CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Of late, President Hugo Chavez has filled stadiums across Venezuela to swear in thousands of new citizens, issue them national ID cards -and urge them to vote against the recall that could push him from office.

But despite the rallies, where thousands wearing Chavez’s trademark red shirt and beret shout “No!” against his recall, Venezuela’s opposition isn’t raising much of a fuss.

Instead, it’s quietly piecing together its own campaign to win the Aug. 15 recall referendum and force fresh presidential elections. Opposition leader Juan Fernandez said Friday that Chavez opponents shouldn’t be alarmed by the government’s massive naturalizations.

“The people who are becoming citizens, receiving identification cards and being registered to vote aren’t necessarily going to vote for Chavez,” Fernandez told The Associated Press.

Chavez’s government says most of Venezuela’s new citizens are from neighboring Colombia, where rebels sympathetic to Chavez, government troops and right-wing militias have been fighting a civil war.

“They know what the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have done to Colombia, and they associate Chavez with subversive movements. That’s not what they came to Venezuela for,” said Fernandez, referring to Colombia’s largest leftist rebel group.

The opposition’s “Vote Yes!” campaign has hit the airwaves, billboards and talk shows. But this time around, campaign leaders are being careful about what they say about Chavez.

There’s a list of Do’s and Dont’s when criticizing the president, Fernandez said – partly because many Venezuelans grew tired of vituperative rhetoric during a December 2002-February 2003 general strike that failed to oust Chavez.

Calling Chavez a “dictator” is a no-no because he has embraced the recall.

Accusing the former paratrooper of graft is frowned upon because past governments, led by current opposition leaders, were largely corrupt.

Criticizing Chavez’s human rights record should be avoided because the opposition is trying to reach Venezuela’s majority poor, whose rights were often ignored in the past.

“Messages emphasizing hope rather than hate are best,” said Fernandez, an oil executive fired by Chavez during the strike. “We want to send positive, not negative, messages.”

The opposition is outlining economic and social policies it will pursue if it succeeds in voting out Chavez.

“We’re offering a complete program to reduce crime and delinquency,” said Diego Urbaneja, coordinator of the opposition’s plan for government, known as the “Country Consensus.”

“These are areas where the government has had a sad performance,” he said.

According to an Inter-American Development Bank study this year, Caracas’ homicide rate has risen since Chavez was took office in 1999. It’s now at 133 for every 100,000 inhabitants, making Caracas the third-most dangerous Latin American city out of 22 in the study. In 1998, the rate was under 70 for every 100,000 people.

Chavez’s administration, meanwhile, has been issuing new ID cards to naturalized and native-born citizens as part of a “Mission Identity” project. The program, according to government officials, seeks to simplify the complex process of obtaining national IDs from government offices.

The IDs are needed to rent a car, get an apartment, use a credit card, register to vote or get a driver’s license.

“You can enjoy all your rights under the law,” Chavez said recently. “This is the road to inclusion, the road to unity and the road to equality.”

Since May, almost 4.5 million Venezuelans have received the new ID card. Citizenship has been granted to 216,000 immigrants.

Venezuela has 24 million people and more than 12 million registered voters. Newly registered voters could be a factor in what looks to be a tight recall race, according to recent polls.

For Chavez to be recalled, Venezuela’s opposition must get more votes than the almost 3.8 million Chavez received when he was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000. A new election would be held within 30 days. The winner would serve out Chavez’s term, which ends in January 2007.

AP-ES-07-17-04 0501EDT


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