- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — Campaigning for Sunday’s referendum on President Hugo Chavez’s rule ended yesterday with the Venezuelan leader predicting victory while tens of thousands of people marched in support of his ouster.

In a meandering press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace, Mr. Chavez accused the United States of trying to plot his overthrow but insisted that “nothing or nobody can stop” Venezuelan voters from reaffirming him in power.

But huge anti-Chavez crowds snaked through the capital in their biggest show of strength yet, chanting, “He’s leaving, leaving, leaving,” and urging citizens to vote “yes,” in support of a recall.

The rally, one of the biggest seen in Caracas, sent notice that the opposition vote was still a force to be reckoned with, despite predictions by many Wall Street analysts that the Venezuelan leader would win the referendum.

Mr. Chavez, who had seemed likely to be thrown out of office halfway through his six-year term, has rebounded in recent polls to make the outcome too close to call. Opponents need to win the recall vote with more than the 3.76 million votes Mr. Chavez received when last elected in 2000.

At his press conference, Mr. Chavez said that although he had no evidence it “wouldn’t be strange” if the CIA were plotting against him, and listed a host of what he termed CIA misadventures in countries such as Chile, Nicaragua and Panama.

Mr. Chavez also said that recent declarations from Washington “seemed to reflect a … recognition of a reality” that he was headed for victory.

Mr. Chavez, who has attempted to implement a Cuban-style revolution in Venezuela, was briefly thrown from power in an April 11, 2002, coup. He has since portrayed the ouster campaign as financed and sponsored by the U.S. government.

At his press conference, Mr. Chavez said the Bush administration was behind the loose coalition of business, labor and political leaders that is leading the recall campaign.

“It isn’t whether Chavez goes or whether Chavez stays, [the issue on Sunday] is whether Venezuela continues to be a sovereign state or turns into a Latin American colony,” he said.

Chavez opponents attracted about 100,000 people into the streets for the rally yesterday, the last day of campaigning before the vote. A huge fireworks display preceded the march.

Opponents have accused the president of trying to win votes by using millions of dollars of state oil revenues to bankroll popular government social programs offering free health and education services to the poor.

“This isn’t just a fight between democratic society and a bad government,” opposition spokesman Humberto Calderon Berti told Reuters news agency. “We really see our freedom and democracy at risk.”

But for Mr. Chavez’s supporters, the spending of the nation’s oil wealth on the needy is the best reason to vote for him.

“He takes from the rich and gives to the poor,” Chavez supporter Daisy Camacho said while waiting to have her teeth fixed by one of two Cuban doctors at a community center funded by oil revenues.

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