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Opposition Losing Steam, Consults James Carville
Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003

January 26, 2003,

On January 22 Venezuela's Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) suspended a nonbinding referendum scheduled for February 2 in which voters could call for left-populist President Hugo Chávez Frías to resign. The center-right opposition filed 2 million signatures November 4 on a petition for the referendum, but the TSJ ruled on November 28 that at least four of the five members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) had to support the referendum to schedule it. In the January 22 decision, the TSJ suspended the referendum until it had ruled on whether Leonardo Pizani could be counted as one of the CNE members. Pizani had quit in 2000 but rejoined in November, saying Congress had never accepted his resignation. (El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 1/23/03 from AP; Miami Herald 1/26/03 from AP)

The suspension of the referendum came as the loose opposition coalition appeared to be fragmenting and losing international backing for its efforts to remove Chávez from office. On January 21, shipping sources reported that 70 percent of tanker pilots for the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela. (PDVSA), in Lake Maracaibo were quitting the "national civic strike" that the opposition began against Chávez on December 2. This will allow the company to move strike-bound vessels and will weaken the PDVSA employees' job action, the strike's strongest part. (Financial Times (UK) 1/22/03)

According to a telephone poll by Consultores 21, published in the daily Tal Cual on January 19, 76 percent of Venezuelans think the strike will not achieve its goals, and 49 percent favor suspending it, against 46 percent who feel it should continue. (La Jornada (Mexico) 1/20/03 from AFP, Reuters, DPA, PL) [Telephone polls in Venezuela are skewed towards middle-class urban residents, who are more likely to have telephone service and to support the opposition.]

On January 21 former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the 2002 Nobel peace prize winner, announced his proposals for resolving the crisis: the opposition would suspend the strike and, in exchange, Chávez would either back a constitutional amendment requiring early elections for the presidency and the Congress in which he could run again, or support a binding referendum on August 19, halfway through his six-year term, through which voters could recall him. Both proposals fall far short of the opposition's demand for Chávez to step down immediately and be replaced by early elections in which he could not run. Chávez has consistently supported the idea of an August referendum, which is allowed for in the 1999 Constitution written by his supporters, and which Chávez thinks he can win [Update #659, 665, 672]. He is less supportive of the amendment for early elections, but analysts feel he could win there as well. Many doubt that the opposition would be able to unite behind a candidate strong enough to beat Chávez. (LJ 1/22/03 from correspondent)

Ruling circles in the United States quickly backed the Carter proposals. The New York Times said in an editorial that they might be "the best hope for a peaceful, democratic outcome to Venezuela's political crisis." (NYT 1/24/03) The proposals also got the support of the rightwing government of U.S. President George W. Bush, which a month earlier was openly backing the opposition's demands. In a January 24 statement to the "Friends of Venezuela" group of five countries, U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell called Carter's plan "the best path for Venezuelans" and "a way out of the current impasse." Parts of the opposition coalition in Venezuela quickly followed the U.S. lead. The Carter plan "is the same as Chávez's proposal," one opposition leader told the New York Times, but "it was positive because it came from Carter." (NYT 1/25/03)

Some analysts feel that the opposition has actually helped Chávez push forward his populist "Bolivarian revolution." The strike has weakened the private sector and allowed Chávez to force conservative elements out of PDVSA; a coup attempt last April gave Chávez a chance to purge the military of his opponents. "They've handed themselves to Chávez on a platter," a foreign diplomat told the Washington Post in Caracas. Veteran British Latin America reporter Richard Gott says the strike "appears to be concluding with President Hugo Chávez ever more firmly in the saddle."

Opposition leaders are now consulting informally with U.S. Democratic Party strategist James Carville to improve their public relations abroad. (WP 1/20/03 from correspondent, The Guardian (UK) 1/17/03)

One person was killed and 28 were wounded in a January 20 confrontation between Chávez supporters and opponents in Charallave, 50 km southwest of Caracas. Carlos García Arriechi was the sixth person to die since the national strike began. Unknown persons shot into the crowd as Chávez opponents tried to enter the town, a Chávez stronghold. (LJ 1/21/03 from correspondent; ENH 1/21/03 from Reuters) Another person was killed on January 23 and at least 14 were wounded when a grenade or small bomb exploded near a massive march by Chávez supporters in Caracas. The explosion took place on Avenida México, one block from the march and near a subway entrance that was filled with government sympathizers. (LJ 1/24/03 from correspondent)

More than a dozen items such as this appear in each Weekly News Update on the Americas (ISSN 1084-922X), published Sundays by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York. For a one-year subscription (electronic or hard copy costs $25 in the United States), a free one-month trial, back issues or source material, contact the network at 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, 212-674-9499, Permission to reproduce this item is authorized if the reproduction includes this paragraph.

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