- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

The Venezuelan government and opposition members committed to a cold peace Thursday, by signing a deal that establishes cooperation guidelines for easing tensions. The deal has been largely billed as benefitting Hugo Chavez. But the government’s need to sign such a deal highlights the domestic and international pressures it is under. Those pressures on Mr. Chavez’s ability to govern will continue to prevail, demanding from the president some ostensible conformity with democratic norms.

The long-anticipated agreement between the Chavez government and opposition forces reinforces the public’s constitutional right to hold a referendum on the holding of new elections after Aug. 19, but fails to set a date for such a referendum. Many observers of Venezuela fear that Mr. Chavez will rob the people’s right to such a referendum by some technical slight of hand, such as stonewalling on the establishing of the necessary electoral body to confirm the validity of signatures. Leading opposition members downplay the potential for such an outcome.

“There shouldn’t be any problems,” said Rafael Alfonso, one of the six opposition members to sign the agreement, adding the government has plenty of time to establish the electoral body. Mr. Alfonso also noted that “the circumstances that aggravated this very complicated social and economic situation remain current, even aggravated.”

The president may have a limited ability to prevent the public from holding the referendum, enshrined in Venezuela’s new constitution, which was established, in effect, by Mr. Chavez himself. The president is therefore especially beholden to the public’s new constitutional rights. By signing the pact, Mr. Chavez has further entrenched himself in this constitutional framework. Should he later try to break the rule of law, Mr. Chavez would have to answer to the Venezuelan street.

And then there’s the international pressure on the Venezuelan president. The Bush administration and Latin American leaders are viewing with concern Venezuela’s ability to export instability in an already vulnerable region. Venezuela is a key provider of oil to the United States and borders violence-ridden Colombia. The truce signed on Thursday was mediated in large part by Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, but was born, to a large degree, of the energetic and calibrated engagement of the United States, Brazil and other governments.

There are still some obstacles to holding a referendum. Most importantly, the government and opposition haven’t agreed on the political makeup of the electoral body that would oversee a referendum and potential election, according to Mr. Alfonso. While the government insists on having a political majority on the body, the opposition has reasonably insisted that the government and opposition get two representatives each, with a fifth member being neutral. “They are accustomed to holding a majority. They already dominate all institutions and can’t accept not having another majority on the” electoral body, said Mr. Alfonso. Since the final makeup of the electoral body must be approved by two-thirds of the legislature, the opposition’s more neutral proposal for the body seems most fair.

The recent agreement is a step in the right direction. It also attests to the positive reforms that Mr. Chavez established for holding government more accountable. The president should abide by these advances that he pushed forward. The international community, particularly the United States and Brazil, continues to have some important work to do in terms of closing gaps between the Mr. Chavez and the opposition. Now is the time to intensify engagement.

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