful protest firing hundreds of tear gas canisters, plastic pellets and, on occasion, live ammo - and leaving 2 dead and 30 injured. They've seen tank and troop movements through many cities, for ill-understood reasons. They've seen President Chavez praise Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe as a freedom fighter and immediately turn around and implement some of his tactics, blaming all of the country's problems on the US bogeyman. And they've seen three solid days of rioting in most of the major cities in the country, as protesters armed with nothing but flags and placards have been heavy-handedly repressed by soldiers again and again.

Venezuelans are discovering, to their great dismay, that democracy does not necessarily die with a bang. In Caracas today, democracy is dying in the whimper of a tangled web of seemingly hum-drum bureaucratic decisions. Little by little, over five years, these have squeezed out the rights of ordinary citizens and left the government with control over almost every institution in the country and entirely unchecked power. Over five years, the government has pealed away at the citizens' democratic freedoms like an onion, layer by layer, until there is nothing left.

Taking a page out of the Castro/Mugabe playbook, last night Chavez called President Bush an "asshole" in a speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters, and threatened to cut off oil supplies to the US. Chavez knows that international observers from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States will not stand by the blatant theft of a recall referendum against him before it has even been held, and moved to pre-empt their criticisms of the process even before they could be issued.

The critical technicality concerned the procedure for calling a recall vote against president Chavez. The recall process - already months behind schedule - is being run by an electoral commission appointed semi-legally by an openly pro-Chavez Supreme Tribunal. Due to a string of delays and contrary decisions, the board has completely lost the trust of the opposition, who now openly believe the elections authorities are in cahoots with the government. Certainly, a series of new rules published yesterday setting out new procedures that to verify some 700,000 signatures requesting a referendum have been seen as the last straw by most of the opposition. They now seems ready to walk out of the process altogether, and so do the international observers.

This is about much more than administrative niceties. For over two years now, the government of Venezuela has accused its large, rambunctious, and fractious opposition movement of being little more than a fascist conspiracy, a coup-plotters' private club, even as polls showed majority support for regime change. Again and again, Chavez charged that the opposition was undemocratic because it refused to follow the rules for a legal recall vote on the president as allowed by article 72 of the constitution, pushing instead for extra-constitutional "fast tracks" like coups and insurrectional general strikes, both of which failed to oust Chavez in 2002.

Now, the government shows why the opposition was right not to trust them all along. Having followed the legal requirements, having collected the signatures under the strict safety regulations imposed by the elections authorities, in front of witnesses from both sides, on numbered forms printed on bank security paper, having jumped through a million and one hoops to satisfy the requirements, they find their signatures once again brought into question and yet another bureaucratic obstacle in front of them. Most see the latest delay as an unsubtle attempt to scupper the referendum altogether.

After five years of highly divisive rhetoric, President Chavez has managed to fracture the country into two highly emotional sides, and has gone out of his way to teach his supporters to hate his opponents. Today, his explosive strategy of class resentment, calculated division and endlessly escalating provocation has left Venezuela on the edge of a civil war.

If a recall vote is aborted over and above the protestations of international observers, Chavez will have clearly violated the Venezuelan constitution he himself drafted, and he will clearly have stepped outside the bounds of even the most bare-bones definition of democracy. He appears, as of today, very close to joining his hero Fidel Castro as the hemisphere's second out-and-out dictator.

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