The United States Wednesday called for a free, fair and transparent electoral process in Venezuela, where citizens vote Sunday in a referendum on the political future of President Hugo Chavez. The State Department reiterated concern about incidents of harassment and intimidation in the run-up to the vote.
The Bush administration has had a difficult relationship with Mr. Chavez, who has had close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro and been a strong critic of U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere.
But officials here say the United States is not taking sides in the recall election. In a statement issued in advance of Sunday's vote, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the vote, if conducted freely, fairly and transparently, will be an important step toward a peaceful, electoral, democratic and constitutional solution to Venezuela's long-running political crisis.
The referendum, which asks Venezuelans whether Mr. Chavez should leave office two years before his current terms ends, was put on a ballot after a controversy-ridden petition process in which recall supporters collected more than two million signatures for his ouster.
At a news briefing State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli noted that the United States had raised concerns about incidents of harassment and intimidation in the long run-up to the vote, and said the Caracas government now has a "special responsibility" to ensure a proper environment for a free and fair election:
"I'm not going to speculate on the outcome of the vote," he said. "What's important in our view is that this process go forward peacefully, transparently and in a way that gives everybody the freedom to exercise their rights without pressure and intimidation. And that is the benchmark by which we will look at this process."
Secretary Powell said in his written statement that effective electoral observation will be vital to the credibility of the referendum, and he urged that observers including those of the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center be given the "unrestricted access necessary to do their jobs."
He said Venezuela's future is in the hands of its citizens and that the United States calls on all Venezuelans to reject violence and respect the rights of others. He said the United States "stands firmly with them" as they seek to strengthen their democracy and support national reconciliation.
U.S. officials have expressed concern over several incidents in the recall campaign including the jailing of the anti-Chavez mayor of a Caracas suburb and the investigation of a non-governmental group for accepting funds from the U.S.-supported National Endowment for Democracy.
Mr. Chavez has repeatedly accused the United States of financing the campaign against him, and insists despite U.S. denials, that the Bush administration was behind a military coup that briefly unseated him on 2002.
If Mr. Chavez loses the referendum, a presidential election would be held within 30 days. The country's supreme court still has to rule on whether Mr. Chavez could be a candidate in that election.