- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is showing signs of desperation as the country’s National Election Committee reviews signatures calling for a recall vote. In his attempt to prevent a potential recall, Mr. Chavez is resorting to an old strongman’s ploy: Cry treason. It is looking increasingly unlikely, though, that Mr. Chavez will be able to counter the gathering support for rule of law.

Much of Venezuela is watching nervously as the National Election Committee reviews the signatures. Two members of the opposition, Timoteo Zambrano and Mauel Cova (part of a formal negotiating process with the government that cleared the way for the recall petition), traveled to the United States recently and met with editors at The Washington Times. Messrs. Zambrano and Cova charged that the Chavez government had tried to block monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) from observing part of the review and had tried to invalidate signatures on bogus pretenses.

They also claimed that the OAS held firm against these government moves, maintaining it would not certify the review process if their team wasn’t guaranteed observation of the committee’s review. A recent statement by the OAS alludes to some of the claims made by the opposition: “During the observation of this process, the OAS and the Carter Center have detected technical and administrative defects … Problems have been noted during the physical verification of signature collection forms, and during the initial days of the work of the second-level review Technical Committee, which was overwhelmed by the large volume of problem signature forms sent to it.” The OAS attributed these “defects” to “the novel nature and complexity of the process.” The OAS is being too diplomatic. Clearly, the Chavez government didn’t want the world to see them trying to fix the election.

Mr. Chavez has a lot to be nervous about. The OAS has been a tenacious observer. Brazil’s left-leaning president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who has enormous clout in the region, has called on Mr. Chavez to respect the decisions of the electoral committee. And Amnesty International has called Mr. Chavez to account for railing against the pro-democratic efforts of NGOs and human rights groups.

The Chavez government had accused some NGOs and human rights groups of committing “treason” for having received some funding from U.S. agencies.

The electoral committee has set a Feb. 28 deadline for deciding whether the required 2.4 million Venezuelans petitioned for a recall vote. Feb. 28 will, therefore, be a watershed date for the country. Mr. Chavez would be wise to acknowledge how closely he is being watched and respect the decision of the electoral committee. Regardless of the outcome, that decision must be the final word on the current political standoff.

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