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Venezuela’s Critical Hour

Agreement doesn’t come easy in ultra-polarized Venezuela. Ever since populist Hugo Chavez won the presidency in 1998 and reelection in 2000, the country has lived through a series of political and economic crises, which often turned violent.

Chavez has a little more than two years left in his term of office, and he’s desperately fighting off a recall, which is explicitly allowed in the Venezuelan Constitution. The opposition -- a loose alliance of businesspeople, labor unions, political parties and the media -- turned in more than the required 2.4 million signatures in November, but the politically appointed and polarized National Electoral Council disallowed more than 1 million of them. This weekend will see a last-ditch effort to re-verify the half-million signatures needed to put the recall on the ballot.

The government and the opposition have agreed on a few key points: The verification process should be clean, convincing and peaceful. Once the signatures are declared valid or not and the results are published, winner and loser must abide by them. Any other result risks a dangerous widening of violence.

Chavez and his unusually active public relations firms in the United States have challenged the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition to support whatever results the National Electoral Council presents. However, the only way to make the signature-verification process credible in Venezuela and elsewhere is to have it declared legitimate by the Organization of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which have agreed to monitor the proceedings.

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This is a moment of truth for Venezuela. If the verification process is run with transparency and the opposition fails to validate the necessary number of signatures for the referendum, Chavez must be allowed to fill out his term peacefully.

If the opposition does obtain the required signatures, Chavez must respect the popular will and agree to set a date for the recall election before Aug. 19. That date is key because it marks Chavez’s fourth year in office, and any further delay on the recall would create new, unnecessary and dangerous complications.

In any case, the law that governs the recall says it should take place within a month of the signature process.

A clean and undisputed verification works for both sides because it leaves no room for the most radical elements on either end of the political spectrum.

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The Andean region is already aflame with guerrillas, paramilitary armies, drug dealers and indigenous insurgencies. Violence in Caracas would add fuel to many other fires.


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