- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday welcomed Venezuela’s appointment of a new electoral agency as a first step toward resolving a long-running political crisis with a referendum on the presidency of Hugo Chavez.

“We expect that this decision will facilitate the peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution to Venezuela’s political crisis,” said Philip Reeker, State Department spokesman.

Late Monday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court named a National Electoral Council that seemed to satisfy both Mr. Chavez and his opposition, which was calling for a national referendum on whether or not to oust the president.

The naming of the five-member council overcame a six-month deadlock in Venezuela’s National Assembly, in which Chavez supporters threatened legislation to change the Supreme Court and to boycott any measures that might lead to a national referendum on Mr. Chavez’s presidency.

Yesterday, the five-member board — with two Chavez supporters, two opposition loyalists and a fifth member, Judge Francisco Carrasquero, a political moderate and Chavez supporter — was sworn in.

Both sides welcomed the appointments.

“It opens the way for democracy to prevail,” said opposition spokesman Hirum Gaviria.

Mr. Chavez said yesterday: “We are confident this is the best decision.”

The council first must determine the validity of the nearly 3 million anti-Chavez signatures gathered earlier this year and formally submitted Aug. 20.

The Venezuelan Constitution requires that 20 percent of 12 million registered voters — about 2.4 million — must petition for a referendum to be valid.

It will take several months to verify the signatures and organize the election to determine whether Mr. Chavez will finish his six-year term or be deposed.

On Tuesday, during a press conference with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was on a one-day visit to Venezuela, Mr. Chavez reiterated his position that the signatures were invalid and must be collected again.

He said a referendum was “possible” as long as the opposition had fulfilled all requirements.

“They insist they’ve collected the signatures, but no, those signatures can’t be valid,” he said.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which was supporting a referendum, called the appointments “a significant step.”

“The move is … important to ensure that the conflicts in Venezuela over the last few months are settled through peaceful, democratic and constitutional and electoral means,” OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said in a statement.

Brazil heads a six-nation Friends Group — along with the United States, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal — that supports a pact signed in May between Mr. Chavez’s government and its foes to end months of often violent political conflict.

The pact recommends a referendum.

Mr. Lula da Silva said yesterday: “If the opposition completes the requirements … a referendum should be held as the constitution says.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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