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Chavez Foes Turn Out for Recall Effort

November 29, 2003|From Times Wire Services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of Venezuelans lined up for blocks Friday to sign petitions demanding a recall vote against President Hugo Chavez.

Motorists drove through streets here in the capital waving Venezuelan flags, honking horns and urging residents to sign the petitions during the four-day drive. Chavez's opponents hope to collect 2.4 million signatures to force the recall vote, which would be held next year.

Organizers predicted success, even as Chavez promised to crush the effort. The president already has survived a general strike this year and a failed coup last year.

"There will be a referendum, and the president will be ousted," opposition leader Timoteo Zambrano said.

Venezuela deployed 60,000 troops to keep the peace at almost 3,000 sign-up centers. The turnout was much larger and more enthusiastic than during last weekend's pro-government signature drive that sought a referendum against opposition lawmakers.

Several centers quickly ran out of signature forms. But at a few collection points near the Miraflores presidential palace, turnout was very light.

Results of the petition campaign will not be known for weeks, and Chavez has promised to challenge every signature. He dismisses the opposition's chances of voting him out. Polls show that two-thirds of Venezuelans would vote against him in a referendum, but he rejects the surveys as biased.

The president predicted that he would finish his current term and be reelected in 2006.

"I will rule Venezuela, God willing, until 2013," Chavez said.

Opponents accuse Chavez of gradually imposing a leftist dictatorship in this major oil-producing nation, and they blame him for the 20% jobless rate.

"I want to vote him out because he didn't complete his promises to us. What he's done is divide us, impoverish us," said Carlos Alberto Soto, a 46-year-old bus driver, signing a petition in Caracas' Petare slum.

Chanting, "He's on his way out!" office workers joined families throughout the day in long lines outside signature centers.

Government supporters jeered at some centers in the capital, and one collection point was temporarily closed after a pro-Chavez crowd pelted it with stones and bottles. But the clash was an isolated incident.

Supporters consider Chavez the only hope for change after decades of corruption and neglect of the impoverished majority.

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