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Hope for Venezuela Rescue

November 19, 2002

Venezuela has natural riches in its oil deposits. It has a democratic constitution and the potential to lift itself. But it is also close to losing everything in violence.

Pro- and anti-government demonstrators have clashed in the streets of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, for the last week. At least one person has died and dozens have been wounded. Seven months ago, three days of street violence surrounding a coup attempt may have killed as many as 60 people. A recurrence of such severe violence is all too possible, yet both sides can only swap blame. This is the heart of the problem in Venezuela, a country polarized politically and socially and faltering economically.

Alarm bells are ringing at the Organization of American States, and OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria is in Caracas, along with representatives of the Carter Center in Atlanta and the United Nations Development Program. Gaviria is looking for ways to strengthen Venezuela's democracy and disarm civilian groups, primarily the so-called Bolivarian circles of supporters of President Hugo Chavez.

The first issue, however, is to get both sides to agree on a date for a referendum on Chavez's rule. Opponents have gathered more than 2 million signatures calling for an immediate vote on whether Chavez, a former paratrooper and extreme populist, should stay in office. Chavez demands a delay until next August. The Venezuelan constitution allows for such interim elections, and Chavez himself called for one in 2000, at the height of his popularity, to cement his power.

Venezuela has been in turmoil ever since. The opposition accuses the president of trying to drag the country toward Cuba-style communism, a claim made possible by Chavez's fiery speeches and his close ties with Fidel Castro. Chavez doesn't miss an opportunity to berate the opposition for "joining coup plotters." Such inflammatory rhetoric feeds violence and misunderstanding.

Venezuela's economy will contract by 6% this year, according to private and international bankers, at least partly due to fear of government incompetence and mistrust of its intentions. Capital flight will reach $8 billion. The depreciation of the currency, the bolivar, threatens to fuel inflation to 30% by the end of the year, more than double last year's rate. Each day of violence harms the economy more.

Gaviria has called on both sides to exercise restraint. "We can't allow a repeat of April," he said last week. The attention of regional and international organizations is a hopeful start.

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