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Venezuela: Is Chavez running out of tricks?

By Gustavo Coronel

June 1, 2004 - The tricks utilized by Hugo Chávez to cling to power have seemed endless. From the start of his loss of popularity, some four years ago, he has tried to compensate this loss with all types of maneuvers, each one more ludicrous than the other. First came a series of "attempts on his life," at least seven of them. Not one man, woman or child has ever been identified in these conspiracies. Then he started to claim that the opposition was undemocratic and that only a presidential referendum would be a valid path to his early removal from power. When Venezuelans took him up on his word and held a first signature collection drive, it was annulled because it was "extemporaneous," although the massive attendance to that early drive left no doubts about the majority's wishes. A second signature collection took place and this time, over one million signatures were put in limbo because "they had similar handwriting." Everybody now realizes that this was a dirty trick concocted by the three unconditional Chávez followers in the Board of the National Electoral Council (CNE). This dirty trick brought the Venezuelan opposition to the brink of open rebellion, exactly the type of reaction that Chávez was hoping for, in order to unleash his version of the "Tonton Macoutes" of Haiti or of the people's militias of Cuba. Fortunately, there were cool heads in the Coordinadora Democratica who prevailed over the more impatient ones. A new round of negotiations was started with the CNE, with the OAS and the Carter Center representatives acting as facilitators. These negotiations led to a third round of signature collection in which about one million Venezuelans had to go, again, to say what they had already said before. Many political leaders in the opposition branded the unsung heroes of these negotiations, led by Alberto Quiros, as traitors. The negotiators risked it all because if the new round of signature collection failed, they would be fingered as culprits and if it was successful "the people had won." For them it looked almost like a no-win situation. Well, this is where we are today. The signatures are in and the CNE should tell us soon if they are enough to convoke the referendum.

Are they enough? All estimates by the opposition and international observers suggest that they clearly are. Although Chávez demanded total obstruction to the process from the Armed Forces and from his violent thugs, thousands of Venezuelans stood firm under the rain and in the face of violence, to sign one more time. In the days prior to the event, Chávez's prolific imagination had conjured nothing less than an invasion by Colombian paramilitaries, an event which turned out to be a group of about one hundred adolescents without a single gun, hungry and tired. The local police of the small town of El Hatillo captured them without firing a shot. Up to this moment, no one knows where they are but the little information that has percolated indicates that they had been transported to Caracas by members of the Venezuelan immigration offices in San Cristobal, a border city with Colombia. Chávez claimed that these invaders were trying, once more, to assassinate him.

At this moment another dirty trick is emerging. According to Chávez and his followers, thousands of cedulas (identity cards) used by Venezuelans to sign for the third time "were forged" by the opposition. Can anyone believe that the opposition had a forgery operation with equipment and material to forge thousands of ID cards? The government has been raiding some offices of the opposition and planting IDs there, in order to claim yet another "fraud." This last trick by the government is probably the most ridiculous of all and will not stand the simplest scrutiny.

The OAS and Carter Center observers, led by Cesar Gaviria and Jimmy Carter, have already said that the process was "transparent," in spite of the obstacles presented by the government. Chávez has said, smiling, that he will abide by the results. His smile means one of two things: Either he already has a new trick in place or he is resigned to go to a referendum. The whole world (except the Chavista propaganda websites) already knows that Venezuelans have stated one, twice, three times their desire to convoke a presidential referendum.

I have a feeling Chávez is finally running out of tricks.

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