The Washington Post������������������������ August 17, 2003 Sunday ����� Pg. A18



Venezuelans Pin Hopes on Chavez Referendum; ��������������������������������President Makes It Clear He Will Not Submit Easily�������������������������������������������������� Scott Wilson, Washington Post Foreign Service

 After nearly two years of political conflict that has devastated the economy and most government institutions, Venezuelans are on the verge of achieving what a majority have wanted for some time: a referendum that could end the administration of President Hugo Chavez.

 This coming week, as Chavez marks the midpoint of his six-year term, the opposition will kick off a recall campaign with the submission of 3.3 million signatures to the elections board. The campaign now appears to have the force of Venezuelan law and a growing political consensus behind it. 

The Venezuelan opposition has not been so optimistic since Chavez, a strident populist whose tenure has bitterly divided the oil-rich country along class lines, took office in 1998 promising to lift Venezuela's poor majority.

Despite recent U.S. and opposition efforts to hold Chavez to his promise to accept the referendum, the resilient president might still be able to elude a vote that would probably go against him. Chavez, who has survived a military coup and four national strikes, has made it clear he has no plans to submit to the referendum without a struggle. 

 "Didn't you see the news?" Chavez joked during a speech to supporters late last month as California's recall effort dominated headlines. "The referendum will end up being in the United States."

 Even the most ardent opposition members, as well as skeptical diplomats here, say a recall vote will likely not take place until early next year, if it goes forward at all. But at least for now Venezuela is experiencing a rare moment of moderation and consensus. 

 Since the end of a disastrous general strike in February, large street marches and the spectacle of dissident military officers camped out at an uptown plaza have given way to a less confrontational opposition strategy that appears to be attracting Chavez supporters. Already, several opposition civic groups appear to be evolving into political parties in preparation for the race to succeed Chavez.

 "The opposition understands the strike was a mistake and the government realizes that violence was a mistake," said Nelson Rivera, a political analyst on the editorial board of El Nacional, a leading Caracas daily. "On both sides, there is tremendous fatigue, and as a result, the two sides have come closer together in support of the referendum."

 A former army lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup in 1992, Chavez has remade Venezuela's political landscape, smashing the traditional two-party lock on power and pushing through a new constitution that extended the presidential term to six years and allowed for reelection. He was elected again in 2000 in a ballot required under the new constitution.

 But his class-warrior rhetoric, populist economic policies and affinity for Fidel Castro's Cuba have turned a majority of Venezuelans against him and soured relations with the United States, which receives 15 percent of its imported oil from Venezuela. After military officers ousted Chavez from office in April 2002, the Bush administration endorsed the coup by recognizing the short-lived interim government.

 Chavez has failed to deliver on many of his promises, and his support now stands at 34 percent of Venezuela's 23 million people, according to polls. His hard-core supporters, who hail mostly from the poorest classes, have stood by a man they consider a hero, believing his program has been thwarted by the economic and political elite .

 Rich and poor alike are suffering from rising crime and economic decline. Analysts say Venezuela's gross domestic product could shrink by 20 percent this year.

The broad opposition movement that emerged has also suffered dips in support, mostly as a result of a strategy that has punished its natural allies economically. A 64-day strike over Christmas cost the country more than $ 4 billion in oil revenue and hurt merchants during the peak shopping season.

 The two sides agreed to resolve the crisis through "an electoral solution" in May after seven months of talks sponsored by Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States. The preparations come to a head this coming week.

Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal of Justice is scheduled to name a new National Electoral Council to oversee the recall process by Aug. 24 after a divided National Assembly failed to do so last week. 

Opposition leaders intend to submit their signatures to the elections board on Wednesday, the day after the official mid point of Chavez's term. The 3.3 million signatures represent more than the 20 percent of the electorate required under the Chavez-inspired constitution to call the referendum.  The elections commission will have 90 days to validate the signatures and set a date for the vote. 

How to proceed this week has been the subject of debate in the rented offices and meeting rooms of the opposition, an unruly movement comprising leftist political parties, labor unions and business groups, united only in their desire to see Chavez go.

 Opposition leaders have tentatively agreed to deliver the 61 boxes holding the bound signatures as quietly as possible, then hold a celebratory march elsewhere to stay clear of the planned pro-Chavez rallies scheduled for the same day.

 Chavez has a number of ways to avoid the referendum and diplomats here say he is under pressure from hard-liners inside his own government to do so. According to a poll conducted last month by the U.S. firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the vote would go against him by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.

 Through his thin majority in the National Assembly, Chavez could block funding for the recall effort, although that would violate the OAS-sponsored agreement with the opposition.  He could also seek to dissolve the high court or declare a state of emergency if there are disturbances similar to those that left 19 Venezuelans dead on the day of the coup.

 Last week, Chavez named a notoriously aggressive general, Jesus Villegas Solarte, to head the National Guard. Just days into the general strike last December, Villegas used tanks and tear gas to disperse a peaceful demonstration in front of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

 "Chavez has the right to react, and is under no obligation to wait for us to recall his government," said Elias Santana, whose Civic Alliance is the civil society representative to the opposition umbrella group known as the Democratic Coordinator. "It is our job to predict what he might do."

 Despite its cautious optimism, the opposition is already showing signs of fracturing.  The Democratic Coordinator opened its first headquarters this past week, and some inside the opposition grumble that it is becoming a political party for Enrique Mendoza, the governor of Miranda state and a presidential aspirant apparently favored by the powerful opposition-controlled media.

 Hoping to broaden its appeal, a citizens group called Oil People, comprising the 18,000 dissidents from the state-oil company fired by Chavez during the strike, has created a spinoff organization called Positive Energy. It is viewed as the political vehicle for Juan Fernandez, the company's former planning director and the most visible of its dissidents.

 This month, opposition leaders gathered to sign a "Unity Pact" that would help guide them through the recall and the 30-day presidential campaign that would follow should Chavez lose. But the competing ideologies and egos that have lived uncomfortably inside the opposition will likely be difficult to keep together.

 "We can't militarize democracy," said Henrique Salas Romer, a presidential candidate who lost to Chavez in 1998 and declined to sign the "Unity Pact." "Hopefully, people will be smart enough that if we are in trouble the opposition will rally around a single candidate."