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Facing crisis, ''El Chalibán'' aims to soften his tough image
Miami Herald ^ | February 23, 2002 | FRANCES ROBLES

Posted on 02/23/2002 2:44:55 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife

CARACAS - In a two-hour televised speech to the nation recently, President Hugo Chávez asked Venezuelans to help him be nicer.

''I call on everyone to help me sheath my sword,'' he appealed. ``Let's put it in the memory trunk and forget it.''

Many Venezuelans would say the paratrooper-turned-president is right -- he desperately needs to soften his combative image. But Chávez's quandary goes far deeper than mere rhetoric or behavior. Three years after assuming office and having things his way for virtually the entire time, Chávez's popularity has never been lower.

On Monday, Vice Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo, a U.S.-trained electronics warfare expert, became the highest ranking officer to demand that Chávez resign -- the third time this month that a military officer has expressed open disdain for the president.

''He hasn't just lost the trust of the people, he gained their hate,'' said Aníbal Romero, a political analyst who has pushed for Chávez's ouster.

The reasons behind Chávez's political decline have to do with his confrontational style and circumstances beyond his control, such as the price of oil, mainstay of the Venezuelan economy. With prices falling sharply, his budget gap has never been steeper, and the clamor for his removal has never been louder.

Chávez became president in February 1999 with a mandate to boot out the old-style elite political parties and create a more open style of government. He vowed to alleviate poverty in the oil-rich country.

At first, it looked as if he might do it, thanks to a dizzying increase that saw the price of a barrel of Venezuelan crude oil go from $9.45 to more than $20 within a few months, rising to $23.42 one year after he took office, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.


Because Venezuela is one of the world's leading oil producers, this meant Chávez had more than enough money to throw at social programs designed to help the disadvantaged. He continued an expanded school calendar and swore he would give land to the poor. Throughout it all, his popularity remained high and his treasury full.

But during the past year, oil prices have fallen to $17.68 a barrel, and Chávez's ability to use money to resolve his country's social ills has diminished sharply. He announced recently that the drop in oil prices has created a 22 percent budget gap.

Growth last year was a modest 3 percent and unemployment has risen to about 12 percent. The economic downturn provided ammunition to the president's many critics. Although Chávez announced economic measures that experts agree are sound -- floating his currency against the dollar instead of trying to maintain a fixed rate -- they have diminished his treasury even more. The currency lost nearly 10 percent of its value against the dollar last week.

The political crisis has also left investors uneasy, with treasury reserves falling by $2 billion, or 17 percent, since November.

For the moment, Chávez has been left with only a portion of the poor and his Fifth Republic Movement party, or MVR, allies on his side, and there is no clear sign that he can improve his standing with a public that looks increasingly fed up.

According to a Datanalisis poll, Chávez has a 35 percent approval rating, a 20 point drop in five months.

Experts note that his popularity was bound to sink: He took office with an 80 percent approval rating that was impossible to maintain. But polls show even the poor have begun to lose faith.

''This is the most complex time he's ever faced,'' said Datanalisis director Luis Vicente Leon. ``This is the worst period he's experienced so far -- but it will get much worse.''


Most critics were particularly incensed when Chávez decreed sweeping changes in the law affecting the private sector, including a measure that expropriates land deemed to be under-used. He regularly insults his enemies, and recently took on the Catholic Church, calling one bishop a ''devil.'' His fiery diatribes against the press led to the bombing of a local newspaper.

Now his adversaries include the business community, labor unions, the middle class, neighboring countries -- and the church. The opposition has taken to calling him ''El Chalibán,'' a play on the word Taliban.

The snowballing size of the opposition has led to increasing social and political tension. In December, an unlikely alliance -- business and labor -- conducted a one-day strike to protest Chávez' laws. A month later, a massive march took place in the streets; Chávez had the government TV station broadcast a Catholic Mass instead.

This month, two previously unknown military officials publicly called for Chávez's ouster, saying they enjoyed the support of three-quarters of the rank and file. When military police tried to arrest one -- a dissident colonel -- thousands of Venezuelans rushed to a plaza in protest.

On Monday, Molina accused Chávez and the National Assembly, Supreme Court, elections board and finance ministry, all dominated by Chávez allies, of seeking to impose a totalitarian regime.


He warned that Chávez's divisive rhetoric and pro-government neighborhood committees known as ''Bolivarian Circles,'' could provoke unnecessary bloodshed.

If Chávez's popularity continues to fall and emboldens his opponents, the prospects for finishing his term could be dimmed. Chávez and his supporters, however, insist the likelihood of a coup is zero.

''The president enjoys great popularity among the people and the military,'' said Tarek William Saab, head of the National Assembly's foreign policy committee. ``We have had lots of stages. 1999 was difficult. 2001 was a tough test, and there will be more difficult tests.''

In a public appearance recently, Chávez blamed his troubles on opponents in congress. ''Instead of being constructive, they want to obstruct,'' Chávez said. ``They are fighting reforms on taxes, credit, employment, etc. Their plan is to sabotage.''

GLUM MOOD All of this has left Venezuela in a glum mood, a feeling that the nation is in a downward spir al. ''People are frustrated,'' said Dennise Alvarez, a secretary who stood in an hour-deep line this week to buy dollars.

``It's not just the middle class, it's every class. We would rather have someone else, but there are no other options. What we can't do is expect anyone to be our savior -- that's what happened when we voted for Chávez.''

TOPICS: News/Current Events
Venezuela's Chavez Takes First Step to Land Reform (heavy taxation, confiscation, eviction)--- `` I take this opportunity to call on all those who have a lot of land and are not using it to voluntarily put it at our disposal. And if they do not, we will have no alternative but to turn the screw on them,'' said Chavez, wearing his trademark military fatigues.

Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez hug in Bolivar city August 11, 2001. Castro, making his first trip abroad since a recent scare over his health, arrived in Venezuela Saturday to enjoy an early 75th birthday celebration with his friend and ally President Hugo Chavez. REUTERS/Kimberly White

Cuba, Venezuela Increasing Ties --[Excerpt] Chavez shouldn't be seen as a Marxist but rather an elected ``authoritarian populist'' who ``dreams of being a boss-like figure like Fidel Castro,'' Hernandez said.

That hasn't calmed the fears of some investors and leaders of Venezuela's fragmented opposition, who blame Chavez's incendiary rhetoric in part for capital flight.

In June, Chavez decided to create citizens' groups charged with taking care of their neighborhoods. To some, the move evoked images of Cuba's infamous revolutionary block committees.

Most criticism has been leveled by Venezuela's teachers, who oppose Cuban funding and Cuban-inspired curricula in public schools.

A key Chavez program affords millions of poor children a chance to go to school. But many teachers condemned a course on the late Cuban revolutionary Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara, and a May protest ended in clashes with pro-Chavez activists in front of the Cuban Embassy. [End Exceprt]

1 posted on 02/23/2002 2:44:56 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
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