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Venezuela: Controversy over signature collection to oust Chavez

As the Government denounces a possible "mega fraud", Venezuelans keep on collecting signatures to call on a referendum on Chavez rule.

Last week, Chavez's government delivered to the Electoral Council around 4.5 million signatures to call a referendum over the mandate of more than 40 opposition governors, majors and congressmen. Since Thursday, the opposition has been collecting written petitions from the Venezuelan people demanding another recall vote against President Hugo Chavez.  They need 2.4 million signatures to force the vote, which would be held next year.

As opposition hopes to obtain enough support to constitutionally oust Chavez -in April 2002 they tried to do it through a failed military coup-, the Government denounced a possible "mega fraud". President Chavez himself said his foes were trying to fake acts, as a way to reach the amount needed to legally demand the recall vote.

After making denounces public, Chavez ordered to close all private airports and heliports in order to prevent incidents, as long as signature collect takes place. Chavez trusted foreign observers as the Organization of the American States (OAS) and the US ex president Jimmy Carter would avoid any attempt to fake the process. The opposition says that Government's intention is to block the transportation of the signatures and to complicate the movements of its leaders.

Chavez also asked his supporters to keep an "active defense" to control the activity of his foes. "We have to check signatures and fingerprints one by one", said Chavez, as asked the Electoral Council to be alert.

Reports from Caracas -country's Capital City- say everything is going in order, as
organizers predicted success, even as Chavez vowed to crush them. "There will be a referendum, and the president will be ousted," opposition leader Timoteo Zambrano said to the foreign press in Caracas.

Venezuela's constitution allows to recall votes halfway through a president's six-year term, as well as for other elective posts. Chavez reached that point in August. Results of the drive will not be known for weeks and Chavez has vowed to challenge every signature. The next presidential elections are expected to take place in 2006.

Venezuela deployed 60,000 troops to keep the peace at almost 3,000 sign-up centers. No serious incidents were reported.

Hernan Etchaleco

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