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Recall Over, Venezuelans Hope for Reconciliation

August 19, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — When Carlos and Herman Escarra attend their niece's wedding in early September, they will try, as they always do at such festive occasions, to keep politics from intruding.

Carlos Escarra is a constitutional expert, former Supreme Court justice and lawyer for the government of President Hugo Chavez. His older brother is a prominent attorney, human rights activist and supporter of the opposition.

"Our political differences have existed for 30 years. He went to private schools. I went to public schools. He's very religious. I'm not. We even root for different baseball teams," Carlos Escarra said. "But we respect each other's viewpoints. We've always been on opposing tracks, but there have been no crashes."

Venezuela has long been politically divided, largely along socioeconomic lines. But the rift has become especially profound in the more than five years that the leftist Chavez has been in power, and it cuts through offices, factories, neighborhoods and even families.

The divide has led to a coup attempt against Chavez, a crippling nationwide strike and Sunday's recall referendum -- which failed to oust the president. On a more personal level, the cleft has manifested itself in numerous ways, from ugly shouting matches to deadly violence.

With international observers now calling on the nation to come together, many Venezuelans like the Escarras are expressing confidence that the two sides will at last find some accommodation.

"Herman hasn't said anything publicly, but he told me he is concerned about [alleged] irregularities," Carlos Escarra said of his brother's reaction to the outcome of the vote, which international observers have judged to be free and fair. "I told him that maybe there are some discrepancies, but like Jimmy Carter said, they are not significant enough to affect the outcome."

At the wedding and at other get-togethers in which the Escarra siblings will mix in the near future, "we'll talk about other things," said the former justice.

Chavez and his supporters have been more gracious in victory than their opponents are willing to concede. At a news conference Monday, just hours after defeating the recall, the populist president said he wanted to have "dialogue" with the opposition and to include them in his plans for remaking the country.

Of course, calling for reconciliation may be easier for those on the winning side. On Wednesday, leaders of the opposition alliance announced that they would refuse to accept the results of a special audit they had demanded from international observers, contending that the government had programmed tabulation computers to exclude many votes against Chavez and that a manual count would be unable to detect such fraud.

Mari Pili Hernandez, an activist with the pro-Chavez Comando Maisanta group, called on fellow citizens to accept the results because "Venezuela needs peace."

State security forces arrested three men suspected of killing one woman and injuring several others in attacks on opposition demonstrators Monday. News photographers captured the events on film, and images of clearly identifiable gunmen were published broadly. The swift arrests appeared to signal a government desire to discourage further violence.

Meanwhile, residents of the capital seemed to be coming to grips with the results, with voters on both sides pledging to move on.

In the upper-middle-class neighborhood of La Campina, two families in facing apartments on the third floor of the Kavanayen building professed understanding and tolerance for each other, despite diametrically opposed political views.

Opposition supporters Maria and Edelmiro Puga own a travel agency that has been down on its luck since last year's national strike and strict currency controls imposed by Chavez to prevent capital flight.

They claim that they were persecuted for signing petitions in favor of the recall -- he says he has been unable to get a passport; she says she was denied renewal of her identification card. They had hoped recalling Chavez would bring more opportunity for businesses but acknowledged that it was time to end the social strife and get the country moving.

"Venezuelans are very tolerant and peaceful people," Maria Puga said. Though she claimed that nasty expressions of class conflict have surfaced only since Chavez came to power, she added: "We understand that not everyone has what we have, and we want to work for a society where everyone has the chance to live better."

Edelmiro Puga acknowledged that Chavez had done some good for the nation. "He showed us the problems of the poor and made it clear that their problems are our problems, too."

Across the hall, Alicia and Douglas Texier were guardedly optimistic that the bitter rhetoric of recent years would give way to more productive discussion.

"Chavez has been extending his hand to the business community in recent months, and some people are realizing that it's not communism he wants," said Douglas Texier, a retired clerk.

Although Texier declined to describe himself as a Chavista, his neighbors said he supports the government. They expressed sympathy for the verbal abuse sometimes hurled at Texier when he walked his dog in the overwhelmingly pro-opposition neighborhood.

"There is a lot of hate there, but people have to reflect and see what a beautiful country Venezuela is," Texier said of the political divide. Noting that 42% of the electorate voted to recall Chavez, he said compromise and cooperation were the only options for anyone truly interested in what was best for the country.

"The intolerance has to end," he said. "The excluded have to be included."

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