Politicians tout democracy as recall vote's real winner

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Two years after a failed coup against President Hugo Chavez, the opposition's bitter and often bloody effort to oust him culminates in a recall vote today.

The former military commander, who himself led a failed coup in 1992, insists he will win the referendum and keep his job. But the real winner may be Venezuela's shaky democracy, with voters getting a chance to decide their country's future.

"This is a victory for the constitution, for the people, for democracy," Chavez said Saturday, promising to respect the results "no matter what they are."

The leftist leader, who initially poured cold water on the recall effort, spoke after meeting with former President Jimmy Carter and Cesar Gaviria, the head of the Organization of American States, both key mediators in the ongoing political crisis.

Gaviria noted the referendum is the fruit of complicated negotiations, the gathering of millions of signatures and rulings by the National Elections Council and the Supreme Court.

"We all are hoping for an outcome that all sides can accept," Gaviria said. "This is what Venezuelan democracy needs."

Carter warned, however, that staging the referendum alone was not a magic solution for healing Venezuela. "We recognize that tomorrow's vote is one more exercise in democracy," Carter said at a news conference with Gaviria. "It will not resolve all the country's problems."

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jesus Perez said the days of coups and upheaval are over.

"I believe that Venezuela's democracy has now been consolidated," Perez said. "The coup-plotting elements are more isolated everyday."

The impoverished South American nation of 24 million remains sharply divided over Chavez, with supporters applauding his efforts to improve life for the poor majority and opponents accusing him of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Past bloodshed also cast a shadow over the vote with fears that violence could erupt again in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter if the results are disputed.

Nineteen people were killed in an anti-Chavez protest before he was ousted in a two-day April 2002 coup. Dozens more people were killed and hundreds wounded before Chavez was returned to power amid a popular uprising. Political riots last March claimed a dozen more lives.

There were signs Saturday the recall vote might not run smoothly everywhere.

--Dozens of pro-Chavez militants surrounded privately owned television stations in Caracas, painting graffiti on walls and threatening to attack if results were announced early. The election commission has ruled only it can release polling figures.

--A masked leader of a pro-Chavez militant group went before an Associated Press Television News cameraman and threatened attacks if a coup or fraud were attempted. "Our national combat units will call on the people to advance with us to a fiery victory," said the militant, who identified himself as "Comandante El Chino." He clutched a grenade and was flanked by two other masked, armed militants.

--About 30 electoral workers in the capital's upscale, anti-Chavez neighborhood of Chacao angrily milled about on Saturday, saying army troops had barred them from the voting stations.

Some claimed they were denied access because they had signed the recall petition. An official at the National Elections Council, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted no election station workers would be barred from their posts even if they had signed the petitions.

At a voting station inside an art institute in eastern Caracas, things were going more smoothly.

"Here, everything is sun, love and happiness," glowed Maria Eugenia Vera, 40, one of 10 election volunteers, including Chavez backers and opponents. "We only met this morning, and -- get this -- we are all buddies."

Chavez was elected president on an anti-corruption, anti-poverty platform in 1998. After changes to the constitution, he was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000.

For the recall to succeed, more Venezuelans must vote against Chavez than the nearly 3.8 million who voted for him four years ago. Then new presidential elections must be held within 30 days, during which time Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel would head a transitional government.

Chavez, who has traded his red paratrooper's beret for business suits and red ties, trumpets the virtues of a constitutional democracy and carries a miniature copy of the charter.

Critics accuse him of persecuting opponents and trying to install a Cuban-style dictatorship. More than 2.5 million signatures of registered voters were submitted for the recall.

A vocal critic of Washington's economic and foreign policies, Chavez claims his government has broken with Venezuela's corrupt past.

The constitution is unclear on whether Chavez could run as a candidate if a new election is held, as he has said he would do. The opposition coalition has yet to name a potential candidate.

Chavez said Saturday his government is "the only one that guarantees oil stability."

Edginess over possible disruptions in Venezuela's oil industry, which normally provides almost 15 percent of U.S. imports, contributed this week to record high oil prices, which surpassed $46 a barrel.

A 2002 nationwide strike against Chavez crippled oil exports and the nation's economy before failing two months later.

Both sides promise to abide by the referendum results.

"The referendum signifies the triumph of democracy over violence, of politics over aggression. We will respect whatever the outcome turns out to be," said Jesus Torrealba, an opposition coalition spokesman.

Associated Press reporters Juan Pablo Toro and Alexandra Olson in Caracas contributed to this report.