Skip to comments.Chavez Blocking Vote on His Rule
Posted on 10/30/2002 12:09:44 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - During his campaign to dismantle a corrupt political system, Hugo Chavez's favorite tool was a popular referendum. Now, the president is infuriating opponents by snubbing a petition to hold a referendum on his rule.
The drive for signatures gathered force at an eastern Caracas plaza that has been occupied for seven days by more than 100 dissident military officers and thousands of civilians demanding Chavez's ouster.
Opposition political parties say more than 1.2 million people, or 10 percent of registered voters, have signed - the number required by Venezuela's constitution to petition for a referendum on "matters of national importance." They plan to deliver the signatures next week, and want the vote held in December.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel rebuffed the petition, insisting Monday "we can easily get 10, 15, 20 percent of the people to say that they are against the referendum."
Critics say that would be taking a page out the playbook of Chavez's good friend, Fidel Castro, who scorned a petitioning drive to hold a referendum for more civil liberties in Cuba earlier this year.
Instead, Castro supported a counter-petition for a constitutional reform declaring the island's socialist system untouchable. Castro's government later claimed that 8.1 million of Cuba's 8.2 million eligible voters signed the "socialism forever" petition - a typically resounding return of 98.7 percent in favor.
But Chavez doesn't plan to engage in a battle of petitions, arguing that the constitution requires petitioners to wait until August - the midpoint of Chavez's term - before demanding a vote.
Unlike the referendum proposed by the opposition, the result of the August vote would be binding.
Former Supreme Court Justice Hildegard Rondon de Sanso, a Chavez critic, said the president has a point in saying that the only constitutional way to oust a president is in the midterm referendum.
But most Chavez opponents won't hear of waiting until next year. They say Chavez can no longer hold together a country in economic tailspin. Polarization over Chavez's leftist policies helped trigger an April coup that briefly ousted the president and left dozens dead.
Anti-President Hugo Chavez protesters hold a rally in support of dissident military officers in Altamira Plaza, Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Oct. 28, 2002. Venezuela's government on Monday condemned a small rebellion by soldiers and civilians, charging it is destabilizing this oil-producing country and setting a dangerous precedent for Latin America. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
The largest labor union is threatening an indefinite general strike as a last recourse for ousting Chavez if the president tries to block the referendum.
"What is of more national importance than asking Venezuelans about what is happening in the country?" railed opposition lawmaker Leopoldo Puchi. "These are just excuses, legal traps, obstacles to a democratic way out by a government intent on provoking confrontation and violence."
Petitioners argue Chavez is resisting the same tool he used to push through a new constitution in 1999 - paving the way for elections that stacked congress and state governments with his allies.
In 2000, Chavez convoked a referendum to oust the opposition-aligned leadership of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation. Labor leaders condemned the vote, but resigned out of embarrassment when they lost.
The legal wrangling over a petition is confounding efforts by the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, to broker peace talks this week.
Gaviria said "significant efforts" were made to establish negotiations between the leftist Chavez and domestic opponents but details need to be ironed out before talks could formally start.
He is trying to persuade the two sides to discuss other issues, such as reforming the country's electoral system. He has argued that neither Chavez opponents or supporters will accept a vote organized by the current electoral council, which is seen as corrupt and untrustworthy.
Deputies grew emotional and almost giddy during the tally, eventually applauding loudly after each vote. When the final vote had been declared unanimous, the deputies first stood stoically at attention for the Cuban national anthem, then held hands and swayed back in forth as they sang the socialist anthem, ``Internationale.'' Castro presided over the session and afterward personally greeted many of the lawmakers in the assembly.
. Government opponents said the measure also appears aimed at undermining the Varela Project, which seeks a referendum on whether voters favor guarantees for liberties such as freedom of expression and the right to own a business.***
Those issues aren't likely to draw the opposition to the negotiating table, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of local polling firm Datanalisis. For the opposition "all of that is nothing. They aren't going to feel like they've won anything unless the discussion is the referendum or elections," he said. Gaviria condemned the call to rebellion by 14 military officers last week. Other officers and thousands of civilians later joined their movement. Gaviria doesn't plan to meet with the dissident officers. That stance drew criticism from opposition politicians, labor leaders and businessmen who have endorsed the military protest, citing a constitutional clause that gives citizens the right to disobey a government they consider undemocratic.
Manifestations of Venezuela's political tensions were everywhere Sunday. Dozens of Chavez sympathizers staged a noisy march through downtown Caracas in support of their beleaguered leader - and to celebrate leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's lead in the Brazilian presidential elections Sunday. Chavez opponents banged pots and pans out their windows as the Chavistas passed by. Pot-banging also erupted Saturday night in several Caracas neighborhood after the government ordered local television and radio stations to rebroadcast statements by three military commandos condemning the military protest. The broadcast interrupted the World Series. ***
In its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the National Electoral Council to suspend the referendum and refrain from organising any other elections. However, the electoral authorities insisted the effect of the court's ruling was to "freeze" but not cancel the referendum. ***
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