- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

The Bolivarian Revolution that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged to launch has boomeranged. After recovering from a short-lived McCoup in April, Mr. Chavez has faced escalating opposition. On Saturday, more than 1 million demonstrators rallied against Mr. Chavez, and an ongoing oil strike, which began Dec. 2, has paralyzed the country financially. Earlier this month, three anti-Chavez protesters were shot dead by government loyalists. If a deal isn't reached soon between Mr. Chavez and the discontented, the political future of Venezuela will be decided on the streets and blood-drenched streets they could be.
The question remains, then, how should the United States weigh in? Venezuela is, particularly now, central to U.S. interests, since it is the world's fifth-largest oil producer and supplies America with 14 percent of its imported oil. Crude oil futures have risen past the psychologically significant $30 level, primarily as a result of the turmoil in Venezuela.
But charting a policy course for Venezuela is tricky. Last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the best way to defuse tensions in Venezuela would be by holding new elections. This week, though, the administration retreated, saying Venezuela should find a resolution in accordance with its constitution and recommending Venezuela hold a referendum on Mr. Chavez's rule. This brings the White House closer to Mr. Chavez's position. The Venezuelan president has said he would be willing to hold a binding referendum, but that according to Venezuela's new constitution, which Mr. Chavez in effect drafted, it can't be held until August, midway through his term.
Mr. Chavez's stated reverence for the constitution is tragicomical. This isn't, after all, a document penned by founding fathers, but rather by a Constitutional Assembly populated by Chavez loyalists that were elected in July 1999. And as Mr. Chavez surely recalls, he illegally dissolved congress and had the assembly take on legislative powers in August 1999 until the public outcry was so great, Mr. Chavez was forced to let lawmakers continue legislating until the following year, when new elections were held.
So, while changing the constitution to allow for an early, binding referendum wouldn't violate any time-honored democratic traditions in Venezuela, the caution the White House has demonstrated in making demands of the Chavez government is understandable. In the interests of reaching a peaceful resolution, the White House should privately urge Mr. Chavez to try to strike a deal with the opposition regarding a referendum or election. A mediator for these talks must also be found. The negotiating table not bloodied streets is where this dire situation must be settled.

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