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Pressure forced Chavez to accept recall vote _ but opposition a long way from victory

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ International pressure forced President Hugo Chavez to accept a likely recall referendum on his rule, but his opponents are a long way from ousting the resilient leader of oil-producing Venezuela.

It took a year of protest, 14 deaths in recent riots _ and, during a stalled signature count this week, intervention from the Atlanta-based Carter Center and the Organization of American States _ for Chavez's government to accept that opponents had the signatures to demand a recall.

Venezuela's elections council did all it could to make the process painful. It initially rejected more than 1 million voter signatures. The count stopped at one point. Federal agents combed through petition forms. Deadlines were missed. Council members feuded _ and they still do.

In the end, the council said Thursday it was likely the opposition had gained the 20 percent of the electorate needed to call a referendum.

A formal announcement is pending _ and investigations of alleged vote fraud could still subvert the process. Chavez referred to claims that 15,000 dead people signed against him _ close to the margin of victory announced by the elections council.

In a typically surreal if clever speech, Chavez managed to turn personal defeat into resounding victory for the nation, cheered by thousands of flag-waving supporters outside the Miraflores palace.

Chavez claimed credit for the idea of a referendum _ part of a constitution adopted after his 1998 election. He was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000, and he congratulated his opponents for joining his ``participatory democracy.''

Referring to the Crucifixion and to South American liberator Simon Bolivar _ he even wielded Bolivar's gold-encrusted sword _ Chavez was a humble public servant and a pugnacious politician. He extended and withdrew olive branches.

``I'm happy that instead of coups, the opposition is planning a democratic referendum,'' Chavez said. ``Now is when the game begins. Understand this, gentlemen of the opposition.''

He's done it before _ after a brief April 2002 coup that killed dozens. Chavez promised then to seek inclusion in his ``Bolivarian revolution.'' It didn't last.

The struggle to get here claimed lives and ruined Venezuela's economy. Opposition leaders staged the botched coup. A two-month general strike failed to topple Chavez but sabotaged the economy.

Labor leader Carlos Ortega, who led that strike, is now in exile facing rebellion charges, as are other civilian and military opponents.

The road to recall began in earnest a year ago, when Organization of American States head Cesar Gaviria got both sides to agree to a possible referendum after months of tortuous negotiations.

Washington is concerned that Venezuela's chronic instability could jeopardize its oil supplies and destabilize neighbors. It also isn't happy that Chavez is helping Fidel Castro by reportedly shipping up to 100,000 barrels of oil daily to communist Cuba at cut-rate prices.

U.S. sanctions are out as long as the oil flows farther north. Venezuela is among the top U.S. suppliers of crude and owns the Citgo chain of refineries and gasoline stations.

For Venezuela's opposition, numerous obstacles remain.

First, the elections council must formally call a referendum. Regional elections also are scheduled this summer.

Second, opponents reacted to Thursday's news the way they usually do _ by calling a victory march, this time in Caracas on Saturday. But a political platform to match Chavez's literacy, jobs, health and education programs is missing. Leaders say they have one; they just haven't released it yet.

Ezequiel Zamora, vice president of the elections council, voiced doubts Friday that the council could stick to an Aug. 8 date for a recall.

``Personally, I have absolutely no confidence that (new voting machines) will be ready by that date,'' Zamora said.

If Chavez is recalled before Aug. 19, elections will be held. If he is recalled after that, he would step down and be replaced by his vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, who says the opposition ``screwed themselves'' by forcing a recall.

Police raids and detentions of government opponents have increased in recent weeks as the government investigates a purported plot by Colombian paramilitaries to assassinate Chavez.

There's also the ever-looming threat of violence. Bands of ``Chavistas'' _ supporters of the president _ rampaged through downtown Thursday. In February, opponents barricaded neighborhoods and some fired on security forces.

For a recall to succeed, more citizens would have to vote against Chavez than the 3.76 million people who re-elected him in 2000.

``Chavez lost a round, which is important, but he's still a long ways from losing the fight,'' said historian Manuel Caballero.

He said a recall announcement ``isn't the end, or even the beginning of the end, but maybe the end of the beginning'' of the opposition's quest to oust Chavez.
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