CARACAS, Venezuela – Hoping to defuse new political tension in Venezuela (search), former President Jimmy Carter (search) and other international election monitors promised to double-check some voting results from a referendum that failed to oust Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chavez (search), after the opposition claimed the balloting was rigged.
On Wednesday, they will be witnesses as local election officials check a random sampling of results from 150 voting stations — a rare follow-up move to an election they have already said looked clean.
"We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral process nor the accuracy of the referendum results," Carter asserted at a news conference Tuesday.
Carter and Cesar Gaviria, the head of the Organization of American States (search), have been working for two years to find a solution to the often bloody political crisis that has gripped Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporting nation. Chavez is praised by supporters for giving the poor majority better services and a voice in politics, while some critics fear he intends to install a Cuban-style dictatorship.
Carter and Gaviria on Monday endorsed results of Sunday's referendum, in which Venezuelans voted by almost 58 percent to keep the leftist firebrand in office.
Leaders of an opposition coalition immediately cried fraud and called for mass demonstrations. Gunmen fired on an opposition demonstration later Monday, wounding seven people including a woman who died in a hospital on Tuesday. Dozens died in a failed coup against Chavez in April 2002 and in political riots over several years.
Unwilling to simply pack up and go home after giving their blessing, Carter and Gaviria decided they needed to stick around.
On Wednesday, they and members of the OAS and the Carter Center staff will watch, along with representatives of the opposition, as national election officials compare electronic and paper ballots.
The referendum was carried out on touch-screen voting machines, which produced a paper receipt of each vote, much like an ATM. Voters then deposited the receipts into a ballot box. Amid charges that the electronic machines were rigged, the monitors will be checking the results from the machines against the paper ballots to make sure there are no major discrepancies. The paper ballots will be checked at election offices while votes recorded in the machines will be examined at an army base.
Carter made clear that the opposition would look foolish if it keeps crying foul after the audit, which he said should be completed by Thursday.
"It should be sufficient to address the remaining concerns that have been expressed by the opposition," Carter said at the nationally broadcast news conference.
In Washington, the State Department said the referendum should end this South American nation's political crisis.
"The people of Venezuela have spoken," spokesman Adam Ereli said. It was a conciliatory comment from the U.S. government, which often has harsh words for Chavez, a blunt critic of U.S. foreign policy.
Strengthened by his victory, Chavez is now setting his sights on centralizing power, including exerting control over the courts, local police and the nation's broadcast stations.
The government is "going to deepen the social and democratic revolution in Venezuela," vowed Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, the right-hand man to Chavez.
Chavez said after his latest electoral victory that it will give his government a "catalyzing energy" to carry out its initiatives, including "completing the transformation of the judicial branch."
Congress, which is controlled by Chavez supporters, recently approved a measure allowing that body to remove and appoint judges to the Supreme Court. One Supreme Court justice has already been ousted for allegedly falsifying his resume, a charge he denied.
The government is also seeking to exert control over TV and radio stations, many of which are deeply critical of Chavez. The government plans to submit a bill to Congress that would allow the government to ban programming it sees as slanderous or an incitement to violence and to punish violators.
The government is also studying the possibility of unifying municipal and state police forces into a national police force, wresting control from mayors and governors, many of whom are Chavez opponents.
Chavez's drive to centralize power has stoked worries of authoritarianism among some of his critics. Human Rights Watch (search) recently issued a statement expressing worries about the independence of Venezuelan institutions such as the courts.
Although unemployment is about 15 percent, Chavez has a strong following among the poor majority in this nation of 24 million people after pouring revenues from the state-run oil monopoly into health, education and food programs. Venezuela has enjoyed a bonanza from record-high oil prices.