- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday proclaimed Venezuela’s political crisis resolved and accepted President Hugo Chavez’s victory in Sunday’s recall referendum, but demanded a “transparent audit” into opposition charges of fraud.

Washington’s verdict came a day later than many other countries, and it stopped short of congratulating Mr. Chavez.

“We certainly congratulate the people of Venezuela on how they have managed this,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. “This is an important end to Venezuela’s political crisis.”

Strengthened by his victory, Mr. Chavez set his sights yesterday on centralizing power, including exerting control over the courts, local police and the nation’s broadcast stations.

The government is “going to deepen the social and democratic revolution in Venezuela,” vowed Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, the right-hand man to Mr. Chavez, who has been praised by supporters for giving the poor majority better services and a voice in politics.

Mr. Ereli avoided mentioning Mr. Chavez by name.

“This is not about an individual’s democratic credentials or not; it’s about a country and a body politic dealing with a problem they had — a constitutional and political challenge,” he said.

“So people want to make it a U.S. versus this person or a U.S. versus that person issue, and it’s not,” he said. “It’s not the way we’ve been approaching it.”

The official count announced in Caracas showed that Mr. Chavez defeated the effort to remove him with 58 percent of the votes, with the opposition taking 42 percent.

“Venezuela has changed forever. There is no turning back,” said Mr. Chavez, whose term ends in 2006.

Former President Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States said on Monday that their quick counts of the voting matched the results announced by electoral authorities.

International observers said yesterday they will conduct a sample audit on results from the referendum to clear up opposition charges that Mr. Chavez won the recall vote by fraud.

Mr. Carter and OAS chief Cesar Gaviria, who led a mission to observe the vote, agreed to accept an opposition proposal to carry out additional checks against confirmation paper ballots printed by the voting machines.

“This audit will remove any doubts about the accuracy of the electronically transmitted data of the referendum result, as compared with the paper ballots,” Mr. Carter told reporters.

Mr. Ereli called the referendum results “preliminary” but expressed little doubt that they will be confirmed by the final count.

“We believe that now, with this referendum having been taken and the preliminary results being endorsed by a variety of groups, that now it is up to the Venezuelan people and government to move forward,” he said.

At the same time, he said the opposition’s fraud charges should be investigated for the sake of “national reconciliation.”

“There are concerns that have been expressed. There are issues related to irregularities that are charged, and we believe it’s important to address those concerns in a transparent way.

“We call on the National Electoral Council to allow a transparent audit,” Mr. Ereli said.

Opposition leaders accuse the government of manipulating voting machines to overturn what they insist was a win for the anti-Chavez vote. Some are demanding an exhaustive one-by-one ballot count.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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