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Uneasy Calm in Venezuela as Nation Awaits Electoral Council’s Ruling on Recall Drive - 2003-12-19

Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claim they have gathered more than three-and-a-half million signatures in a petition drive calling for a referendum on the divisive leader’s rule. President Chavez calls the drive, which ended in early December, a “mega-fraud” and says less than two million of the signatures are genuine. Now the National Electoral Council will have to verify the signatures. Its ruling is expected in early January. VOA’s Serena Parker has more on the political situation in Venezuela in today’s Focus report.

Almost half of Venezuela’s 25 million people live below the poverty line despite that nation’s large oil reserves. When President Hugo Chavez campaigned on a promise to improve the lives of Venezuela’s poor, they voted overwhelmingly for him. They strongly identify with Mr. Chavez, who comes from modest means and a mixed race background, in contrast to Venezuela’s traditional ruling elite made up mostly of white businessmen.

The divide between the two sides was never more evident than last December when a nation-wide strike paralyzed Venezuela and there were widespread fears of an outbreak of violence in this heavily armed, volatile country. It did not happen, and now in a calmer atmosphere, surprising to many, opponents of President Chavez have gathered three-point-six million signatures calling for a referendum on his rule.

Jennifer McCoy is professor of political science at Georgia State University and also serves as the director of the Americas Program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which promotes human rights and democracy around the world. Along with the Organization of American States and the United Nations Development Program, the Carter Center observed the four-day petition drive from November 28th to December 1st at the request of both sides.

“It was peaceful. It was organized well,” she says. “But what we were most struck with was at the community level. The individuals who were monitoring and organizing those petition-drives were working together; that is, both opposition and government working together to make sure that it worked and to solve any discrepancies they had over the process.”

Jennifer McCoy says the opposition’s long struggle to remove President Chavez from office now goes to the National Electoral Council, whose five-members will check the signatures for any irregularities, such as dead people signing or people signing twice.

Until now, Jennifer McCoy says both the opposition and the pro-government forces have expressed their support for the electoral council, although there have been questions about its members’ political views.

“This Council is almost a microcosm of the situation in Venezuela,” she says, “because all their decisions that they take and their negotiations reflect the internal divisions in the country.”

The council has 30 days to validate the petition asking for a referendum on President Chavez’ rule. If the signatures are approved, a referendum must be held in 90 days.

Angelo Rivero Santos is director of academic affairs at Georgetown University where he also teaches at the Center for Latin American Studies. He says that if the recall drive is certified and a referendum on Chavez’ rule is held, matters could get complicated. At least 25% of the electorate have to participate in the referendum. And the number of votes in favor of removing Mr. Chavez from office have to be equal or greater to the number of votes he received when he was elected in the year 2000, or 3.75 million.

“And even assuming that there is a massive turnout of the electorate,” he says, “it is still unclear what would happen if the number of votes against him are indeed larger than the number of votes he received when he was elected, but the votes in his favor are greater than the votes against him.”

Other political observers say it’s quite possible that if the opposition was able to gather as many signatures as it claims, winning another 200,000 votes or so is quite possible. Gerardo Le Chevallier, director of the Latin America Program at the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization working to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide, is one.

“Signing a petition in a very polarized situation takes some courage,” he says. “I’m not sure that many people would be willing to give their name, address and other personal information to government officials, people they don’t even like. And the image of the Chavez government – even if untrue – is that it’s a repressive one. At least that’s how opposition leaders perceive it to be. So for opponents of Chavez to sign this petition with their name, address, everything, takes an act of courage. On the other hand, come March or April whenever this referendum is held, people vote anonymously. So I think the chances for getting more votes than signatures is great.”

If the recall drive is certified and a referendum on President Chavez is held, there are concerns pro-Chavez forces could take to the streets and clash with the opposition – as they have in the past when Mr. Chavez’ rule has been threatened. But Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center says both sides have moderated their behavior.

“We’ve gone through these months at the negotiating table,” she says, “meeting together, talking together and eventually coming up with an accord that basically said that both sides will respect the constitutional provisions for a recall referendum, and that would be one way to resolve these differences. And so now the focus of both sides is on the constitutional process.”

While both sides may agree on following the constitutional process, there are still major differences in how they see Venezuela’s future. Professor Angelo Rivero Santos of Georgetown University says the bickering over Mr. Chavez means genuine problems haven’t been resolved.

“Unfortunately, the current political situation has overshadowed some of the most pressing and structural problems that Venezuela has faced over the past 100 years,” he says. “That has led to levels of exclusion and inequality that are almost the highest in Latin America despite the country’s vast oil wealth.”

Mr. Chavez wants to use oil revenues to create more jobs for the poor. His opponents accuse him of trying to hijack the country and turn it into a socialist state like Cuba, where Mr. Chavez’ good friend and ally Fidel Castro has ruled autocratically for more than 40 years.

The political fighting over the direction of the country has thrown Venezuela’s economy into turmoil. Unemployment is officially at 20% and the steep slide of the currency against the U.S. dollar, means real wages have declined. Economists say Venezuela’s economy will shrink 11% this year.

While the declining economy has alienated the business and middle classes, workers and poor Venezuelans continue to back the president. Political observers say the reason is that while Mr. Chavez has done little to improve the lives of the poor, they feel at least he has given voice to their frustrations.

Professor Rivero Santos says as the two sides work out their major differences – particularly in their policies for addressing inequality and the future of the country – the rest of Latin America is watching.

“What is certain is that what we are witnessing is perhaps the most important period of Venezuela’s contemporary political history, which is unique not only to the country but also to Latin America and the Caribbean,” he says. “Will this impasse be resolved through institutional and democratic means or not? That will really depend on the will of the political actors to respect the integrity of the institutions that have been charged with this extremely important task.”

Democracy activists and third party observers say the real test for Venezuela will be in January 2004 when the National Electoral Council is expected to rule.