- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped his country regain its democratic footing and civil order this week by agreeing to hold an Aug. 15 recall referendum. He has agreed to a recall vote, despite earlier efforts to stifle it, and the opposition’s efforts to oust the president have evolved from bare-fisted tactics to working within the parameters of the constitution. These positive developments could lead to Venezuela’s political maturity.

Still, Mr. Chavez has a ways to go to prove his democratic bona fides. He must honor the result of the August recall vote, call on his supporters to also respect the vote and stop retaliating against the signers of the recall petition. For the opposition and its supporters, the recall vote (if lost) must be the final word until the 2006 election.

More ambiguous, though, is whether Mr. Chavez should be allowed to seek another term should he lose the recall. The opposition contends that the recall-vote law in spirit bars a president who loses such a vote from running in the next election, but the constitution isn’t clear on the matter. Venezuela’s Supreme Court would be the final arbiter of the issue, but its credibility has been marred by the legislature’s May decision to increase the number of justices from 20 to 32, which would surely stack it in Mr. Chavez’s favor. Still, the court remains the only institution with legal authority over the matter.

The international monitors of the recall referendum, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, should now take the lead in ensuring that enough observers will be in place during the August recall vote. The Group of Friends — which includes representatives from Brazil, the United States, Chile, Mexico, Portugal and Spain and has been mediating between the government and opposition — should foot the bill for deploying the observers.

Mr. Chavez now faces a choice: He can preserve his legitimacy for current and future political contests; or he can indelibly stain it by interfering with a recall vote. Mr. Chavez would continue to be influential regardless of the outcome of the recall vote — if he commands credibility.

The United States has a large stake in the future of Venezuela, which is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of oil and an important U.S. supplier. Washington and the rest of the world will be watching closely as events unfold in that Caribbean nation.

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