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Venezuelan Opposition Seeks US Observers for Chavez Referendum - 2004-02-04


Venezuelan opposition leaders are appealing to the United States to send an observer mission to Caracas to monitor developments involving a petition for a referendum on President Hugo Chavez's continued rule.

Venezuelan opposition leaders are expressing deep concerns about the fate of more than three million signatures collected last year in support of a referendum that, if carried out, could oust President Chavez from power. Venezuela's National Election Commission, which is comprised of both backers and opponents of the embattled Mr. Chavez, is charged with determining the validity of the signatures.

Chavez opponents accuse the populist president of economic mismanagement and abuse of authority. For his part, President Chavez has called the referendum initiative a "mega fraud" and blasted the opposition's tactics, including a crippling two-month national strike last year that inflicted nearly $8 billion in economic losses.

Speaking to reporters in Washington Wednesday, Venezuelan labor leader Manuel Cova said the National Election Commission must operate with complete openness and transparency in judging the validity of the referendum petition drive. Another opposition leader, former Venezuelan Senator Timoteo Zambrano, said that the only way to assure transparency is through the presence of international observers.

"We are asking representatives of the U.S. Congress about the possibility of sending a legislative delegation to Venezuela to observe all sectors of society as the process [of checking signatures] goes forward," said Mr. Zambrano.

Last month, at the conclusion of a weeklong trip to Venezuela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said the Venezuelan people remain committed to democracy, and that he believed the National Election Commission would make what he termed "the proper decision" regarding the referendum petition.

President Chavez, a former army paratrooper and self-proclaimed champion of Venezuela's poor, was first elected in 1998 and re-elected for a six-year term in the year 2000. A constitution ratified in 1999 allows for a referendum to be held midway through a president's term in office if 2.4 million signatures are collected in support of the measure.

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