The Venezuela Venture

The last thing the US economy needs right now is another gas-pump shock. That's why the Bush administration has backed off from saying much about Venezuela's president, who faces a political showdown this Sunday on his future and whose country supplies about one in eight barrels of oil to the US.

A great deal of uncertainty hangs over the Aug. 15 referendum on whether to oust Hugo Chávez, a pro-Castro populist who's been needling Washington for years. The possibility of a close vote and ballot fraud could return this Andean nation to the coup threats and street mobs of recent years.

In the past, the US has sided with Mr. Chávez's opponents, even to the point of welcoming a coup attempt in 2002. But with a chance he may win, either by fair means or foul, and that he may rule for years over one of the largest proven energy reserves outside the Middle East, the US is acting like a neutral observer, hoping for stability and rule of law.

Having tried to block the referendum, Chávez has resorted to throwing the nation's oil wealth at the poor to win votes. His speeches try to paint a US "imperialist" plot against him. And he's blocked the European Union from sending observers to judge the fairness of the vote.

Even if Chávez loses decisively, he may try to run again. A fresh election would have to be held within 30 days to find a leader to finish out his term - until 2006. It's unclear whether Chávez can legally run in that race.

The US has wisely let the Organization of American States take the lead in pressuring both sides to avoid conflict. With the opposition unable to muster a leader, and a potential for violence, the best course has been to keep the parties within legal bounds. And to keep that oil pumping.

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