IN A COLUMN on the opposite page Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez makes the remarkable assertion that he hopes his opponents will succeed in triggering a recall referendum that could cut short his term in office. Remarkable, because polls consistently show that Mr. Chavez would lose the referendum -- less than 40 percent of the population supports his eccentric, quasi-authoritarian populism. Contrary to his claims, he has impoverished as well as polarized his country: Venezuela's per capita income has declined by a quarter in the six years he has been in office, and the poor are worse off than ever.
More to the point, the president's words conflict with his actions. He has spent the past year doing everything in his power to prevent a democratic vote on his tenure -- and has repeatedly vowed that no referendum will take place.
So why would Mr. Chavez claim otherwise? Because the latest propaganda strategy of this would-be "Bolivarian revolutionary" is to portray a complicated petition verification process scheduled for this weekend as an impartial procedure whose outcome should be accepted as a fair resolution of the country's political conflict. In fact, the procedure should not be taking place at all: It is the result of an attempt by Mr. Chavez's appointees to invalidate on bogus technicalities 1.6 million out of 3.4 million signatures the opposition collected to trigger the recall election. By all rights, the election should have occurred months ago, because the opposition gathered 1 million more signatures than required by the constitution and has now collected more than enough signatures for a recall vote on two occasions. Instead, after protracted wrangling, authorities have set aside two days in which hundreds of thousands of would-be voters must return to confirm their signatures. Unless at least 600,000 manage to do so despite numerous procedural obstacles and intimidation by government goon squads, Mr. Chavez and his cronies will declare the recall a failure.
Sadly, the odds are that Mr. Chavez will carry out this coup-by-technicality and thwart a democratic resolution to Venezuela's long-running political crisis. The president points out that some of his opponents previously supported a coup against him (Mr. Chavez doesn't mention that he also once led a military rebellion against a democratic government); but now that the opposition has committed itself to an electoral solution, Mr. Chavez refuses to allow it. About the only hope for a fair outcome is the presence of observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center who could call attention to acts of overt fraud and intimidation; Mr. Chavez tried to exclude them from the verification process but was obliged to give in late last week.
Mr. Chavez swallowed the observers for the same reason he penned his op-ed: He hopes not only to block the referendum but also to head off any subsequent decision by the OAS to invoke its democracy charter, which calls for sanctions against governments that interrupt the rule of law. Even if it decided to act, the OAS probably wouldn't be able to stop Mr. Chavez from destroying what remains of democracy in Venezuela. Already, the president's only real friend in the outside world is Cuba's Fidel Castro. But if he proceeds to deny his country a democratic vote, Mr. Chavez should, at least, be denied the pretense that his actions are legal, or acceptable to the region's democracies.