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Back to Venezuela's future

Editorial from The Washington Times

Published July 28, 2004 - With less than a month to go to Venezuela's critical recall referendum, an unwitting former Venezuelan president cavalierly damaged the opposition effort through his thuggish comments. Venezuela's opposition must take pains to ensure the country's political dinosaurs don't mar a hard-won opportunity to democratically oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez come Aug. 15.

It is hard to imagine a better gift to Mr. Chavez than the statements Carlos Andres Perez gave to Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Mr. Chavez "must die like a dog, because he deserves it," said Mr. Perez, who was impeached on corruption charges during his second term. Mr. Perez also said, "I am working to remove Chavez [from power]. Violence will allow us to remove him. That's the only way we have."

The former president, who lobbed the bloody barbs from his comfortable perch in Miami, said, "We can't just get rid of Chavez and immediately have a democracy... we will need a transition period of two to three years to lay the foundations for a state where the rule of law prevails."

When asked about the desire of Venezuelans to move forward on democratic reform, Mr. Perez hinted he sees a role for himself in this hypothetical, despotic future. "I am not the past, I am the future." But Mr. Perez is definitely part of Venezuela's past and personifies the kleptocracy and incompetence that originally gave rise to Mr. Chavez.

The Venezuelan electorate and some of the country's institutions, meanwhile, have demonstrated a brave and dogged commitment to democratic principles. It is that electorate that will usher in a new future for Venezuela and has, to some degree, forced the political class to evolve.

In April 2002, the Venezuelan military launched a coup against Mr. Chavez, after individuals variously associated with the Chavez government opened fire on an opposition march. These days in Latin America, the killing of protesters is taken very seriously -- the collapse of the Sanchez de Lozada government last year in Bolivia case in point. In wake of the coup, the newly installed government proceeded to dissolve Congress and also shot and killed pro-Chavez protesters. Two days later, the Venezuelan military demonstrated admirable maturity in recognizing the errors of the new government and reinstalling Mr. Chavez. The 2002 affair demonstrates the unattractive political choices Venezuelans have had.

Still, the Venezuelan people appear to be dragging the political class forward. Many risked retaliation by the Chavez government for petitioning the referendum. The opposition has, since the coup, demonstrated a determination to operate within democratic parameters. And Mr. Chavez says he will respect the referendum results. He should prove his seriousness by allowing the needed observers to monitor the vote.

The opposition should send a message that goes beyond "Chavez out," including those voices speaking from America.

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