Venezuela's Chavez blames election boycott by opposition parties on U.S.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Thursday blamed an election boycott by opposition parties on U.S. President George W. Bush, calling it a conspiracy against his leftist government. All of Venezuela's major opposition parties joined the boycott earlier Thursday, saying conditions were biased toward pro-Chavez candidates. Chavez insists Sunday's election will be fair.

"I denounce it before the world and hold responsible for this new conspiracy against Venezuela the very chief of the empire, Mister Danger, the president of the United States," Chavez said during a speech.

"We will defeat the electoral coup," Chavez said, adding without giving specifics that he had proof the CIA was involved in Venezuela "encouraging this new conspiracy."

Chavez's accusations are the latest in a series of opposition moves he has pinned on the U.S. government, including a short-lived coup against him in 2002, a crippling oil strike in early 2003, and a failed recall referendum last year.

The Venezuelan leader, a close ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro, claimed Washington was threatened by the success of his socialist reforms at home and efforts to block U.S. free trade policies in the region. Saying that the CIA was stepping up its activities to track his movements, he warned that the latest alleged conspiracy could lead to a violent effort to oust him. "I call for all Venezuelans to mobilize permanently across the country," he said, adding that he had summoned the high military command to be alert of "another violent attempt."

Officials at the U.S. Embassy were not available for immediate comment, though earlier this week they denied involvement in the pull out of opposition parties.

The opposition boycott clears the way for candidates aligned with Chavez to expand their dominance of congress in a vote this weekend. Pro-Chavez candidates are aiming to win a two-thirds majority, up from their current 52 percent, in the 167-seat National Assembly at Sunday's polls. That would allow them to rewrite portions of the constitution and push back term limits for the presidency and other offices. Chavez vowed the elections would go forward and predicted his administration would remain in power.

"Mr. Bush, I'm going to again make a bet with you. I've bet you a dollar to see who lasts longer, you in the White House or me here in Miraflores (palace)," Chavez said. The Venezuelan leader spoke hours after thousands of Chavez supporters massed in the streets to protest the opposition pullout, calling it a desperate measure by parties that have lost political support.

"They are pulling out because they feel they've lost," said demonstrator Rafael Madero, a 45-year-old miner. "The decision is already made. They know they have no life left." Speakers mounted on a truck blared, "Yankee Go Home!"

Opposition parties, which have trailed in recent polls, accuse the electoral council of a pro-Chavez bias and expressed concerns a computerized voting system could compromise confidentiality. The Social Christian party pulled out Thursday, joining other opposition parties including Democratic Action, the largest, and Justice First. Gerardo Blyde, head of Justice First, called it the equivalent of a "political earthquake." The electoral council insists it is impartial and says all preparations have been made for a fair and transparent vote. The Organization of American States, which is helping to monitor the elections, said earlier this week it believed conditions were in place for the elections to take place.

After meeting with the CNE and opposition parties, the organization said it has observed "important advances offering guarantees requested by the opposition parties that should generate more confidence and participation by the populace."

Only 78 candidates out of 4,056 have officially withdrawn, National Elections Council chief Jorge Rodriguez said, defending the council's work in preparing the vote. One poll conducted in October found 68 percent approved of Chavez's performance and 46 percent said they would vote for him today if elections were held, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. No other potential candidate came close.

The poll consulted 1,300 people across Venezuela and had an error margin of 2.7 percentage points, Leon said, reports the AP. I.L.

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