Washington Post Editorial.
Friday, March 5, 2004; Page A22
LATE LAST YEAR 3,448,747 of Venezuela's 24 million citizens turned out in just four days to sign petitions calling for a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez. This extraordinary civic exercise, monitored by observers from the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, offered a democratic solution to years of political conflict in that important oil-producing nation -- trouble that threatened to push Venezuela into dictatorship or civil war. Now Mr. Chavez, whose crackpot populism and authoritarian methods provoked the crisis, blatantly seeks to stop the vote, in violation of his commitment to both the OAS and his own constitution. His actions have already prompted a new wave of unrest across the country, including demonstrations in which at least seven people have been killed. Unless he can be restrained, Mr. Chavez may complete his destruction of one of Latin America's most enduring democracies.
Though the constitution, drawn up under Mr. Chavez's own administration, requires 20 percent of all voters to back a referendum, opposition groups collected 1 million signatures more than should have been needed for the recall vote. These signatures were rigorously audited by a nonpartisan civic group before being forwarded to the electoral commission. Yet, after delaying its response for weeks, the commission, dominated by Mr. Chavez's supporters, rejected 1.6 million of them, or nearly half the total. To do so, it invented requirements that didn't previously exist. Most notably, it threw out 876,000 signatures, each accompanied by a thumbprint, because someone other than the voter had entered registration details on the petition.
Mr. Chavez's functionaries subsequently announced that they would give about a million of those stricken from the list a chance to restore their names -- but only if they appear in a limited number of registration centers during one two-day period. In practice, that poses a next-to-impossible logistical challenge to the opposition, even if there were no harassment from Mr. Chavez's police and civilian goon squads. But attempts by the foreign mediators to reverse this Kafkaesque coup have so far been unsuccessful.
Mr. Chavez, who has built a strong alliance with Cuba's Fidel Castro and imported thousands of Cuban personnel, appears eager for a domestic and international confrontation. Last weekend he called President Bush an "illegitimate" president, referred to him with a vulgar epithet and threatened to cut off oil supplies to the United States. Opposition leaders say that more than 300 people have been arrested in recent days, and that some have been tortured. Given the Bush administration's weak position in the region, hope for a peaceful or democratic solution rests mostly with Venezuela's Latin American neighbors, starting with Brazil. If Mr. Chavez continues to deny his people a democratic vote, leaders from those nations must be prepared to invoke the Democracy Charter of the OAS and threaten him with the isolation reserved for autocrats.