NEXT MONTH Venezuela will have a chance, maybe its last, to resolve years of political turmoil by peaceful and democratic means. A referendum is scheduled for Aug. 15 on the tenure of populist president Hugo Chavez. If it is fairly held and Mr. Chavez wins, an opposition that in the past has supported a military coup and a general strike in an attempt to force the president from office will be obliged to accept his rule for 21/2 more years. If he loses, Mr. Chavez -- a self-styled revolutionary who once led a military rebellion against a democratic government -- will be removed, and new elections for president will be held.
That this democratic opportunity exists at all is due in no small part to a civil society group called Sumate ("join up" in Spanish), which for a year has advocated for and organized the referendum that is provided for in the Venezuelan constitution. The vote itself will have a greater chance of being staged and judged fairly thanks to Sumate, which has recruited tens of thousands of volunteers to monitor the process and conduct independent exit polls and quick counts. So it is disturbing, if not exactly surprising, that Mr. Chavez, who resisted the referendum all along, has instigated an ugly campaign against the organization, including criminal charges against its leaders.
The two founders of Sumate, Alejandro Plaz and Maria Corina Machado, and two of their collaborators are being formally investigated by a state prosecutor for conspiracy to commit treason. Their alleged crime, first raised by Mr. Chavez in a television appearance in February, is Sumate's acceptance of $53,400, or 2 percent of its annual budget, from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a bipartisan, congressionally funded organization that supports democratic movements around the world. Reports by pro-government media have suggested that the prosecutor may seek the detention of the activists before the referendum takes place; if convicted, they could face prison terms of eight to 16 years.
Why would it be treasonous to accept U.S. funds in an effort to organize a fair election? Surely not because foreign aid is alien to Venezuela: The country's political parties have received it for decades, and Mr. Chavez's own political apparatus has been bolstered by thousands of Cubans dispatched by his principal ally, Fidel Castro. Sumate does not advocate Mr. Chavez's removal but only the resolution of the country's conflict by constitutional means.
But Mr. Chavez does not genuinely accept democracy or the rule of law. He delayed the referendum for a year through legal manipulation and political dirty tricks. Now he flirts with outright political repression in an attempt to determine its outcome. In that sense, Sumate and its leaders are the proverbial canary in the coal mine: If they are prosecuted or jailed, the world will know that Venezuela's referendum is tainted.