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3/17/04 - DEMONSTRATIONS IN VENEZUELA - 2004-03-18

The Supreme Court in Venezuela has ruled that signatures on a petition calling for the recall of President Hugo Chavez are valid. The government appealed the decision. Altagracia Perez was one of those who took to the streets of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, to celebrate. But Ms. Perez told a reporter: “The government is going to try to use trickery to try to change the ruling.”

Earlier, hundreds of thousands of people had marched to protest the Venezuelan national electoral council’s decision to reject the petition.

President Chavez was elected by popular vote in July 2000 as a populist candidate. The Venezuelan constitution allows for a referendum to take place halfway through a president’s six-year term if at least two-million-four-hundred-thousand Venezuelans agree. More than three-million signatures were reportedly collected in 2003. The electoral council is controlled by President Chavez, and it had accepted fewer than two million as valid.

The crisis in Venezuela is now in its third year. In 2003, a national strike caused nearly eight-billion dollars in economic losses. Venezuela faces a number of issues, including narcotics-related money-laundering, increasing illegal drug consumption, and fluctuating oil prices that have an adverse impact on the economy.

On March 3rd, Milos Alcalay, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, announced his resignation. Mr. Alcalay said that he could no longer defend Venezuela’s human rights record:

“There are ways to maintain order, but without killing people, without putting people in jail, without putting politicians out, without torture, and this is why we fought in Latin America for democracy.”

President George W. Bush says that the U.S. supports the rule of law in Venezuela:

“We will work with the Organization of American States to help ensure the integrity of the presidential recall and referendum process under way in Venezuela.”

The Venezuelan government says it is democratic. If that is indeed so, it will respect the Venezuelan people’s exercise of their constitutional rights.