Calm returns to Caracas after riots -- for now

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela's government weighed a petition Tuesday for a nonbinding referendum on Hugo Chavez's presidency as opponents charged he had lost control of his government after a day of street riots.

"Is there a government in Venezuela? ... Who has the authority in Venezuela?" opposition lawmaker Gerardo Blyde asked during a congressional debate on Monday's violence.

At least 17 people were wounded by rubber bullets and more than 60 others hurt by rocks or felled by tear gas in the clashes between Chavez's supporters and police and National Guard troops in downtown Caracas.

The violence began after hundreds of Chavez's supporters tried to block opposition marchers from delivering more than 2 million signatures to the National Election Council demanding the referendum.

Election officials began verifying the signatures Tuesday -- aware that any decision could spark more violence. Petitioners want a vote by Dec. 4, but officials said it would take a month to verify the signatures and weeks more to organize a vote.

Opponents have threatened a general strike if Chavez fights the vote. Chavez's supporters, on the other hand, have threatened more rioting if the council approves the signatures.

Carlos Ortega, head of the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, said Tuesday he was ready to call a general strike even before election officials make a decision.

Chavez says that according to the constitution a binding referendum can be called only halfway into his six-year term, or next August. He has said he welcomes such a vote, confident he can beat any challenger.

According to Venezuela's constitution, a nonbinding referendum on matters of national importance can be called with the support of 10 percent of the electorate, or 1.2 million people.

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