Venezuela's a mess, economically, socially and politically, and matters will only worsen unless President Hugo Chavez and his opponents can agree on a democratic solution. That relief -- the resolution of a national crisis that already has prompted one unsuccessful coup -- is in the Venezuelan Constitution. It allows for a national recall election. As Californians know all too well, this electoral option poses its own grave challenges.
In Caracas, there doesn't seem to be much choice, especially given the violence and unrest and if the nation's economy keeps tanking. In the first half of 2003, nonoil economic activity contracted 14.7%, with huge drops in construction (minus 61.9%), commerce (minus 23.6%) and manufacturing (minus 22.5%). Tight foreign-currency controls imposed by Chavez's regime have forced foreign firms like General Motors, Ford, Procter & Gamble and others to dig into their reserves. Now, they're running huge deficits with their parent firms and suppliers. Venezuela's gross domestic product shrank 29% in the first quarter of 2003.
Venezuela fares poorly on the social and political fronts too. Class warfare is common, and the frequent, violent clashes between government sympathizers and the opposition -- including shootings and bombings -- have ripped apart the nation's society.
The prospective recall is the best way forward for Venezuela, according to the Organization of American States, the Carter Center in Atlanta, the United Nations and countries including Brazil, Mexico and the United States. They note that this process is provided for in the constitution, commissioned by Chavez and endorsed by the voters in 1999. Unlike in California, the leader must serve more than half his six-year term before opponents can try to oust him; he can be recalled only if more people vote to recall him than voted for him in his last election; and if recalled, he could run again as a candidate in the subsequent presidential election.
Though there are questions about the recall petitions and process -- questions being contested now -- public opinion clearly has turned against Chavez, with polls showing he would lose an election by a 2-to-1 ratio. Chavez jokes about how a recall may be appropriate for California but not for his country. He may be hoping for a delay to better position his equally unpopular vice president as his successor.
None of this helps his beleaguered people or his staggering country. For their sake, Chavez should submit himself anew to a fair, democratic vote. If he loses, he must go; if he wins, he should join with his foes in an effort to swiftly put the tattered nation back together.