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VENEZUELA
Andrés Cańizález
11/4/2002
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New elections increasingly lik

The secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), César Gaviria, is working overtime to help pave the way for a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.

Gaviria has the backing of the US government and it now appears that he has persuaded the Venezuelan government and political opposition of the need for new elections as a way out of the impasse. Now all he needs to do is get all sides to agree when and how the elections will be held, which may prove to be the most difficult step yet.

Gaviria spent three days in Caracas in early October. At first glance it seemed as though he had failed to make any headway when he left Oct. 4, but as the days passed it became clearer that he helped defuse a volatile climate that most observers feared would end in violence.

October was one of the most difficult months in the country since the coup six months earlier that forced President Hugo Chávez from power for 48 hours (LP, April 22, 2002). In the months following the coup, opposition parties and sectors of civil society wanted only one thing – Chávez out of office.

During his stay in Caracas, Gaviria met with government representatives and the opposition, which is grouped together in what is known as the Democratic Coordinator (CD). Gaviria lobbied the two sides to sign a "Declaration of Principles," seen as the first step in setting up an agency for political negotiations.

The declaration includes three basic points: cleaning up the voter rolls, carrying out an independent investigation into the events of April 11, when 18 people were killed (LP, Oct. 21, 2002) and which led to the attempted coup, and disarming the civilian population.

The CD signed the declaration after its Oct. 10 march on Caracas, which brought huge anti-Chávez crowds into the streets. The coalition added several appendices to the document to clarify points it wanted to make. The opposition asked that Chávez sign the document, but he had Vice President José Vicente Rangel do it instead.

Gaviria returned to Caracas Oct. 28 as a sign of the international community’s interest in guaranteeing a peaceful settlement to the country’s political problems. The OAS is joined by the Carter Center, run by former US President and Nobel Peace Laureate Jimmy Carter, and the UN Development Program (UNDP) in trying to bring the two sides closer together to avoid violence.

While the government and opposition appear to agree on an electoral avenue to solve the problems, they have radically different ideas on when the vote should take place.

Carlos Ortega, president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV) said, "Elections need to be held now." The government counters that Venezuelan law already specifies when the election could happen.

"The electoral calendar is set by the constitution," said Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, a referendum on whether or not the president should remain in power can be held at the halfway mark of the term, which, in Chávez’s case, would mean in August 2003.

Chávez first took office in February 1999, but after changing the constitution and calling new elections, he started over again in August 2000 (LP, Aug. 21, 2000).

Chávez has already said that he will call for a referendum this coming August, but the vote can also be scheduled by Congress or the electorate, who would have to collect 1.5 million signatures. If the president loses the referendum, he is out of office.

A consultative referendum can also be called, according to the constitution, but the results of this mechanism would not be binding. In this kind of vote, the electorate would be asked to either approve or reject the president. Chávez would not have to step aside if he lost, but a negative vote would be extremely damaging to his political future.

The CD is an eclectic mix of anti-Chávez forces. It includes the traditional political parties, the Christian Democrats, known as COPIE, and the social democrat Democratic Action, as well as smaller parties. Also represented are more than 30 civil society groups, such as the CTV and the association of private businesses, known as Fedecámaras.

Some of the most vocal CD members, such as former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cecilia Sosa Gómez and the CTV’s Ortega, continue to push for the military to play a role in exercising pressure to force Chávez from office.

Following their lead, on Oct. 22, 14 generals and vice admirals called for civil disobedience to oust Chávez. The officers were all involved in the attempted coup and remain on active duty, although they are no longer in charge of any troops. A few thousand people took up the call, but the measure was energetically rejected by Gaviria, who was backed by Washington.

Gaviria said that dialogue was the only mechanism that would be recognized by the international community. Otto Reich, the US undersecretary of state for the hemisphere, said his government backed the OAS actions, but added that it is up to "President Chávez to take the first steps toward dialogue."

The tense climate has been charged by a war of numbers about the size and scope of marches held by the opposition and the government. The opposition forces marched Oct. 10, while Chávez supporters did the same three days later. Both events were widely attended, showing that while opposition to the president has increased, he still maintains a solid group of supporters.

Elías Santana, a well-known spokesperson in the opposition, got into trouble with his colleagues when he said Chávez supporters had a legitimate right to express themselves within the framework of democracy.

Tulio Hernández, a sociologist, said that there is general misunderstanding. He said both Chávez supporters and detractors show "a lack of understanding of the other side, its strength and vitality, and what it represents politically."


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