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Venezuela: Chávez's decision

Financial Times; Jun 03, 2004

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is on the brink of breaking with constitutional rule. If his government were again to thwart opposition demands for a recall referendum, it would provide further evidence of his authoritarian ambitions. Yet there is still time to save Venezuelan democracy. Mr Chávez should seize it.

Over the past two years the idiosyncratic Mr Chávez has gradually been consolidating his hold over Venezuelan institutions. After the coup attempts and political general strike of 2002 and 2003, opponents have been purged from the armed forces and the state-owned oil company. Subsequently, the president has taken control of substantial swathes of the judicial apparatus. The trend will be consolidated if plans to load the supreme court with Chavista nominees go ahead.

The opposition was wrong to adopt extra-constitutional tactics but in campaigning for a recall referendum it has been diligently democratic. The recall referendum is part of a constitution designed by Mr Chávez and provides a good means to resolve peacefully the social and political divisions in Venezuela. Substantial numbers of signatures have been collected on three separate occasions in the past 18 months. Campaigners have worked patiently to circumvent obstacles and delays.

Last weekend several hundred thousand Venezuelans turned out to re-sign a petition whose validity had been questioned for technical reasons. All the evidence suggests that the opposition is well within reach of the 2.4m signatures needed to trigger a vote. Reputable international observers from the Organisation of American States and the Carter Center - a group formed by former US president Jimmy Carter - have judged the process legitimate. They have also warned about the dangers of prevarication ahead of an expected decision later this week by the national electoral council on the latest petition - as has the "group of friends" that includes Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain, Portugal and the US.

Given the scale of mobilisation of opposition, government quibbling and allegations of fraud ring hollow. They suggest that Mr Chávez and his supporters are manoeuvring to avoid both the referendum and the election that would result were they to lose it.

Mr Chávez should embrace the democratic logic of his own constitution. A referendum would defuse social unrest. Moreover, if - as he claims - the vast majority of Venezuelans backs his rule, he has nothing to fear from such a contest. On the other hand, if Mr Chávez chooses confrontation he risks further weakening social cohesion and international isolation.

High oil prices have allowed Mr Chávez to shore up support among the poor but they cannot be expected to last for ever. Venezuela may eventually need more international support. Friends and neighbours alike need to ensure that Mr Chávez is fully aware of the costs if he chooses to be a caudillo rather than a democrat.

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