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
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. …