For the first 24 hours of the coup d'etat that briefly overthrew my government on April 11, 2002, I expected to be executed at any moment.
The coup leaders told Venezuela and the world that I hadn't been overthrown but rather had resigned. I expected that my captors would soon shoot me in the head and call it a suicide.
Instead, something extraordinary happened. The truth about the coup got out, and millions of Venezuelans took to the streets. Their protests emboldened the pro-democracy forces in the military to put down the brief dictatorship, led by Venezuelan business leader Pedro Carmona.
The truth saved my life, and with it Venezuela's democracy. This near-death experience changed me. I wish I could say it changed my country.
The political divisions in Venezuela didn't start with my election in 1998. My country has been socially and economically divided throughout its history. Venezuela is one of the largest oil exporting countries in the world -- the fourth-largest supplier to the United States -- and yet the majority of Venezuelans remain mired in poverty.
What has enraged my opponents, most of whom are from the upper classes, is not Venezuela's persistent misery and inequality but rather my efforts to dedicate a portion of our oil wealth to improving the lives of the poor. In the past six years we have doubled spending on health care and tripled the education budget. Infant mortality has fallen; life expectancy and literacy have increased.
Having failed to force me from office through the 2002 coup, my opponents shut down the government oil company last year. Now they are trying to collect enough signatures to force a recall referendum on my presidency. Venezuela's constitution -- redrafted and approved by a majority of voters in 1999 -- is the only constitution in the Western Hemisphere that allows for a president to be recalled.
Venezuela's National Electoral Council -- a body as independent as the Federal Election Commission in the United States -- found that more than 375,000 recall petition signatures were faked and that an additional 800,000 had similar handwriting. Having been elected president twice by large majorities in less than six years, I find it more than a little ironic to be accused of behaving undemocratically by many of the same people who were involved in the illegal overthrow of my government.
The National Electoral Council has invited representatives of the Organization of American States and the Carter Center to observe a signature verification process that will be conducted during the last four days of this month. That process will determine whether the opposition has gathered enough valid signatures to trigger a recall election, which would be held this August. To be frank, I hope that my opponents have gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum, because I relish the opportunity to once again win the people's mandate.
But it is not up to me. To underscore my commitment to the rule of law, my supporters and I have publicly and repeatedly pledged to abide by the results of that transparent process, whatever they may be. My political opponents have not made a similar commitment; some have even said they will accept only a ruling in favor of a recall vote.
The Bush administration was alone in the world when it endorsed the overthrow of my government in 2002. It is my hope that this time the Bush administration will respect our republican democracy. We are counting on the international community -- and all Venezuelans -- to make a clear and firm commitment to respect and support the outcome of the signature verification process, no matter the result.
The writer is president of Venezuela.