Venezuela Opposition Upbeat about Last Phase of Recall Effort

CARACAS (IPS) – The opposition movement in Venezuela assumed a triumphalist attitude Monday while President Hugo Chávez’s supporters urged people to wait for the final results of the last phase of the signature-gathering effort aimed at activating a recall referendum to oust the president.

"We have enough signatures. More than 700,000 people made this dream possible!" Enrique Mendoza, the leader of the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition, proclaimed late Sunday.

He was speaking at a rally whose broadcast by openly anti-Chávez private TV stations violated the ban on divulging estimates of the preliminary results of the three-day signature verification process that ended Sunday night.

At least 2.4 million signatures – 20 percent of registered voters – are needed to hold a recall vote. But the election council only validated 1.9 million of the signatures handed in by the opposition in December, and sent 1.2 million to the "repair" period that was held over the weekend.

The opposition needs at least 530,000 additional valid signatures.

From Friday to Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans whose signatures were disputed visited the 2,600 tables set up around the country to confirm that they had signed the petition.

"I came to confirm my signature. Although I had to walk through the rain and stand in line for almost two hours, it’s worth it to get rid of this president, who has made the country even poorer," María Díaz, a 43-year-old homemaker from El Paraíso, a middle-class neighborhood on the southwest side of Caracas, told IPS Friday.

However, those whose signatures were declared valid but had since changed their minds about Chávez were also able to withdraw their names from the petition over the weekend.

In Mérida, in the Andean highlands in southwestern Venezuela, Raúl Rondón, a retired teacher, told the press that "a number of us have regretted signing against the president, who has done so much for the poor and to increase literacy, and we are on our way to the repairs center to remove our names from that list."

Ruling party lawmaker Juan Barreto said "around 90,000 people removed their names from the list of signatures that had been declared valid."

The National Electoral Council says it will announce the results on Friday, Jun. 4.

A source with the election council’s technical team told IPS that "the results will possibly be very close to the limit," which would explain the conflicting opinions on whether or not enough signatures were confirmed over the weekend.

Monday’s radio and TV programming provided a steady stream of upbeat statements by dozens of opposition leaders and activists claiming that the necessary number of people by far had come out to verify their signatures, and pressuring the election council to swiftly publish the results.

The Democratic Coordinator had set up hundreds of posts to assist petition signers, and said it mobilized around 200,000 activists to locate those whose signatures were called into question and provide transportation to the verification centers.

Mendoza said "the Electoral Council should report what the entire country already knows," and added that as soon as the results are announced, "we will organize in Caracas the biggest demonstration ever seen in Venezuela."

International observers, led by Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General César Gaviria and former U.S. president and Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy Carter, also urged the election authorities to announce the results as soon as possible.

"This has been a transparent process" said Gaviria.

Diosdado Cabello, one of the leaders of the ruling Fifth Republic Movement, denied that the opposition had gathered the necessary number of signatures: "They did not make it, and we are confidently awaiting the results."

But Information Minister Jesse Chacón said that "even if the numbers we are dealing with make us uncomfortable, we want to tell Venezuelan society that if the Electoral Council decides that the coup-mongering opposition achieved the necessary numbers, and that a referendum will be held, we will go" to the polls.

The signature-gathering effort to seek a referendum was the route agreed on a year ago as a solution to the crisis in heavily polarized Venezuela, after Chávez survived an April 2002 coup that removed him from power for two days and a two-month general strike which brought the oil industry virtually to a standstill in December 2002-January 2003 and caused an estimated 10 billion dollars in losses.

After meeting with Gaviria and Carter, Chávez said Sunday that if the election council "says the opposition gathered the necessary signatures, I’ll be happy to go to a referendum. I have no fears, and if I am defeated, I’ll leave."

According to opinion polls, the left-leaning Chávez’s approval ratings stand at around 40 percent. The poor are his main support base.

The president said over the weekend that "We will respect the result, first of all because we are democratic, and second, because we created the constitutional right of the recall referendum, which is a product of ‘Chavismo."’

But pro-Chávez activists in Caracas and other cities began to mobilize Monday to celebrate what they called the latest failure by the opposition.

The constitution, which was rewritten at Chávez’s behest and approved by voters in 1999, stipulates that any elected official can be removed by a recall referendum after they reach the halfway point in their term.

The ruling coalition complained of fraud, after the police raided the homes of opposition activists and the offices of opposition parties Sunday and reported that hundreds of forged identity documents were found.

Several people were also detained, some of whom were carrying large numbers of national identity documents, according to the police and election authorities.

The central office of the Democratic Action party, the main opposition force, was searched by the police after reports that identity documents were being forged there to send activists to the verification centers under assumed identities to confirm disputed signatures.

If the complaints of fraud are followed up, the results could be delayed beyond Jun. 4.

The OAS general assembly, to be held Jun. 6-8 in Quito, Ecuador, may thus take place before a final report on the situation in Venezuela, which Gaviria is to present, is available.

The opposition movement in Venezuela had announced that if the election council ruled that the necessary number of signatures was not confirmed, it would ask the OAS to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Opposition leader Timoteo Zambrano said "we are worried" about the question of the date on which a referendum could be scheduled.

The opposition hopes for a referendum before Aug. 19, the end of the fourth year of Chávez’s term, because if the president is defeated before that date, an early presidential election will be held.

But if he is defeated in a popular vote held after that date, Vice-President José Vicente Rangel, who was appointed by Chávez, would complete the president’s term, which ends in January 2007.