Venezuelan opposition readies to oust president

WIDE SUPPORT: Opposition parties managed to gather millions of signatures in support of a referendum to remove Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from power

AFP , CARACAS

Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 6

Opposition forces in Venezuela on Friday delivered paperwork containing 3.4 million signatures gathered to support a referendum to cut short the term of President Hugo Chavez.

The Chavez opposition, all members of an umbrella group known as the Democratic Coordinator, delivered to the National Electoral Council (CNE) early Friday paperwork containing 3,467,050 signatures crammed into 250 boxes.

The paperwork was moved aboard two buses from an opposition center in Caracas, where the paperwork had been stored in vaults for safety purposes, to the downtown CNE offices.

The number of signatures is far more than the 2.4 million minimum required by the Constitution to force a referendum on removing an elected official -- in this case the president -- from power.

Volunteers delivered the boxes under police and military escort starting around sunrise.

"We came here to demand respect for the will of millions of Venezuelans," said Julio Borges, an opposition legislator, who was present when the signatures were delivered.

The opposition collected the signatures between Nov. 28 and Dec. 1. Chavez opponents did not deliver them until Friday because they feared the government would change the rules on how to verify the signatures.

The Electoral Council now has 30 days to check their validity, after which a referendum could be called a maximum 97 of days after the council's decision is recorded.

CNE vice president Ezequiel Zamora said the five-member board of directors would meet immediately to set guidelines to verify the signatures.

Chavez has said that he does not fear defeat in a recall referendum, but rather that a "megafraud" is being cooked to remove him from office, and that up to a third of the signatures are false.

The opposition also collected signatures aimed at ousting 27 legislators that support Chavez. Those signatures will be delivered on Tuesday.

Chavez supporters in turn collected signatures aimed at ousting 37 opposition legislators.

Meanwhile in Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that US officials were pleased with the development.

"As a general comment, we would commend the peaceful, civil and orderly manner in which the signature-delivery process was conducted," Ereli said. "We think that this shows the Venezuelan people's continued efforts to resolve the country's political crisis are peaceful and constitutional and that they are using the instruments of democracy."

Ereli said that US officials are also "pleased" that observers from the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, run by former US president Jimmy Carter, are overseeing the process.

After five years in office, Chavez, a 49-year-old former lieutenant colonel, has already faced down general strikes -- one in 2001, and the other between late last year and early this year -- and survived a 47-hour civilian-military coup in mid-April last year.

Chavez earlier spent two years in prison in 1998 for his role in the failed February 1992 coup against then president Carlos Andres Perez.

Recent polls peg Chavez's popularity rating at around 40 percent, largely as a result of the popular support he enjoys among the country's poor, who make up some 60 percent of Venezuela's 25 million inhabitants.