Powell Urges Calm Before Venezuelan Referendum

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) urged all Venezuelans on Wednesday to reject violence and intimidation and respect the rights of others as they move toward a recall referendum this weekend on President Hugo Chavez (search).

"Venezuela's future is in the hands of its citizens," Powell said in a statement. "The United States stands firmly with them as they seek to strengthen their democracy and promote national reconciliation."

He said if the referendum is conducted freely, fairly and transparently it will be an important step toward a constitutional solution of Venezuela's long-standing political crisis.

Powell said effective electoral observation by international monitors is vital to the credibility of the referendum on Sunday.

He said the United States strongly supports the work of the Organization of American States (search) and the Carter Center (search), which will provide the monitors.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, who read Powell's statement, said the United States has made clear in the past that the Venezuelan government has a special responsibility to ensure there is a proper environment for the voting.

Polls show the country is split evenly between those for and against Chavez. Supporters see him as a champion of the poor and a new hope after decades of corrupt governments, while opponents accuse him of seeking to install a communist dictatorship.

Chavez, who survived a short-lived coup in 2002, accuses the United States if backing alleged opposition plans to overthrow him. Both the United States and the opposition deny the claims.

The United States is Venezuela's (search) main oil buyer, but relations have been strained due to Chavez's ties with Cuba and his criticism of U.S.-backed free market proposals.