A Vote on Mr. Chavez
The Washington Post
Thursday, June 12, 2003; Page A38
VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT Hugo Chavez and his opposition finally have agreed, in principle, on an electoral means to end the political turmoil that has all but wrecked one of Latin America's most stable and prosperous democracies. But it's fair to ask whether either side is sincere. The opposition coalition agreed to the deal, brokered by Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, only after a two-month strike intended to force Mr. Chavez from office proved a disastrous failure. Mr. Chavez, in turn, continues to behave as if he has no intention of giving up his attempt to push through a quasi-totalitarian, quasi-socialist "revolution," regardless of what his people may want. While it's possible that this increasingly polarized country could vote its way out of its crisis, it's not likely to happen without sustained pressure from outside.
In essence, the agreement brokered by Mr. Gaviria commits Mr. Chavez to respect his own constitution, which allows for a recall referendum after the midpoint of his current term this August. The terms favor the president: The opposition is first required to collect the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate, or more than 2.5 million voters, and if a recall vote is held opponents must win not only a majority but more total votes than Mr. Chavez obtained when he was last elected. Nevertheless, polls show that Mr. Chavez is at risk. In one recent survey, 85 percent of voters said they would participate and nearly two-thirds said they would support the president's ouster. Not surprisingly, Mr. Chavez is throwing up obstacles. He recently suggested that referendums on a number of mayors and provincial governors would have to be held first, and he has refused to agree on the composition of an electoral commission that must supervise the referendum.
More seriously, Mr. Chavez has pressed on with his attempt to centralize political and economic power in his hands. Last week his supporters in the National Assembly held a bizarre outdoor session -- to avoid the opposition -- in which they adopted new parliamentary procedures that would facilitate the approval of several far-reaching new laws. One would tightly constrict press freedom; another would add new judges to the supreme court. When a first attempt to implement the new procedures this week failed, the president's supporters vowed to try again. Mr. Chavez already has placed a stranglehold on Venezuela's supply of foreign currency, which he is using to choke off imports by the private sector. Gunmen opened fire on a recent opposition rally.
Venezuela's neighbors, including the United States, have watched the crisis in Caracas with growing alarm but have shrunk from taking significant action. A support group of countries created last year to support Mr. Gaviria's mediation, including the United States, Mexico and Brazil, has failed to play a significant role. Now they have another opportunity. Venezuela's president needs to hear from the region's leaders that his persecution of opponents and attempts to dodge a fair referendum are unacceptable. There should be no more putting off Venezuela's crisis: The chance for a democratic solution may soon be lost.