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Venezuela: Why Ch?vez Could Soon Be Gone--Again

Embattled Venezuelan President Hugo Ch?vez is taking no chances. Two months after a short-lived coup removed him from power for 48 hours, the former army paratrooper has installed anti-aircraft batteries around the presidential palace, citing fear of "bold aerial action" against him. And he has purged the military of some 50 disloyal officers.

Ch?vez has reason to worry. Not only is dissension rife in the military, but opposition politicians are plotting legal moves to unseat the fiery left-wing populist. They're trying to change the constitution to shorten Ch?vez' six-year term, which ends in 2007. They're working to gather nearly 2 million signatures needed to call a referendum on whether new presidential elections should be held. And they're hoping to impeach Ch?vez for allegedly misappropriating $2 billion from an oil-windfall fund, among other charges. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan bolivar has plunged 41% against the dollar this year and the economy is expected to contract by 4% by yearend.

The political tension could boil over at any time. One trigger could be the annual July 5 promotion of military officers, when Ch?vez is expected to reward those who helped return him to power in April after the deaths of 18 people in an opposition protest sparked his ouster. Another could be a massive protest that opposition politicians and labor leaders are calling for July 11, the three-month anniversary of the failed coup. "The opposition's strategy," says Janet Kelly, director of the public policy center at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Administration in Caracas, "is to maintain a high level of tension and wait for Ch?vez to do something stupid--like shut down a TV station." Such an authoritarian move by Ch?vez could push Congressional fence-sitters to cast their votes for his impeachment, or galvanize sentiment within the armed forces to remove him.

Venezuela's opposition pols insist they will act according to the constitution. "We are seeking an institutional, nonviolent exit for President Ch?vez," says Edgar Zambrano, an opposition congressman. But some analysts wonder how effective that approach will be. "The opposition has to realize that if they find a constitutional way [to remove him], the President won't accept it," says retired General Fernando Ochoa, an independent military analyst who served as Defense Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister in the early 1990s. "Either the people will take to the streets, or it will be the armed forces." Some Ch?vez supporters have joined neighborhood groups that are believed to be armed and ready to oppose another coup.

Is there a way out of the crisis for Ch?vez? He recently asked former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was an observer of recent Venezuelan elections, to consider serving as a mediator. The Bush Administration, widely criticized for its initial acceptance of the April coup, is backing the idea. "We will not accept any undemocratic resolution of this crisis," says an Administration official. If mediation doesn't work, Ch?vez has other cards he can play. His Fifth Republic Movement party holds a slim majority in the National Assembly and could block an impeachment effort. And with his rating around 40%--down from a high of 80% three years ago--Ch?vez figures he could still win a referendum on his presidency. "I may even convoke it myself," he declared in a TV address on June 23.

Whether Ch?vez stays or goes, Venezuelans seem anxious for a fast resolution. "The uncertainty is killing us," says Martha Da Soza, owner of a Caracas grocery store that is emptied of staple goods every time a coup is rumored. "We've had enough. Something has to happen," she adds. For more and more Venezuelans, the question isn't what, but when. By Geri Smith and Stephen Ixer in Caracas, with Stan Crock in Washington

EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady

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