After more than two years of marches, sometimes-violent protests, a miscarried coup, and a devastating petroleum industry strike - all of which failed to oust Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chávez - in Sunday's referendum his opponents will make their final attempt to cut short his mandate.
Simply getting here has been a victory for the opposition, a coalition of communists and conservatives, business people and labor unions. They say Mr. Chávez has used voter intimidation, pressure on the courts, and narrow legalisms to frustrate their effort.
But now the moment of truth has arrived. With oil prices hitting record levels because of scandals in Russia and unrest in the Middle East, the threat of instability in the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporter could shake them further. A narrow vote could be fought in the courts, or even in the streets, leaving the nation unstable and leaderless.
But while virtually every Venezuelan has a strong opinion about Chávez, either pro or con, in many ways the opposition's platform is still a mystery - and the uncertainty could be costing them support for the recall. Their strongest messages are still diatribes against the leftist leader, who they say has become increasingly authoritarian. "This is a populist, dictatorial, anarchical government," says Freddy Licett, an activist with the opposition party, Democratic Action.
To oust Chávez, opponents must garner more than 50 percent of all ballots cast and the "yes" votes must exceed the 3.8 million votes that Chávez received in his 2000 reelection (at right, the referendum question.)
During the campaign, he has used oil money to finance a variety of education, nutrition, and other programs popular with the nation's poor majority. At the same time, his fierce anti-American, anti-elite discourse has solidified his following among those who felt neglected under previous governments. Recent polls have shown Chávez with approval ratings above 50 percent and rising.
In contrast, Chávez's opponents, an unwieldy coalition of unions, businesses, and political parties, have no single candidate and few concrete offerings besides an end to Chávez's reign. Still, the opposition holds the support of millions of Venezuelans in a situation with echoes of the US presidential race, with many voters looking for "Anybody but Chávez."
To counter Chávez's initiatives, the opposition recently produced a 63-page "National Consensus Plan" detailing goals for everything from public safety to border patrols. But the plan hasn't received much press here and few people seem to be aware of it.
The opposition "has a proposal," for the nation's future, says Caracas pollster Alfredo Keller, "but not a clear one."
The opposition's list of Chávez's alleged misdeeds includes weakening democracy by dominating the various branches of government, such as the judiciary and parliament, arming groups of supporters, and giving out government jobs and benefits based on political criteria. They also say that his fiery rhetoric and populist policies have driven away investors, harming the economy and shuttering businesses.
What Venezuelans know best about the opposition is that many of them held power before. During their 40 years of rule, the nation grew into an economic powerhouse, but by all accounts its leaders grew notoriously corrupt and the poor stagnated.
The opposition says that Chávez has been even worse. Since his 1998 election, per capita income has plummeted by 23 percent, unemployment and inflation both now top 20 percent, and there have been numerous charges of corruption against his administration. A study by the Social and Economic Research Institute of the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas shows that extreme poverty in Venezuela nearly doubled between 1998 and 2003. And despite 40 percent gains in oil revenue over the past 5 years, the economy shrank by 9 percent last year, the second consecutive annual decline.
Franklin Fagundez, who hawks CDs on a Caracas sidewalk, worries about crime and vandalism, corruption and unemployment. Still, he's decided to vote for Chávez. "It's not that I like Chávez," he says. "But I don't want those who were [in power] before to return."
Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with Chávez has kept the opposition within striking distance. With high unemployment, sidewalks are crowded with people struggling to get by, renting out telephones and hawking pirated music. Violent crime has soared. Chávez's friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has frightened away foreign investment. Chávez's incendiary rhetoric has polarized the nation between rich and poor, offended the Catholic Church, and antagonized the country's biggest trading partners, Colombia and the US.
If the opposition replaces Chávez, all of that will change, promises the soft-spoken Henrique Salas Romer, leader of Venezuela Project, a political party, and one of a handful of viable candidates to replace Chávez. "We would be less ideological and far more practical in foreign affairs," he says. "And practical means making friends with your neighbors."
Once in power, most opposition candidates would gratify Washington in other ways, analysts say. The new leaders would most likely drop Chávez's fierce opposition to US-promoted free-trade agreements and abandon his oil policy, which limits production and maintains elevated prices. They also promise not to repeat the human rights violations and arbitrary arrests which took place during the April 2002 coup, which ousted Chávez for two days.
Adam Isacson, an analyst who follows Venezuela for the Center for International Policy in Washington, is dubious. "The opposition has shown no sign that it's about to implement a democratic revolution, respect all positions, and implement a real multiparty democracy," he says.
Do you agree to annul the popular mandate given through legitimate democratic elections to the citizen Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for the current presidential period? 1) No 2) Yes.