- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela — The opposition turned in 3.4 million signatures yesterday, well beyond the number needed to demand a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez’ rule.

Under military escort, two buses transported 250 boxes with the signatures to the National Elections Council, as residents unfurled Venezuelan flags outside their windows, chanting “He’s leaving, leaving, leaving.”

The number of signatures was a million more than the opposition needed to force a referendum. Council director Jorge Rodriguez said the council wouldn’t start verifying the petitions until after the holidays on Jan. 5. After that, the council has 30 days to decide whether to call the referendum.

If a vote is held, the opposition must obtain more votes than the president did in the 2000 elections — almost 3.8 million. Venezuela, with an electorate of 12 million, traditionally has high voter abstention rates.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the U.S.-based Carter Center monitored the opposition’s four-day petition drive and said they saw no evidence of widespread fraud. OAS and Carter Center officials also plan to observe the verification process.

Mr. Chavez insists thousands of people signed twice using fake identification cards and others signed under pressure from their employers.

Opposition leaders claim thousands of civil servants didn’t sign for fear of losing their jobs but plan to vote in the referendum, where balloting would be secret. The government denies intimidating its employees.

The president has survived a 2002 military coup, crippling strikes and previous petitions for an early vote on his rule.

Mr. Chavez would have to be recalled before August if there are to be new elections. If he is voted out during the last two years of his presidency, his vice president would take over.

Mr. Chavez says he is leading a revolution to bring social justice to the poor, who make up 80 percent of the population despite belonging to a country with the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

Opponents say the “revolution” includes steering Venezuela toward a Cuba-style dictatorship.

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