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Venezuela: Thousands nearing a final choice on Chávez

By Nancy San Martin*, reprinted from The Miami Herald

CARACAS - Amid a Venezuelan diplomatic scuffle with Washington and the Organization of American States, tens of thousands of voters lined up Friday to begin confirming or withdrawing 1.2 million signatures demanding a recall vote on President Hugo Chávez.

Confirmation of nearly 600,000 of those signatures, which had been challenged by the National Electoral Council, would pave the way for a referendum in August against the leftist-populist president.

But Venezuelans will also have the opportunity through Sunday to withdraw their signatures, collected late last year. Chávez opponents have charged that public employees have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they don't.

The verification process, known here as a ''repair,'' has triggered contentious exchanges in which the Chávez government accused the United States of meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs and called on the OAS to dismiss the chief of its mission in Caracas monitoring the process -- charging that he favors the opposition.

While the international sparring received widespread media attention, it meant little to those who stood in line at more than 2,600 verification centers set up across the country.

''I'm here to reaffirm my signature so that this man leaves once and for all and peace and unity can return to our country,'' said Alida Garcilazo de Frentes, 60, who waited three hours to verify her signature.

''The president has had enough time in office and he hasn't done anything to benefit the country,'' said Oscar García, 21, a university student. ``He claims that this is a fight between white and black, between rich and poor. But that is not true.''

''He needs to go because he has not fulfilled any of his promises,'' García said. ``We can't take it anymore.''

Chávez was vastly popular when he was first elected in 1998 on a promise to help Venezuela's poor majority. But since then he has been accused of growing increasingly authoritarian and all but ruining the oil-rich nation's economy.

Most of the signatures challenged involved sheets in which Venezuelans signed their names and volunteers filled in their identification data. The Electoral Council challenged them even though observers were at the sign-up centers.

About 130 observers from the OAS and the Atlanta-based Carter Center fanned out in 22 of the nation's 24 states to monitor the weekend process.


Some analysts said they hoped the peaceful and democratic recall process would put an end to more than two years of political crisis that has divided the nation and claimed dozens of lives.

''If this repair process doesn't pan out, that route would be deemed to be exhausted,'' said Miguel Díaz, head of the South America project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

''If there isn't a clear yes or no on the referendum, we're in for a bumpy ride,'' Díaz said. ``If out of this exercise the Venezuelan voters do not feel their voice is heard, there is a high risk of violence. They will not see an electoral process as an exit out of this crisis.''

''We are at a point of major conflict, but not at a point of explosion,'' added Alberto Garrido, a Caracas political analyst. ``We could get to a point of explosion if the repair is not successful.''

OAS Secretary General César Gaviria, who arrived Friday, took over as chief of mission, replacing Fernando Jaramillo in what OAS officials said was a standard practice within the organization. Venezuela had demanded Jaramillo's removal.

Gaviria, a former president of Colombia, said he would stay until results are announced next week and urged cooperation and transparency. Former President Jimmy Carter is scheduled to arrive in Caracas today to join the monitoring process.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell denied accusations by the Chávez administration that the U.S. was meddling in Venezuelan affairs when a senior Washington official called for a clean repair process.

''It is now up to the Venezuelan people,'' Powell said. ``The United States just hopes that the government of Venezuela will allow this process to move forward in accordance with its own constitutional principles.''

''We are not interfering in it,'' he said. `` All we want to do is make sure that the people of Venezuela are not denied the opportunity to exercise their rights under their own constitution.''

Vice President José Vicente Rangel praised Powell's remarks Friday as ''an important step.'' Rangel also denied a Herald report Friday that the government is part owner of a software company contracted to deliver electronic voting machines that will be used in future elections, perhaps including the referendum on Chávez.

''Whatever appeared in The Miami Herald, I deny it completely,'' Rangel said at a press briefing when asked about the report.


Security for the verification was tight, with about 45,000 soldiers deployed throughout the country.

About 2.4 million signatures -- 20 percent of voter rolls -- are required to force a recall vote on Chávez, whose term runs through January 2007. Election authorities have said the opposition has 1.9 million valid signatures.

Chávez, who was reelected to a six-year term in 2000, has said that if the opposition succeeds in its recall effort, he would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

The former army lieutenant colonel has already survived a coup attempt in 2002 that fizzled within 48 hours and a lengthy national strike .


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