- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been able to relegate a recall drive on his government to a kind of bureaucratic netherworld. This maneuvering hasn’t stanched mounting tensions, though, and may well lead to a series of violent demonstrations. Such a conflict would test the ability of the regional players, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and Brazil, to deal with a crisis.

At issue is a petition drive held last year calling for a recall referendum on the Chavezgovernment.Recently, Venezuela’s electoral chamber of the Supreme Court cleared the way for a recall vote by finding that an electoral committee — created to oversee the referendum drive — was wrong in rejecting 876,000 signatures on mere technicalities. This gave the opposition more than the 2.43 million signatures needed to hold a referendum. But on Tuesday, the constitutional chamber of the court — which is headed by Ivan Rincon, a staunch Chavez ally — rejected the jurisdiction of the electoral chamber. That decision can be appealed to the full court, which is also headed by Mr. Rincon.

The current impasse helps Mr. Chavez run out the clock. According to the Venezuelan constitution, if a referendum isn’t held by Aug. 19, then the Venezuelan people could vote against the Chavez government in a recall, but his vice president would remain in charge for the current term. Given the recent bureaucratic gyrations, it is highly unlikely a referendum could be held by the August deadline. In either scenario, “the opposition will probably react by trying to force [Mr. Chavez] out of power in a less formal way,” said Ricardo Amorim, head of Latin America Research at IDEAglobal. This would probably lead to “confrontation on the streets, with very likely people getting killed,” he added. Although it is unlikely such a confrontation would cause the same economic trauma as the general strike called at the end of 2002, it could still reverse Venezuela’s oil-driven rebound. However, such a crisis is not expected to have any substantive impact on the global oil market.

Brazil, other Latin American countries and the United States should make clear to Mr. Chavez that his government could face international sanction should the OAS denounce the referendum process. The OAS must be the arbiter of the legitimacy of the process. Should Mr. Chavez abide by his obligations and prevail, the opposition must be firmly told that its efforts to unseat him before the 2006 elections have no backing.

Should the parties delay in alerting Mr. Chavez that they are unified in supporting whatever conclusions the OAS reaches, Mr. Chavez and his supporters could become entrenched in positions they may be unwilling to reverse for political reasons. Applying some pressure on Mr. Chavez now could yield stability for the country and the region.

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