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Chavez Accuses US of Meddling in Venezuelan Recall Referendum - 2004-08-14

Embattled Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is accusing the Bush administration of meddling in his nation's politics ahead of Sunday's recall referendum in that South American country. But Mr. Chavez remains confident of victory.

In the final hours before the referendum vote that could result in his removal from office, President Chavez continues to express optimism. He describes his opponents as a minority of disgruntled oligarchs who want to re-establish the corrupt rule of past governments. In this, he says, they are aided by the Bush administration in Washington.

He says attempts to remove him from power by force as well as sabotage attacks on the nation's petroleum industry have been planned and financed in Washington. The Venezuelan leader says the Bush administration has encouraged the opposition to his government, but that there are many U-S citizens, including union members and environmentalists, who support him.

Chavez supporters in the United States recently obtained documents through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act showing that the National Endowment for Democracy, which is partially supported by U.S. government funds, gave about $2 million to opposition political groups in Venezuela. Endowment spokesmen say the funds were to support political dialogue and programs to strengthen democracy.

President Chavez has built a large base of support in Venezuela among poor people who have benefited from health, education and housing programs. Critics question the effectiveness of his social spending, much of which comes from oil revenue, but there is a clear divide between the wealthier sectors who oppose him and the slum-dwellers and poor rural people who show enthusiastic support for his government.

Some political observers worry that the Chavistas, as the president's supporters are called in Spanish, would react violently to a defeat in Sunday's vote. But Mr. Chavez says his people are not the ones who are violent. He says he is sure that whatever happens on Sunday, the people of Venezuela will maintain the peace. He says any trouble is likely to come from the opposition, not from his supporters.

But some Chavistas have made it clear that they would not react to defeat passively. The Venezuelan Minister of Energy, Rafael Ramirez, said Friday that state-run oil industry workers would not accept a Chavez defeat. He hinted at possible oil production disruptions if Mr. Chavez loses. Mr. Ramirez said that instability in this, the world's fifth largest oil producer, could cause world petroleum prices to rise without limit.

For their part, opposition supporters say the only way Mr. Chavez can win the recall referendum is through fraud. A Chavez victory Sunday could provoke opposition street protests and possible violence from radical elements within that sector.