The United States has welcomed the decision by Venezuelan election officials to allow a recall referendum on the rule of President Hugo Chavez to go forward. It urged all the parties in Venezuela, but especially the government, to insure that the process goes forward peacefully.
The State Department is welcoming the decision to allow the referendum, and President Chavez's acceptance of the verdict by the country's National Electoral Council, as an important step toward a peaceful, democratic and electoral solution of Venezuela's long-running political impasse.
The council announced Thursday that opponents of Mr. Chavez had gained the petition signatures of the 20 percent of the electorate necessary to force a recall. The council had initially rejected the recall move on grounds that a sizable portion of signatures collected were invalid.
But after allowing voters to reconfirm signatures late last month, it ruled that recall supporters had gotten the required total of nearly 2.5 million.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli commended what he said was the "civic spirit" displayed by the Venezuelan people during a signature confirmation exercise.
He also called on both Chavez supporters and opponents to adhere to a pledge they made last year to refrain from violence and allow the exercise of free speech as the referendum goes forward. He said the Chavez government "has a special responsibility" to ensure that order and peace are maintained and that the fundamental rights of the Venezuelan people are not infringed.
The Bush administration has had a tense relationship with Mr. Chavez, a populist former military officer who has maintained close ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro. After the election petition verdict, Mr. Chavez reiterated a claim the United States is behind the recall move, a notion rejected by spokesman Ereli.
"It's the Venezuelan people that are moving to have this done," he said. "And the international community, as represented by Venezuela's neighbors, the OAS and the United States, are working to help the people of Venezuela realize their aspirations in a democratic and peaceful way. So I guess I would take very strong issue with any suggestion that this is, that this process is something that is, originates from or is directed from outside Venezuela. It has its origins in and motivations in Venezuela."
Mr. Ereli declined to take a position on the critical issue of when the recall vote on Mr. Chavez will take place. Under the Venezuelan constitution, there would be elections for a new president if Mr. Chavez loses a recall before August 19.
But if he is defeated in a recall vote held after Aug. 19, Mr. Chavez's vice president would take over and run the country for the remainder of the his term which runs until the end of 2006, effectively extending his government's rule.
The volatile situation in Venezuela is expected to be a major issue at the meeting in the Ecuadoran capital, Quito, next week of foreign ministers of the Organization of American States. Secretary of State Colin Powell will head the U.S. delegation there.