Features

Referendum romp

Venezuela | Strongman president survives a recall but puts no rifts to rest

Issue: "2004 Election: GOP's encore," Aug. 28, 2004

At the news that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had triumphed in a recall referendum, the world oil market rallied. Record high per-barrel prices on crude oil dipped for the first time this summer after a controversial Aug. 15 referendum, fueled by relief that civil unrest in the world's fifth-largest oil supplier would not-for now-cut the flow of Venezuela's 3 million barrels a day.

Immediate political stability-and Mr. Chavez-won big. "Venezuela has changed forever," he said in a victory speech from a flag-draped balcony of his presidential palace. "There is no turning back."

His words were no comfort to stunned opposition groups who tried to wrest Venezuela's democracy from Mr. Chavez's dictatorial clutch. Since taking power in 1998, his leftist-populist policies have alienated the country's business and middle classes. His close friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro irritates the United States and other Latin American democracies.

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Opponents accuse Mr. Chavez of widespread electoral fraud leading to his 58 percent win. Democratic Coordinator, the opposition coalition that helped mount the first mid-term recall vote in Venezuela's history, says its exit polls showed 60 percent of voters favored ousting the president.

International observers agreed with Mr. Chavez. The Organization of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Center took their own voting samples and said their results closely followed the government tallies. "We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral process nor the accuracy of the referendum results," former president Jimmy Carter told opposition groups.

Despite official assurances, the loss was galling to groups who know Mr. Chavez played dirty in the weeks and months leading up to the recall. He blocked the opposition's petitions twice before agreeing to a referendum in June, and has used vast state resources to tip the odds in his favor.

Required to collect at least 2.4 million signatures to force a recall, the opposition began working in earnest last spring, collecting 3.4 million signatures. With the numbers against him, Mr. Chavez restacked the National Electoral Council with his own supporters, and demanded fingerprints from 800,000 petitioners before agreeing in June to a referendum.

Mr. Chavez never stopped consolidating power. The National Assembly just weeks before the recall vote passed a law that expanded the number of Supreme Court justices from 20 to 32. It allowed approval of them to come from a simple majority vote in the assembly. This created a handy insurance policy in case Mr. Chavez needed a court ruling to decide the referendum winner.

"We're living in a dictatorship backed by courts," said Vladimir Chelminski, former executive director of the Caracas Chamber of Commerce.

Besides using untested electronic voting machines for the recall, Mr. Chavez shored up support among poor Venezuelans by providing free schooling and Cuban doctors to barrios, courtesy of his friend Fidel Castro. Between May and early July, the government granted citizenship to 216,000 immigrants.

None of this deterred Mr. Carter from certifying the results. He even went a step further. At an Aug. 17 press conference he accused opposition groups of doctoring their exit-poll surveys. "There's no doubt some of their leaders deliberately distributed this erroneous exit-poll data in order to build up not only the expectation of victory, but also to influence the people still standing in line," Mr. Carter said.

Now the opposition is counting the long-term costs of Mr. Chavez's rule, whose term ends in January 2007. Mr. Chelminski expects Mr. Chavez to retaliate against dissidents with political arrests and to slowly squeeze out criticism by censuring the media. Though deflated, the opposition, he says, must now fight to make sure 2005 parliamentary elections are fair. Three days after the votes were counted, opposition groups announced they would not accept the OAS/Carter results; they believe paper balloting documents-in the custody of the army-may have been tampered with before neutral observers saw them.

But many poor Venezuelans are counting on Mr. Chavez to keep his promises, according to Mr. Chelminski, despite a 15 percent unemployment rate. With so much empty propaganda, he said, it will take "many years of lots of suffering" to reverse his legacy.

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