- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004

This weekend, Venezuela was scheduled to be one large step closer to a peaceful resolution of its bloody political crisis. But the country’s president, Hugo Chavez, seems determined to toy with an outbreak of violence.

By today, Venezuela’s electoral committee was supposed to have decided on the validity of signatures collected in December supporting a recall referendum on Mr. Chavez’s rule. Astonishingly, the committee said it would review 1.5 million signatures, almost half of the total. The committee has voiced concern over the fact that the identification numbers and names of some signers are written in the same handwriting, indicating that one person may have helped several petitioners enter their information. This wasn’t against the rules, and the signatures themselves and thumbprints have not been called into question. Also, petition sheets were approved in December by the committee monitors present.

This delay appears to have been caused by pressure from Mr. Chavez, who was alleging fraud way before the committee had started its review. The current delay is already unnerving many. On Friday, about 30,000 protesters calling for a recall took to the streets, as Venezuela hosted a summit of the Group of 15 developing countries. They were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets. Some protesters have made clear their willingness to resort to violence if their voices aren’t heard. The Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS) have called on the committee to find “transparent, agile and simple” methods to check signatures.

The Chavez government has much to gain by running out the clock. The government can only be recalled if the referendum is held before Aug. 18. After that, the president could be recalled, but the vice president would finish the term, which ends in 2006. Once a recall petition is confirmed, a recall vote can be held up to 90 days later.

Such a delaying strategy would clearly run against the spirit of the recall law that Mr. Chavez conceived. More importantly, it could send angry Venezuelans into the streets. Given Venezuela’s current polarization, neither side would take defeat well. But a corrupted recall process would probably trigger a worst-case scenario. The Venezuelan government has an enormous responsibility to put the well-being of the country ahead of its own. International monitors must continue doing everything possible to urge fairness on the part of the government and restraint from the Venezuelan people.

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