- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

From combined dispatches

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez yesterday launched a bid to vote the leftist leader out of office, marching in hundreds of thousands and presenting more than 3 million signatures calling for a referendum on his rule.

Waving red, yellow and blue national flags and blowing horns and whistles, foes of the populist president turned central Caracas avenues into rivers of color and noise in the biggest antigovernment demonstration since a general strike in December and January.

The signatures requesting a referendum were delivered a day after Mr. Chavez completed half of his current six-year term. The constitution allows for a referendum after this point.

Opposition leaders said they delivered 3.2 million signatures, exceeding the required minimum — 20 percent of registered voters — to trigger a referendum.

More than 100 boxes containing the signatures were delivered to the National Elections Council just after dawn, Enrique Naimi of the Social Christian Copei Party told the Associated Press. National guardsmen in riot gear stood by as the boxes were unloaded.

Opposition leaders kept their plans for delivering the signatures a secret, hoping to avoid clashes with Chavez supporters.

In Argentina, a defiant Mr. Chavez vowed to resist any attempt to remove him. He claimed some of the signatures were fake, including some belonging to dead people and others stolen from bank databases.

The signatures “appear in every light to be illegal. They don’t meet constitutional requirements,” Mr. Chavez said in an interview with AP in Buenos Aires.

“If [opposition leaders] manage to arrange a referendum, we’ll defeat them,” Mr. Chavez said. “We’ve beaten them before and we’ll do it again.”

The anti-Chavez governor of Miranda state, Enrique Mendoza, estimated that more than a half-million people took part in the march yesterday. “This is like a live referendum,” he told Reuters news agency.

“Chavez is cornered. There’s no way out for him now,” said Enrique Konarek, a food salesman who marched carrying effigies of Mr. Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In May, the government and opposition signed a pact brokered by the Organization of American States prohibiting any amendments to election laws while authorities prepare for balloting.

The pact helped bring relative stability after a strike shut down oil production in the world’s No. 5 exporter, costing more than $7 billion and sending the economy into a tailspin.

Mr. Chavez insists there will not be time to organize a referendum this year since voter rolls must be updated, signatures verified and hundreds of regional election authorities chosen.

Some opposition leaders worry the process could run into next year, when Venezuela may be too preoccupied with scheduled regional elections to bother with a referendum.

The United States, Venezuela’s top oil client, has endorsed a referendum.

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