- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

The next 48 hours in Venezuela probably will determine events in that country for months, if not years, to come. Today or tomorrow, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council is expected to announce whether enough signatures have been validated on a nationwide petition to trigger a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez. That announcement, and how it is perceived by Venezuelans, could bring the country back from the brink of crisis or trigger violent clashes.

Reportedly, more than 520,000 signatures were validated recently, bringing the total qualified signatures past the 2.43 million required by law to trigger a presidential referendum. If the electoral council approves the validated signatures, Mr. Chavez would face a recall referendum by Aug. 8 — if, that is, the president doesn’t put up additional roadblocks.

Attempts by Mr. Chavez to continue stonewalling the process could have dire consequences for Venezuela and bring the president only a reprieve from opposition efforts. Tensions in Venezuela have escalated to such a degree that even usually restrained voices have begun sounding an alarm. “If the referendum process isn’t handled in a way the Venezuelan people regard as legitimate, there is a danger civil strife could erupt,” said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group.

Mr. Chavez has come under increasing pressure from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS) to handle the recall process in a timely, credible manner. On Monday, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he and OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria met with the electoral council to clear up what he described as a “very serious delay” in the delivery of information to monitors. “We believe that problem has been corrected,” Mr. Carter said. U.S. officials have also been signaling their willingness to rally international pressure on Mr. Chavez. “We will use what multilateral levers we have,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega told reporters and editors of The Washington Times last week. “We have told our partners we think this is a make-or-break exercise to see whether the state can respect the wishes of the Venezuelan people.”

Given Mr. Chavez’s unpredictability, it is unclear whether he will continue trying to stymie the recall process enshrined in the constitution he drafted. Mr. Chavez clearly continues to value international credibility — as evidenced by an Op-Ed he wrote for The Washington Post last week, titled, “Ready for a Recall Vote.” Time and circumstances have allowed Mr. Chavez to recover from last year’s crippling strike. High oil prices have produced a sizable kitty that Mr. Chavez has drawn from aggressively to fund social programs. He and his country are ready for a recall contest. Let’s hope Mr. Chavez is up to facing a challenge of which he himself conceived.

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