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The Washington Post versus Venezuela's Hugo Chavez

By Pedro M. Burelli*

*Comments: below you will find an extraordinary demonstration of what happens to a brutish charlatan when he tries to mend with lobbyists what he has ruined with acts. Mr. Chavez's "writes" an Op-Ed (this is a first, he is an incontinent verbal improviser and this might well be the first thing we have seen "him" pen) and the Washington Post does two things: they publish it and then they editorially rebut it in the same edition. The tit-for-tat below will also demonstrate once again that hiring an expensive lobby firm like Patton Boggs only makes sense if you plan to exercise restrain and change your ways. Chavez has probably done more damage to his lost cause by buckling under the advice of his "paradiplomats" than by sticking to his no holds barred approach to dealing with the US. Even when you are crazy it helps to be consistent. The next few days in Venezuela will reveal if the paid message has any semblance with real reality.

Ready for a Recall Vote

By Hugo Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela [Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A27] -- For the first 24 hours of the coup d'etat that briefly overthrew my government on April 11, 2002, I expected to be executed at any moment.

The coup leaders told Venezuela and the world that I hadn't been overthrown but rather had resigned. I expected that my captors would soon shoot me in the head and call it a suicide.

Instead, something extraordinary happened. The truth about the coup got out, and millions of Venezuelans took to the streets. Their protests emboldened the pro-democracy forces in the military to put down the brief dictatorship, led by Venezuelan business leader Pedro Carmona.

The truth saved my life, and with it Venezuela's democracy. This near-death experience changed me. I wish I could say it changed my country.

The political divisions in Venezuela didn't start with my election in 1998. My country has been socially and economically divided throughout its history. Venezuela is one of the largest oil exporting countries in the world -- the fourth-largest supplier to the United States -- and yet the majority of Venezuelans remain mired in poverty.

What has enraged my opponents, most of whom are from the upper classes, is not Venezuela's persistent misery and inequality but rather my efforts to dedicate a portion of our oil wealth to improving the lives of the poor. In the past six years we have doubled spending on health care and tripled the education budget. Infant mortality has fallen; life expectancy and literacy have increased.

Having failed to force me from office through the 2002 coup, my opponents shut down the government oil company last year. Now they are trying to collect enough signatures to force a recall referendum on my presidency. Venezuela's constitution -- redrafted and approved by a majority of voters in 1999 -- is the only constitution in the Western Hemisphere that allows for a president to be recalled.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council -- a body as independent as the Federal Election Commission in the United States -- found that more than 375,000 recall petition signatures were faked and that an additional 800,000 had similar handwriting. Having been elected president twice by large majorities in less than six years, I find it more than a little ironic to be accused of behaving undemocratically by many of the same people who were involved in the illegal overthrow of my government.

The National Electoral Council has invited representatives of the Organization of American States and the Carter Center to observe a signature verification process that will be conducted during the last four days of this month. That process will determine whether the opposition has gathered enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election, which would be held this August. To be frank, I hope that my opponents have gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum, because I relish the opportunity to once again win the people's mandate.

But it is not up to me. To underscore my commitment to the rule of law, my supporters and I have publicly and repeatedly pledged to abide by the results of that transparent process, whatever they may be. My political opponents have not made a similar commitment; some have even said they will accept only a ruling in favor of a recall vote.

The Bush administration was alone in the world when it endorsed the overthrow of my government in 2002. It is my hope that this time the Bush administration will respect our republican democracy. We are counting on the international community -- and all Venezuelans -- to make a clear and firm commitment to respect and support the outcome of the signature verification process, no matter the result.

The writer is president of Venezuela.

Mr. Chavez's Claim

Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A26 - IN A COLUMN on the opposite page Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez makes the remarkable assertion that he hopes his opponents will succeed in triggering a recall referendum that could cut short his term in office. Remarkable, because polls consistently show that Mr. Chavez would lose the referendum -- less than 40 percent of the population supports his eccentric, quasi-authoritarian populism. Contrary to his claims, he has impoverished as well as polarized his country: Venezuela's per capita income has declined by a quarter in the six years he has been in office, and the poor are worse off than ever.

More to the point, the president's words conflict with his actions. He has spent the past year doing everything in his power to prevent a democratic vote on his tenure -- and has repeatedly vowed that no referendum will take place.

So why would Mr. Chavez claim otherwise? Because the latest propaganda strategy of this would-be "Bolivarian revolutionary" is to portray a complicated petition verification process scheduled for this weekend as an impartial procedure whose outcome should be accepted as a fair resolution of the country's political conflict. In fact, the procedure should not be taking place at all: It is the result of an attempt by Mr. Chavez's appointees to invalidate on bogus technicalities 1.6 million out of 3.4 million signatures the opposition collected to trigger the recall election. By all rights, the election should have occurred months ago, because the opposition gathered 1 million more signatures than required by the constitution and has now collected more than enough signatures for a recall vote on two occasions. Instead, after protracted wrangling, authorities have set aside two days in which hundreds of thousands of would-be voters must return to confirm their signatures. Unless at least 600,000 manage to do so despite numerous procedural obstacles and intimidation by government goon squads, Mr. Chavez and his cronies will declare the recall a failure.

Sadly, the odds are that Mr. Chavez will carry out this coup-by-technicality and thwart a democratic resolution to Venezuela's long-running political crisis. The president points out that some of his opponents previously supported a coup against him (Mr. Chavez doesn't mention that he also once led a military rebellion against a democratic government); but now that the opposition has committed itself to an electoral solution, Mr. Chavez refuses to allow it. About the only hope for a fair outcome is the presence of observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center who could call attention to acts of overt fraud and intimidation; Mr. Chavez tried to exclude them from the verification process but was obliged to give in late last week.

Mr. Chavez swallowed the observers for the same reason he penned his op-ed: He hopes not only to block the referendum but also to head off any subsequent decision by the OAS to invoke its democracy charter, which calls for sanctions against governments that interrupt the rule of law. Even if it decided to act, the OAS probably wouldn't be able to stop Mr. Chavez from destroying what remains of democracy in Venezuela. Already, the president's only real friend in the outside world is Cuba's Fidel Castro. But if he proceeds to deny his country a democratic vote, Mr. Chavez should, at least, be denied the pretense that his actions are legal, or acceptable to the region's democracies.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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