CARACAS, Venezuela - In a vote that might bring fresh confrontation instead of closure, Venezuelans decide today whether to recall President Hugo Chavez two years before his term ends or stick with the man of the masses who insists that relief from poverty is just around the corner.
The outcome could unleash violence among the profoundly polarized people of Venezuela, with supporters and opponents of the 50-year-old president saying they will win unless widespread fraud deprives them of victory. The accusations have heightened the tension in one of the most acrimonious disputes this nation has faced.
The decision could have consequences for U.S. oil supplies. Chavez's energy minister, Rafael Ramirez, warned of "chaos and instability" if the president's opponents prevail and reverse changes made in the oil industry to steer profits into social welfare. The world's fifth-largest oil exporter, Venezuela supplies about one-eighth of U.S. petroleum needs.
Venezuela's 14 million registered voters are being asked to say "yes" to oust Chavez or "no" to defeat the recall. Polls sponsored by both camps produced contradictory results, leaving observers and analysts uncertain what to expect in a city bedecked with seemingly equal numbers of tricolor "Si!" placards and the red "No" exhortations to keep Chavez.
For Chavez to lose, at least 3.8 million "yes" votes are needed - the number that gave him a six-year term in the 2000 election.
Chavez's power base is estimated by pollsters to be about 30 percent of Venezuela's 25 million people, with the strongest support coming from the nation's poor. A roughly equal share of the middle class and elite despises the former army colonel and paratrooper, saying he has steered the economy down a path of Communist-style revolution that has reduced per capita income, foreign investment and employment.
Should the recall succeed, Chavez would be obliged to hand over power to his vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, while new elections are organized within 30 days.
Chavez said it was "mathematically impossible" for him to be voted out of office but vowed to go peacefully if that is the people's decision.
"It's very unlikely, but in that case I hand over the presidential sash to my vice president, rest for three days and return as a candidate in the next election," he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview yesterday.
His opponents contend that Chavez's confidence stems from plans to hijack the vote. Miranda state Gov. Enrique Mendoza, a key figure in the Democratic Coordinator opposition umbrella group who is expected to run for the presidency if Chavez is ousted, had threatened last week to disclose the results of independent exit polling in midafternoon as a safeguard against government cheating.
Venezuelan law and the Central Electoral Council, on which three of the five governors are unabashed Chavistas, prohibit any voting results from being released to the public before the council announces the full tabulation.
Mendoza's warning added fresh vitriol and suspicion to the bitter contest, as did the introduction of electronic voting machines and fingerprint registration that have aroused fears that ballot secrecy and security could be compromised.
On international issues, Chavez's opponents have complained that Venezuelan ties to the United States and other Western nations have been sacrificed in favor of Cuba and his friend Fidel Castro.
Chavez sells discounted oil to cash-strapped Cuba in return for the services of 12,000 Cuban doctors, teachers and engineers, who are working here to improve living conditions in urban slums.
U.S. officials, who have made no secret of their dislike of Chavez, toned down their comments in the waning days of the campaign.
After a failed coup, strikes and violence that have marred the past two years of Chavez's term in office, the head of the delegation of the Organization of American States, Valter Pecly Moreira, said he was surprised by the calm and confidence prevailing on the eve of the vote.
"Maybe one explanation," Moreira said, "is that both sides are so convinced they will win."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.