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Update on Venezuela

By Enrique ter Horst,

The forty and something political parties and non-governmental organizations opposing the Chavez regime under the Coordinadora Democratica umbrella signed on Sunday a National Agreement for Social Justice and Democracy in Peace (Acuerdo Nacional por la Justicia Social y la Paz Democratica), an eminently sensible three and a half page document that provides the political and conceptual roadmap for the two-year transitional government - and beyond - that the opposition intends to provide. The agreement includes the holding of a primary to elect the candidate the opposition intends to field against Chavez (or his designated candidate) in the presidential elections probably to be held in September.

The National Agreement states as its central proposal the construction of a new democracy that reduces the excessive powers vested by the Constitution in the President of the Republic, devolving important attributions to a reestablished Senate and to the regional and local levels, and ensuring the effective and independent functioning of all State branches. It further foresees bringing to life the Council of State and the Federal Council of Government (two constitutional mechanisms designed to ensure sectoral and regional coordination, and which Chavez has disregarded); reestablishing the apolitical character of the Armed Forces while retaining the right of the military to vote; changing the Prosecutor General, the Comptroller General and the Human Rights Ombudsman, as well as the National Electoral Council; and establishing a second round of voting among the first two candidates when no presidential candidate attains the absolute majority in the first round. The agreement also declares that the participatory character of the present Constitution (mainly the referenda) shall be retained, a smart decision in light of the fact that Chavez is likely to retain the control of Parliament.

Strongly and repeatedly emphasizing the need to include the poor in the benefits of economic and social development, the document also states that the present social programs shall basically remain in place, and that the next government shall be one of national unity, calling on the best and brightest in order to achieve national reconstruction and reconciliation. It further states a number of more specific objectives without committing itself to timelines or identifying resources to carry them out, such as the "recovery of the oil industry", "the strengthening of PDVSA as the fundamental lever of national development", " increasing the level of development and competence in the oil industry", "reducing taxes" and immediately after "reestablishing the health of public finances".

The general language in some sections is, obviously, the result of negotiations within the wide political spectrum represented in the democratic opposition. The agreement does represent, however, a platform that largely dispels the fear that the ouster of Chavez will automatically inaugurate a period of heightened instability, even if Chavez can be counted on to make life very difficult for any new government. The document will be open for signature by all voters on 1 August at 8.500 voting places, a sure way of remobilizing the people and putting Chavez on the defensive.

The OAS and the CNE have in the meantime agreed on the terms on which the first will observe the RR. Brazilian Ambassador Valter Pecly Moreira, the new head of the OAS Observer Mission in Venezuela replacing Colombian Fernando Jaramillo, has stated that the conditions agreed will allow for a full observation process, and the public harassment of international observers by CNE Director Battaglini seems to have stopped, at least for the time being. Preparations for the RR in the CNE have been advancing slowly, and the tests of the new voting machines were completed successfully with only minor hitches that can be easily corrected. The main outstanding point remains the purpose for which the finger-print detection machine will be used. According to Alberto Quiros Corradi, writing in his weekly column in El Nacional, their use would be acceptable only if the objective were to initiate a national fingerprint database, which would benefit a number of security and electoral purposes in future.

At issue is how the use of these machines could hamper and slow down the voting process, their intended purpose being to compare fingerprints in the course of 15 August during the RR in order to avoid that some vote more than once. The risk is that, as the database is built up over the day, the machines will take more and more time to compare each voter's fingerprint with a rapidly growing database. Much more worrisome, however, is the fact that a number of voters have seen their names transferred by the CNE to voting centers many hours from their homes. Alone in the State of Zulia they are said to amount to some 95.000 persons. Governor Enrique Mendoza has called on the CNE to immediately correct this situation.

Outrageous behavior, however, does not appear to be the monopoly of the electoral authorities. A former employee of the National Identification Office (ONIDEX) by the name of Julio Javier Jaimes Hernandez has produced evidence that apparently proves that the "paramilitaries" that had been discovered and detained on the outskirts of Caracas on 9 May were not only transported from the Colombian border with the written authorization of the Venezuelan migration authorities in San Antonio del Tachira, but in buses contracted by the government.

Jaimes, who is in hiding, declared to El Universal that, following instructions from his superiors, he escorted the Colombians in four bus rides of 30 persons each, the first one taking place on 23 April, dropping them off at a gas station across from Fuerte Tiuna, the main garrison in Caracas and the largest in the country. Another extraordinary event last week was the disappearance of 63 kilograms of C-4, a powerful explosive for exclusively military purposes, that vanished from a closely guarded military depot. General Lucas Rincon, the not very bright Minister of the Interior, has raised some eyebrows by blaming common crime a bit too quickly.

Finally, last week also saw the visit of UN Envoy Diego Cordovez. A former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador and the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations who brokered the soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Cordovez met with President Chavez and Vice-President Rangel, as well as with representatives of the opposition. He left Caracas deeply concerned by the conviction held by each side that it would win the RR, and by the absence of any communication between them. His call for a structured dialogue between government and opposition appears to have been received more positively by Chavez than by his opponents.

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