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On August 15th, Venezuelans will vote in a referendum on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez or allow him to complete his term in office. His opponents say he is emulating the failed policies of Cuba’s Communist dictatorship. They also say Mr. Chavez is a threat to Venezuelan democracy.

Dissatisfaction with the Chavez government led to a work stoppage within the state owned oil company in December 2002, shutting down a large portion of the country’s oil industry. The stoppage contributed to a sharp contraction in gross domestic product for the first quarter of 2003. Despite earnings from vast petroleum reserves, Venezuela’s ongoing political turmoil has slowed foreign investment and has had a significant negative impact on its economy.

The Venezuelan constitution allows for a vote on recalling the president if at least two-million-four-hundred-thousand Venezuelans petition for it. More than three-million signatures were collected for the recall of President Chavez. But according to news reports, Venezuelan authorities have launched politically motivated investigations against recall supporters, including Sumate, a Venezuelan civic organization that is promoting voter education and mobilization.

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli says, “The Venezuelan government has a special responsibility to ensure an environment that is conducive to the free exercise of basic rights”:

“An independent civil society has an important role to play in a democratic society... We support the work of these organizations because they’re playing an important role and that how a civil society is treated is an indicator of the kind of environment that exists for the exercise of democratic rights.”

The August 15th recall vote will determine President Hugo Chavez’s political future and will send an important message about the future of democracy in Venezuela. The government of Venezuela, says Mr. Ereli, should “do everything it can to ensure that people are free to exercise their views and to vote as they wish.”