By the International Crisis Group
Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and wealthiest member of the Community of Andean Nations (CAN), is in deep political crisis, with high risk that its democratic institutions could collapse, and some possibility of civil war.
During the first months of 2004, tension between the government of President Hugo Chavez and the political opposition, organized under the umbrella Democratic Coordinating Instance (Coordinadora Democratica, CD), approached a breaking point. The Chavez administration's apparent determination to do everything in its power to block a recall referendum has angered growing sectors of society.
Between 27 February and 4 March, clashes between the national guard (GN) and opposition protesters left at least fourteen dead and close to 300 wounded. Torture, arbitrary detention and excessive use of force were reported. There is a clear trend of increasing and unpunished human rights violations since President Chavez was inaugurated in 1999. While the press has not been openly restricted, and several leading journals are vitriolic in their criticism, the government exerts multiple pressures on reporters, journalists and TV stations. Several opposition politicians who exercised their constitutional right to sign a petition for the president's recall have been arrested, and public employees reportedly were threatened with dismissal.
Following the collection of recall signatures, the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) entered into direct confrontation with the electoral chamber of the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ), which had declared the signatures valid and ordered the CNE to schedule the referendum.