CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez (search) must face a recall vote on Aug. 15, elections officials said, moving a step closer to the possible ouster of a leftist government hostile to the United States, Venezuela's biggest customer for crude oil.
Francisco Carrasquero, president of Venezuela's elections council, announced late Tuesday that Chavez's opposition had gathered 2.54 million signatures to demand the recall, surpassing the 2.43 million — 20 percent of the electorate — required by Venezuela's constitution.
To recall Chavez, Venezuela's opposition needs to win more than the 3.7 million votes he received during his 2000 election to a six-year term.
Critics accuse Chavez of steering Venezuela (search) — which straddles the western hemisphere's largest oil reserves — toward a dictatorship akin to that of his friend and mentor, Cuba's Fidel Castro (search).
Chavez, a virulent critic of Washington's economic and foreign policies, claims his government has broken with Venezuela's corrupt past and serves the interests of the 24-million nation's vast poor majority.
Chavez has accused Washington of supporting opposition efforts to overthrow him. The Bush administration has denied the allegations.
Washington isn't happy that thousands of Cuban advisers are in Venezuela and that Chavez reportedly is shipping up to 100,000 barrels of cheap oil per day to Cuba.
Venezuela's elections council predicted last week that Chavez would face a recall. Chavez immediately took up the challenge, calling it an opportunity to purge an opposition that sponsored a brief and bloody 2002 coup and a 2003 general strike.
Chavez has embarked on a campaign to smash his opponents in what he calls "a decisive battle" for the future of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
"Oil is not only for a minority, so that a minority can get rich," Chavez told a crowd of supporters in the rural state of Trujillo on Tuesday.
Chavez is a former army paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. Chavez was imprisoned for two years, released, and 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.
His class rhetoric, alleged ties with leftist Colombian rebels, and a batch of policies that sought to increase the state's role in the economy laid the groundwork for the opposition recall campaign.
Opposition leader Felipe Mujica (search) told Union Radio that the elections council violated a government-opposition understanding that the recall would be held Aug. 8. But he insisted: "We'll have millions of votes on the 15th to recall the president."
While officials initially indicated the vote would be held Aug. 8, Chavez's government wanted it to happen Aug. 15, saying the extra time is needed to install a new automated voting system.
The referendum date is key.
Should Chavez lose a recall before Aug. 19 — the completion of the fourth year of his six-year term — presidential elections would be held within a month.
After Aug. 19, Chavez's vice president and loyal supporter, Jose Vicente Rangel, would serve out the remainder of Chavez's term. Opponents fear Chavez would simply rule behind the scenes.
Ezequiel Zamora, the elections council vice president, said the results, whenever they are released, would be considered as taking effect before Aug. 19.
Automated voting machines will be used, which the government says will deter fraud. Venezuela's opposition fears glitches in the untested system could produce a quagmire favoring Chavez.
Chavez predicted he would win at least 5 million votes to defeat the recall.
"They've spent several years trying to oust me and I believe they'll spend many more years trying to oust me," Chavez said in the western town of La Ceiba.
Chavez says he intends to seek re-election in 2006 and govern at least until 2013 — and, possibly, until 2021.
Some surveys show a majority of Venezuelans will vote against Chavez, citing high crime and a foundering economy. Others say Chavez, boosted by high oil revenues and traditional abstention at the polls, will win. Some polls put his support at 40 percent, high by regional standards.