Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page A24

THE CARTER Center and the Organization of American States are right to help conduct a sample audit of the vote in last Sunday's referendum on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Both organizations have said they have seen no evidence of fraud, but opposition politicians on the losing end of the vote say they suspect the government manipulated the computerized voting machines. If the opposition is wrong, Mr. Chavez has nothing to lose by permitting spot checks that would prove his 58 percent mandate legitimate.

If his overwhelming victory is confirmed, everyone involved has some thinking to do about how to cope with the remaining two-plus years of Mr. Chavez's term. The opposition, as a first step, should recognize his legitimacy. After throwing numerous obstacles in the way of the referendum, Mr. Chavez finally let it take place, and under international observation; he deserves credit for that. And the president continues to enjoy support among Venezuela's poor, though he managed during his tenure to increase the poverty rate even as rising oil prices provided a windfall for his oil-rich country. The opposition should ask itself why that is so. One answer is that while Mr. Chavez only talks a good game on behalf of the poor, the elites who form much of the opposition for decades didn't even bother to do that, showing no interest in the poor whatsoever. Even today, pro-reform politicians, here as in much of South America, have failed to argue persuasively that democracy and capitalism can benefit the underclasses.

Ideally, Mr. Chavez would accept his mandate as an opportunity to seek reconciliation in this rancorously divided country. The danger is that he will instead use his power to further constrict Venezuela's democratic checks and balances. First elected in 1998, Mr. Chavez has governed as a kind of autocratic democrat, packing the highest court with his supporters, seeking to intimidate the private sector and independent media, and lodging criminal charges against political opponents. Now some of his supporters talk of further consolidating their control of courts and police.

Can outsiders do anything to influence which direction Mr. Chavez chooses? The Bush administration for the most part has cavalierly neglected Venezuela, as it has most of South America. Venezuela is too important for such neglect, especially because Mr. Chavez and his self-styled revolutionary politics could work mischief in important allies such as Colombia and Bolivia. The United States should reach out again to Mr. Chavez, seeking a working arrangement and advertising the benefits of respecting minority views. It should also reassure Venezuela's neighbors that it will be paying close attention.

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