Venezuela still muddy as referendum is OK'd

A recall vote on President Hugo Chávez is set to take place in August - or is it?

Five years ago, sewer worker Emilio Galindes was so tired of Venezuela's corrupt politicians that he was willing to vote for anyone who was not part of the old guard. He cast his ballot for the firebrand leftist Hugo Chávez, who promised to end spiraling poverty and crack down on corruption.

Today the tables have turned. Mr. Galindes is rejoicing after last week's announcement that Mr. Chávez will face a binding recall referendum. Galindes says he's willing to vote for just about anyone else. "I thought Chávez could make the country a better place," he said at an opposition political rally on Saturday. "But he's made everything worse. The Venezuelan people are finally going to get rid of him."

Electoral authorities last week ruled that the opposition had collected the necessary 2.4 million signatures to trigger a referendum, constituting the first real opposition victory since Chávez came to power. The referendum, tentatively scheduled for early August, could ease the broiling political controversy that has split the country over the past two years.

But despite the opposition's elation, recalling Chávez is far from certain. Crucial terms of the vote still have to be decided, and millions of "chavistas" have promised to turn out in droves to support their president. But observers say that a successful recall of Chávez could completely upend the political order of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.

The first potential pitfall for the opposition's referendum campaign is the date of the recall. If Chávez is recalled after Aug. 19, the Constitution dictates that the vice president will serve out his term - leaving the opposition stuck in the shadow of its nemesis until the end of 2006. The ideal scenario for the opposition is a recall before Aug. 19, since this would lead to elections within 30 days. The government is expected to do its best to push back the referendum date.

It is also not clear whether or not Chávez can run again if he is recalled, a crucial issue, since the opposition would probably split its ticket. The opposition's leadership is fractured, with no individual candidate being offered as an alternative to Chávez. Chávez's adversaries are a hodge-podge of political parties and civil society groups that range from reactionary right-wing groups to anti-Chavez communists with little in common other than a hatred of the president. With no alternative leader, many fear a recall would simply lead to a mad dash for power. And since the Chávez government has conducted witch hunts of people who signed in favor of the referendum, the opposition's thirst for revenge may lead to mass arrests or dismissals of pro-Chávez government employees.

Venezuelans may be wary of handing the country over to the opposition, which led a failed coup in April 2002 and a grueling oil industry strike in December of the same year that cost the country an estimated $7 billion.

ChÁvez won landslide elections in 1998 and again in 2000 on promises to redistribute the proceeds of Venezuela's oil revenue. He launched a campaign to revamp state institutions and rewrite the country's Constitution - even insisting, ironically, on creating a presidential recall. But by 2001 the country had split between those who slammed him as an authoritarian demagogue and those convinced he was the only president who represented the poor.

"If they want a referendum, that's fine, but we are going pummel them," says Beatriz Peña, a real estate agent. "That crowd of criminals will never govern this country again." Ms. Peña is one of millions who benefit from social programs that offer everything from job training to free healthcare by Cuban doctors. She says the popularity of these programs make a recall impossible.

But opposition sympathizers still insist that Chávez must start packing his bags. "There is no doubt that he will be recalled," says María Bello, a housewife. "He has not fulfilled his promises, so we want him out."

The possibility that Venezuela is headed toward civil war is largely overstated, observers say. Unlike neighboring Colombia, Venezuela does not have a history of political violence. Even though a referendum would stir the waters, the two sides are more likely to negotiate a transition government rather than fall into a fratricidal war.

But there is still quite a ways to go before anyone can really start thinking about a post-Chávez Venezuela.

"Convoking a recall vote is an important step for the opposition," says pollster Luis Vicente León. "But it doesn't mean they've won - it just means they've gotten a chance to play."

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