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Venezuela: Chavez opponents get last chance to force referendum

By Phil Gunson in Caracas, reprinted from The Independent

29 May 2004 - Opponents of Venezuela's increasingly authoritarian President, the former army officer Hugo Chavez, have a last chance this weekend to gather the signatures needed to force a recall referendum on his five-year-old presidency.

The significance of this latest stage in the country's 30-month-long political crisis, which has led to a failed coup attempt and a two-month national strike, is such that the former American president Jimmy Carter and Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), are flying in to observe it.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, has called the petition a "defining moment" for Venezuelan democracy.

Jennifer McCoy, who heads the observer mission from the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, said: "This moment is critical in that it determines whether or not the recall vote will happen."

In December last year, after electoral authorities had ruled two previous attempts invalid, the opposition coalition known as the Democratic Co-ordinator (CD) handed in 3.4 million signatures - a million more than the 20 per cent of the electorate called for in the 1999 constitution. But after months of delay, the national electoral council (CNE) said that only 1.9 million were valid. A further 1.2 million were placed in a category not provided for under the original rules: they are neither valid nor invalid but of doubtful validity, since the details accompanying the signature and thumbprint were allegedly written by someone other than the signatory.

For three days, ending at 6pm tomorrow, Mr Chavez's opponents will be able to "repair" their signatures at 2,067 centres around the country. More than half a million must do so to trigger the referendum.

The CNE is also allowing so-called "repentant" voters to withdraw their signatures, in a move which has led to enormous pressure, especially on public-sector employees. With the list of signatories publicly available, via any one of a number of websites, opposition voters are being threatened with the sack and denied everything from government contracts to passports and identity documents.

"It's nothing less than blackmail," said the opposition negotiator Alberto Quiros Corradi.

Objections by the OAS and Carter Centre observer missions, as well as the US government, to both these decisions by the CNE have led to furious reactions by both the electoral authority and the government itself.

On Thursday, Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel demanded that the OAS remove its mission chief Fernando Jaramillo. And in response to a demand by the US assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega that the recall referendum be allowed to proceed, Mr Rangel accused him of the "traditional arrogance of US spokesmen". Declaring that George Bush was President thanks to "a fraud committed against candidate Al Gore," Mr Rangel said the US was no longer "a friend of Venezuela".

Mr Gaviria of the OAS, who was due to arrive yesterday in Caracas, the capital, said he was personally assuming the leadership of the observer mission and would remain in the country until the results of this weekend's process were announced. That should be before the end of next week. A resulting referendum would take place on 8 August.

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