Byline: Phil Gunson
For the past 18 months, Venezuela's political opposition has sought the ouster of leftist President Hugo Chavez through constitutional means, struggling to force a referendum on his rule. But after the National Electoral Council (CNE) blocked the recall drive for the third time last week, the strategy looked to have shifted. Barricades sprang up all over Caracas, as well as in a number of provincial cities. The government sent the National Guard and military police to quell the unrest. Opposition sources said at least 10 people were shot dead and dozens wounded by gunshots, several of them journalists who appeared to have been specifically targeted. More than 350 people were detained.
And that wasn't all. Carlos Correa, of the human-rights organization Provea, said some of the detainees were tortured. "It's a pattern we've been seeing," he said, "and it's being encouraged from the highest levels of government." After opposition TV channels showed video of demonstrators being beaten, kicked and shot with rubber pellets at close quarters, Chavez praised the guards' behavior as exemplary. It was all too much for Venezuela's veteran ambassador to the United Nations, Milos Alcalay, who resigned, saying he could not work for a government that violated human rights and democracy.
He is not the only one to lose faith in Venezuela's electoral democracy. The repeated rejections by the CNE have thoroughly disillusioned most Chavez opponents, and even many undecided voters; many of the council's recent meetings have been held without the two pro-opposition members, who have boycotted them in protest. This time around, the opposition alliance handed in 3.4 million signatures on Dec. 19--a million more than required to trigger the recall vote. Ten weeks later the CNE invalidated 1.5 million signatures, chiefly because personal details about signees were filled out by others. That was not a rule, and had not been an issue in the previous two recall campaigns. "The institutional route remains open," insisted Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who pointed out that if 600,000 signatories reaffirmed their intention by later this month, in a process known as the reparo , or restoration, the referendum could still go ahead. "What's their fear of going to the reparo?" Rangel asked.
Opposition leaders say the reparo is a trap: if they reject what they see as an illegal ruling, …