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The Washington Post, Nov 29, 2002
 
Rescue Venezuela

The Post

Friday, November 29, 2002; Page A42

THE WORLD'S fourth largest oil producer, a key American supplier and ally, stands on the brink of a political explosion, and possibly a civil war. Its capital increasingly is split between hostile armed camps; military and police units are faced off against each other, central highways are sometimes blocked by burning barricades. A beleaguered international mediator is struggling to broker a deal between government and opposition that would provide a peaceful way out, but violence in the streets keeps undermining his efforts. Now another potentially catalytic event looms on the horizon, a national strike called by the opposition for this Monday.

This grave crisis has been building for weeks in Venezuela, a country of 23 million people on the northern rim of South America, where a breakdown of order would be a catastrophe for the region. The situation demands vigorous intervention, at the highest levels, by Venezuela's neighbors as well as by the United States. So far the response has been dangerously laconic. Brazil and Colombia, Venezuela's closest neighbors, are preoccupied with domestic matters; the Bush administration's senior echelon is focused almost exclusively on Iraq. Yet if the showdown between Venezuela's failed populist president, Hugo Chavez, and his increasingly militant opposition cannot be defused, the result could be an eruption of bloodshed at a moment when Latin America is already shaken by political upheavals.

For now the burden of trying to preserve order in Caracas, Venezuela's sprawling capital, is being borne by Cesar Gaviria, the veteran and able secretary general of the Organization of American States. For the past several weeks Mr. Gaviria has overseen talks between the government and opposition; his aim is to provide a democratic outlet for Mr. Chavez's opposition through the organization of early elections. Mr. Chavez, a muddled socialist whose closest political ally is Fidel Castro, was himself democratically elected in 1999; he then used a series of referendums and new elections to rewrite the constitution and extend his term until 2007, even as he wrecked Venezuela's economy and antagonized the military and middle class. A new election or referendum -- like that ordered yesterday by Venezuela's national electoral council -- would offer a way out. But Mr. Chavez has been reluctant to agree -- his supporters said they would appeal the council's decision -- and increasingly the opposition appears to hope that he can be forced out of office, as he was briefly last April. Opposition supporters rally around some 140 military officers who have rebelled against the government and occupied a city square, while Mr. Chavez's followers vow to fight any coup in the streets. Both sides have been arming themselves.

If Mr. Gaviria's mediation is to succeed, forceful intervention by the United States and key Latin American governments is needed in the coming days. After appearing to back the April coup, the Bush administration has publicly committed itself to negotiations and a democratic solution, but it has kept a relatively low profile. Next to nothing has been heard, at least in public, from Brazil's new leftist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Yet the message to Caracas needs to be clear: No interruption of democracy, by either side, will be tolerated. National strikes are no more the solution than martial law. Serving military officers belong in their barracks -- and Venezuelans must vote on Mr. Chavez's future.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A52148-2002Nov28.html

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