Venezuelan Leader, Battling a Recall, Mocks Bush
By JUAN FORERO
Published: March 1, 2004
CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 29-President Hugo Chávez railed against the Bush administration on Sunday in a speech before tens of thousands of supporters, accusing it of meddling in Venezuelan affairs and supporting antigovernment forces trying to remove him from office.
Mr. Chávez, whose language has become increasingly hostile in the face of American support for a recall referendum, warned that if the Bush administration carried out what he called American aggressions, "the people of the United States should know that they will not get another drop of oil from Venezuela."
The American energy market is heavily reliant on Venezuela, one of the top four providers of petroleum to the United States.
Accusing the Bush administration of destabilizing Venezuela and coveting the country's huge oil reserves, Mr. Chávez mocked President Bush, saying he stole the 2000 elections and "is not even the legitimate president of the United States."
Mr. Chávez, a leftist populist, has ruled Venezuela since his election in 1998. He was re-elected in 2000 to a term that ends in 2006, and he has vowed to remain in power longer than Mr. Bush.
"Let's bet on who will last longer, George W. Bush, you in the White House or me in Miraflores Palace," he said.
His made his speech as the National Electoral Council prepared to announce Monday that as many as 1.4 million signatures gathered by government foes to force a binding referendum on the president were flawed. That news infuriated a broad opposition movement, which says it has collected enough valid signatures to pave the way for a vote.
The electoral council's announcement was expected to lead to more turbulence in this country of 25 million, which since 2001 has been shaken by a failed coup, four national strikes and violent protests. Since Friday, two people have been killed and several dozen have been wounded as antigovernment protesters have battled in the streets of Caracas with National Guard troops.
Opposition leaders accuse Mr. Chávez, who promises to improve the lives of the poor, of governing like a dictator and mismanaging Venezuela, Latin America's fourth-largest economy. He calls his adversaries wealthy elites who are angry that they no longer run the country.
Venezuela had been relatively peaceful in recent months, as the opposition abandoned its strategy of weakening the government through strikes and opted for collecting enough signatures to call a referendum, allowed under the Constitution.
But the latest developments do not bode well for the opposition.
The electoral council announcement was expected to show that of 3.4 million signatures collected, 400,000 were invalidated and an additional one million would have to undergo new checks for fraud, said a person knowledgeable of the council's work. That would mean that instead of having 2.4 million legitimate signatures needed to force a referendum, the opposition has only two million and would have to reconfirm hundreds of thousands, a technically challenging process.
The electoral council has said one million signatures would go through a five-day "repair period," starting on March 18, giving citizens the chance to confirm that they had signed.
But a Western diplomat who has been monitoring the signature gathering said the council's decision was a deliberate delaying tactic that was not based on rules governing how the recall process would take place. Of the council's five members, two have criticized the decision, saying it is not based on electoral regulations.
"This is not in accordance with the rules," Ezequiel Zamora, who is considered partial to the opposition, said in a television interview on Sunday evening. "It presumes bad faith on the part of voters."
Though the opposition movement had not, as of early Sunday evening, said whether it will go along, the announcement made the possibility of a recall referendum increasingly unlikely.
The Organization of American States, which helped broker talks here between Mr. Chávez and the opposition, has urged the electoral council to respect the will of the people and not resort to "excessive technicalities."
Francisco Carrasquero, one of three members of the electoral council who voted to challenge the signatures, said Tuesday that tens of thousands of petition forms appeared to have been filled out in similar handwriting. The opposition says volunteers at booths where the signatures were taken had, in some cases, filled out forms but that the individual signatures were legitimate.
Mr. Chávez, in his speech, scorned his opponents and dared them to go to the repair period and "show Venezuela and the world if it is true that they collected those signatures." He said if the signatures were legitimate, then "fine, we will go to the recall referendum-but not in any other way."
The president, though, still accused his foes of being "violent groups, supported by Washington."
The government here has been incensed since it was recently disclosed that Sumate, an opposition group that helped plan the recall effort, received $53,000 from the United States government. The money came from the National Endowment for Democracy, which had funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups opposed to Mr. Chávez.
Juan Fernández, an opposition leader, said Sunday evening that Sumate had nothing to hide.
"In Sumate's case, there was complete transparency," he said. "It was quite legitimate for them to receive funds from the N.E.D., which gives money to hundreds of civil organizations around the world in order to promote democracy."
In downtown Caracas, Mr. Chávez's supporters shouted pro-Chávez slogans and carried anti-American signs.
"We're defending our president from the opposition, and our country from the United States," said Ana García, who had traveled from neighboring Aragua state. "And we're protecting the reforms our president has made. We're with his revolution, and we will defend him to the death."