Who Are Chavez's Opponents? ; on Sunday, Venezuelans Will Decide Whether to Cut Short the President's Term, Which Is Due to End in 2006

Article excerpt

After more than two years of marches, sometimes-violent protests, a miscarried coup, and a devastating petroleum industry strike - all of which failed to oust Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez - in Sunday's referendum his opponents will make their final attempt to cut short his mandate.

Simply getting here has been a victory for the opposition, a coalition of communists and conservatives, business people and labor unions. They say Mr. Chavez has used voter intimidation, pressure on the courts, and narrow legalisms to frustrate their effort.

But now the moment of truth has arrived. With oil prices hitting record levels because of scandals in Russia and unrest in the Middle East, the threat of instability in the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporter could shake them further. A narrow vote could be fought in the courts, or even in the streets, leaving the nation unstable and leaderless.

But while virtually every Venezuelan has a strong opinion about Chavez, either pro or con, in many ways the opposition's platform is still a mystery - and the uncertainty could be costing them support for the recall. Their strongest messages are still diatribes against the leftist leader, who they say has become increasingly authoritarian. "This is a populist, dictatorial, anarchical government," says Freddy Licett, an activist with the opposition party, Democratic Action.

To oust Chavez, opponents must garner more than 50 percent of all ballots cast and the "yes" votes must exceed the 3.8 million votes that Chavez received in his 2000 reelection (at right, the referendum question.)

During the campaign, he has used oil money to finance a variety of education, nutrition, and other programs popular with the nation's poor majority. At the same time, his fierce anti-American, anti-elite discourse has solidified his following among those who felt neglected under previous governments. Recent polls have shown Chavez with approval ratings above 50 percent and rising.

In contrast, Chavez's opponents, an unwieldy coalition of unions, businesses, and political parties, have no single candidate and few concrete offerings besides an end to Chavez's reign. Still, the opposition holds the support of millions of Venezuelans in a situation with echoes of the US presidential race, with many voters looking for "Anybody but Chavez."

To counter Chavez's initiatives, the opposition recently produced a 63-page "National Consensus Plan" detailing goals for everything from public safety to border patrols. But the plan hasn't received much press here and few people seem to be aware of it.

The opposition "has a proposal," for the nation's future, says Caracas pollster Alfredo Keller, "but not a clear one."

The opposition's list of Chavez's alleged misdeeds includes weakening democracy by dominating the various branches of government, such as the judiciary and parliament, arming groups of supporters, and giving out government jobs and benefits based on political criteria. They also say that his fiery rhetoric and populist policies have driven away investors, harming the economy and shuttering businesses. …