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Venezuela to Decide Today Whether to Keep Chavez

The two sides in the presidential recall vote say that only fraud can deprive them of victory.

August 15, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — In a vote that may bring fresh confrontation instead of closure, Venezuelans decide today whether to recall President Hugo Chavez two years before his term ends or stick with the man of the masses who insists that relief from poverty is just around the corner.

The outcome could unleash violence among the profoundly polarized people of Venezuela, with both supporters and opponents of the 50-year-old president saying that only massive fraud can deprive them of victory. The assertions have heightened tensions in one of the most acrimonious disputes this nation has faced.

The outcome could have consequences for U.S. oil supplies. Chavez's energy minister, Rafael Ramirez, warned of "chaos and instability" if the president's opponents prevailed and reversed changes made in the oil industry to steer profits into social welfare. Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, supplies about one-eighth of U.S. petroleum needs.

Venezuela's 14 million registered voters have a choice between "yes" to oust Chavez, and "no" to reject the recall. Polls sponsored by the two sides produced contradictory results, leaving observers and analysts uncertain about what to expect in a city bedecked with a seemingly equal number of tricolor "Si!" placards and the red "No" exhortations.

For Chavez to lose, at least 3.76 million "yes" votes are needed -- the number that gave him a six-year term in the 2000 election.

Chavez's power base is estimated by pollsters to be about 30% of Venezuela's 25 million people, with the strongest support coming from the poor. A roughly equal share of the middle class and elite despise the former army colonel and paratrooper, saying he has steered the economy down a path of communist-style revolution that has reduced per capita income, foreign investment and employment.

Should the recall succeed, Chavez would be obliged to hand over power to his vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, and elections would be held in 30 days.

Chavez said it was "mathematically impossible" for him to be voted out of office but vowed to go peacefully if that was the people's decision.

His opponents contend that Chavez's confidence stems from plans to hijack the vote. Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza, a key figure in the Democratic Coordinator opposition alliance who is expected to run for the presidency if Chavez is ousted, last week had threatened to disclose the results of independent exit polling by midafternoon as a safeguard against government cheating.

Venezuelan law and the National Electoral Council, on which three of the five governors are unabashed Chavistas, prohibit any voting results from being released before the council announces the full tabulation.

Mendoza's warning added fresh vitriol and suspicion to the already bitter contest, as did the introduction of electronic voting machines and fingerprint registration, which has stirred fears that ballot secrecy and security could be compromised.

The state-of-the-art touch-screen voting machines installed in polls for all but about 2 million voters have been tested in the presence of international observers and deemed reliable and tamper-proof. Likewise, the fingerprinting has been deemed a good defense against double-voting in a country where identity cards can be bought for a few dollars.

Still, in an environment where suspicion is sky-high, the introduction of the new technologies has compounded the tension and fears of vote manipulation.

Also at issue are irregularities that have surfaced at the eleventh hour, such as the disclosure last week that 50,000 voters have had their polling places inexplicably changed.

On international issues, opponents have complained that Chavez has sacrificed ties to the United States and other Western nations in favor of his friend Fidel Castro. Chavez sells discounted oil to cash-strapped Cuba in return for the services of 12,000 Cuban doctors, teachers and engineers, who are working here to improve living conditions in urban slums.

"The problems of Venezuela are not local problems. The government is giving encouragement to destabilizing movements throughout Latin America," said Ramon Escovar Salom, a former U.N. ambassador. "Cuba is omnipresent today in Venezuela. It occupies the first place in our foreign relations now even though the Cuban revolution has clearly been a total failure."

U.S. officials, who have made no secret of their dislike of Chavez and his close ties to Castro, have toned down their comments in the waning days of the campaign. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell appealed to Venezuelans to exercise their voting rights "freely, fairly and transparently" to bring an end to the crisis that has gripped this nation since a short-lived coup against Chavez in April 2002 that Washington initially applauded.

Valter Pecly Moreira, who heads the Organization of American States delegation, said that he was surprised by the calm and confidence prevailing on the eve of the vote, given the coup, strikes and violence during the last two years.

"Maybe one explanation," Moreira said, "is that both sides are so convinced they will win."

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