CARACAS (IPS) The opposition movement in Venezuela assumed a triumphalist
attitude Monday while President Hugo Chávez's supporters urged people
to wait for the final results of the last phase of the signature-gathering effort
aimed at activating a recall referendum to oust the president.
"We have enough signatures. More than 700,000 people made this dream possible!"
Enrique Mendoza, the leader of the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition,
proclaimed late Sunday.
He was speaking at a rally whose broadcast by openly anti-Chávez private
TV stations violated the ban on divulging estimates of the preliminary results
of the three-day signature verification process that ended Sunday night.
At least 2.4 million signatures 20 percent of registered voters are needed
to hold a recall vote. But the election council only validated 1.9 million of
the signatures handed in by the opposition in December, and sent 1.2 million
to the "repair" period that was held over the weekend.
The opposition needs at least 530,000 additional valid signatures.
From Friday to Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans whose signatures
were disputed visited the 2,600 tables set up around the country to confirm
that they had signed the petition.
"I came to confirm my signature. Although I had to walk through the rain
and stand in line for almost two hours, it's worth it to get rid of this president,
who has made the country even poorer," María Díaz, a 43-year-old
homemaker from El Paraíso, a middle-class neighborhood on the southwest
side of Caracas, told IPS Friday.
However, those whose signatures were declared valid but had since changed their
minds about Chávez were also able to withdraw their names from the petition
over the weekend.
In Mérida, in the Andean highlands in southwestern Venezuela, Raúl
Rondón, a retired teacher, told the press that "a number of us have
regretted signing against the president, who has done so much for the poor and
to increase literacy, and we are on our way to the repairs center to remove
our names from that list."
Ruling party lawmaker Juan Barreto said "around 90,000 people removed their
names from the list of signatures that had been declared valid."
The National Electoral Council says it will announce the results on Friday,
A source with the election council's technical team told IPS that "the results
will possibly be very close to the limit," which would explain the conflicting
opinions on whether or not enough signatures were confirmed over the weekend.
Monday's radio and TV programming provided a steady stream of upbeat statements
by dozens of opposition leaders and activists claiming that the necessary number
of people by far had come out to verify their signatures, and pressuring the
election council to swiftly publish the results.
The Democratic Coordinator had set up hundreds of posts to assist petition
signers, and said it mobilized around 200,000 activists to locate those whose
signatures were called into question and provide transportation to the verification
Mendoza said "the Electoral Council should report what the entire country
already knows," and added that as soon as the results are announced, "we
will organize in Caracas the biggest demonstration ever seen in Venezuela."
International observers, led by Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General
César Gaviria and former U.S. president and Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy
Carter, also urged the election authorities to announce the results as soon
"This has been a transparent process" said Gaviria.
Diosdado Cabello, one of the leaders of the ruling Fifth Republic Movement,
denied that the opposition had gathered the necessary number of signatures:
"They did not make it, and we are confidently awaiting the results."
But Information Minister Jesse Chacón said that "even if the numbers
we are dealing with make us uncomfortable, we want to tell Venezuelan society
that if the Electoral Council decides that the coup-mongering opposition achieved
the necessary numbers, and that a referendum will be held, we will go" to the
The signature-gathering effort to seek a referendum was the route agreed on
a year ago as a solution to the crisis in heavily polarized Venezuela, after
Chávez survived an April 2002 coup that removed him from power for two
days and a two-month general strike which brought the oil industry virtually
to a standstill in December 2002-January 2003 and caused an estimated 10 billion
dollars in losses.
After meeting with Gaviria and Carter, Chávez said Sunday that if the
election council "says the opposition gathered the necessary signatures, I'll
be happy to go to a referendum. I have no fears, and if I am defeated, I'll
According to opinion polls, the left-leaning Chávez's approval ratings
stand at around 40 percent. The poor are his main support base.
The president said over the weekend that "We will respect the result,
first of all because we are democratic, and second, because we created the constitutional
right of the recall referendum, which is a product of 'Chavismo."'
But pro-Chávez activists in Caracas and other cities began to mobilize
Monday to celebrate what they called the latest failure by the opposition.
The constitution, which was rewritten at Chávez's behest and approved
by voters in 1999, stipulates that any elected official can be removed by a
recall referendum after they reach the halfway point in their term.
The ruling coalition complained of fraud, after the police raided the homes
of opposition activists and the offices of opposition parties Sunday and reported
that hundreds of forged identity documents were found.
Several people were also detained, some of whom were carrying large numbers
of national identity documents, according to the police and election authorities.
The central office of the Democratic Action party, the main opposition force,
was searched by the police after reports that identity documents were being
forged there to send activists to the verification centers under assumed identities
to confirm disputed signatures.
If the complaints of fraud are followed up, the results could be delayed beyond
The OAS general assembly, to be held Jun. 6-8 in Quito, Ecuador, may thus take
place before a final report on the situation in Venezuela, which Gaviria is
to present, is available.
The opposition movement in Venezuela had announced that if the election council
ruled that the necessary number of signatures was not confirmed, it would ask
the OAS to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Opposition leader Timoteo Zambrano said "we are worried" about the question
of the date on which a referendum could be scheduled.
The opposition hopes for a referendum before Aug. 19, the end of the fourth
year of Chávez's term, because if the president is defeated before that
date, an early presidential election will be held.
But if he is defeated in a popular vote held after that date, Vice-President
José Vicente Rangel, who was appointed by Chávez, would complete
the president's term, which ends in January 2007.
(Inter Press Service)