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Venezuela: Chavez's Nasty Battle Against the Popular Will


March 19, 2004; Page A15 CARACAS -- John Kerry won't say which foreign "leaders" told him privately that they long for a Bush defeat in November. But here in the Venezuelan capital there is no need for speculation about President Hugo Chavez's preference in the U.S. elections. Mr. Chavez has praised Mr. Kerry and is openly rooting for "los candidatos democratas."When not cheering for Democratic Party candidates, the Venezuelan president spends enormous energy railing bitterly against the Bush administration. A few weeks ago, in one of his legendary television rants of several hours, he used a vulgarity to characterize Mr. Bush and offered to wager that his own presidency will outlast Mr. Bush's White House stay.

At about the same time he was feting Zimbabwe bad boy Robert Mugabe here and honoring him with a Bolivarian sword award. It's no mystery as to why Mr. Chavez would prefer a Democratic president. Senate Democrats, led by Connecticut's Chris Dodd, have insisted that because Mr. Chavez won office in a popular election in 1998, he is entitled to do pretty much as he pleases, even trample on human rights.In April 2002, when the military brass refused to comply with Chavez orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators and demanded the president step aside, Mr. Dodd denounced the intervention. A day or so after what was billed as a military "coup," Mr. Chavez returned to power, promising to reconcile himself with those he had wanted to kill only days before. Since that April event Mr. Dodd and Mr. Chavez have both delivered rants against "the coup," which is now widely suspected to have been stage-managed by Mr. Chavez himself. Venezuelan 'democracy' at work. In recent weeks it has become apparent that Mr. Chavez has sufficiently reorganized his military to ensure that should circumstances similar to April 2002 recur, Mr. Dodd would not be disappointed. Mr. Chavez also seems to believe that should Democrats gain control of the White House, international resistance to his use of force would be minimal.The streets are quiet now but a huge anti-Chavez rally was brutally attacked by the National Guard three weeks ago. The quietude is well understood as an eerie calm before another wave of protests against Mr. Chavez's attempts to suppress popular opposition.

The opposition is pursuing the constitutional option that allows for a recall halfway through a president's term. It has collected more than the 2.4 million signatures required to trigger the recall referendum. But as he has all along, Mr. Chavez is employing delay and obstruction. Last month, the electoral council (CNE), which he controls, ruled that there are only 1.8 million valid signatures, charging, among other things, that thousands of signers are disqualified because they received help in printing their names and identification numbers next to their signatures.This charge of widespread "assistance" is unsubstantiated. I have seen some of the forms that the CNE disallowed and the printing is notably varied, suggesting that the signers themselves did indeed record their own names.

Moreover, even if signers had been helped to fill out their printed names and I.D. numbers that would be entirely consistent with international democratic standards, which insist that the semi-literate and uneducated have the same rights as the literate. It is likely that some signers asked for help because the government had warned that printed names not matching exactly the official register would be disallowed. A shortage of forms also made it critical to avoid mistakes. Under such limitations, organizers would undoubtedly have gone to great lengths to be sure that printing was correct.

The opposition celebrated this week when the electoral chamber of the Supreme Court countered the CNE's decision, ruling that the signatures are valid and the referendum ought to go forward. But Mr. Chavez appealed and yesterday the government opened an investigation of the three Supreme Court magistrates who ruled the signatures valid.This is a bad joke. The president will now drag the country through a Kafkaesque "constitutional" procedure that he himself designed to thwart any effort to end his misrule. As long as he sticks to the constitution, as interpreted by him, his U.S. Congress fan club will remain intact. Venezuelans have been deeply disturbed by the events of the last few weeks. They have seen heavily armored National Guard troops shooting rubber bullets at close range, ruthlessly beating unarmed civilians and firing tear gas into crowds. They have heard that National Guardsmen launched tear gas canisters into a hospital displaying the Red Cross banner. The Guard allowed TV cameramen to film most of this, undoubtedly well aware that it would be televised and serve as a warning to future demonstrators.

Other forms of dissuasion are in evidence. A congressional supporter of the president has gained access to the list of petitioners and has posted their names on his Web site, exposing them to both physical and economic intimidation. At least one government-owned company has declared its intention to fire employees who oppose the government.

Last week the government demanded that banks here supply it with private details of their clients' accounts. The banks flatly refused and the government backed down. But the intention was clear and the fear lingers.Mr. Chavez is not relying only on his glorious Bolivarian constitution. His good friend Fidel Castro is sending in support. A credible source here reports that there is now an average of three to four flights daily from Cuba and some 8,000 visas have been granted to Cubans. Mr. Chavez's America-bashing and destruction of political rights make it clear that he wants oil-rich Venezuela to mirror Cuba. The question for Americans to ask themselves as new elections approach is why is it that he prefers John Kerry over George Bush?

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