- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez recently bolstered his legitimacy by acceding to the result of a petition drive for a national referendum on his office. Since then, he seems intent on tearing it down.

Mr. Chavez lashed out last week at Human Rights Watch for criticizing his stacking of the Supreme Court, and his supporters at the electoral council are opposing the role of monitors in the Aug. 15 referendum. The role of monitors is crucial not only to resolving Venezuela’s political polarization peacefully, but also to maintaining Mr. Chavez’s long-term credibility. If Mr. Chavez allows the monitors to take their rightful station during the vote, he could win of course. If he blocks this through his supporters on the council, he will cause irreparable damage to his credibility.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and former President Jimmy Carter bear the burden of being Venezuela’s best (and probably only) hope of stewarding the referendum and its aftermath along a peaceful path. They must expend every effort to guarantee the presence of monitors, whose deployment they would coordinate.

The roles of Mr. Carter and the OAS has been made all the more critical by Mr. Chavez’s success in loading the Supreme Court with his supporters, in a manner that violates the spirit of democratic legitimacy. Given this assault on the independence of the court, the OAS and Mr. Carter and his staff will be the only credible arbiters of how any referendum-related disputes are handled.

In a Tuesday Op-Ed for The Washington Post, Jose Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson — executive director and counsel of the Americas Division, respectively, of Human Rights Watch — took direct aim at Mr. Chavez’s judicial hijinks. “Chavez’s own government threatens to undermine this country’s fragile democracy through a political takeover of its highest court,” the Op-Ed said. This issue could become a separate crisis for Mr. Chavez. The vice president of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, Franklin Arrieche, refused on Tuesday to accept a decision by Chavista lawmakers to remove him the court.

Mr. Carter should be commended for his nimble handling of a recent meeting between Mr. Chavez and media baron Gustavo Cisneros, a meeting that seemingly defused mounting tensions amid the recall. Venezuela needs Mr. Carter and the OAS to continue concerted engagement to ensure the presence of monitors on Aug. 15. The Carter Center appears poised and ready for the Aug. 15 vote. If not, Mr. Carter should make as much noise as possible as soon as possible.

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