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Venezuelan politics: Chavez signals to the left - The president is launching a new party

The Economist
May 17th 2001


President Hugo Chavez was made on television. And true to his past as a would-be coup leader, the former army colonel has made television his political vehicle of choice during two years in office.

At least once a week and usually more, Chavez seizes national television channels to deliver stem-winding speeches on history, current events, friends and enemies and anything else that crosses his eclectic mind. Seated before a portrait of his hero, South
America's 19th-century liberation leader Simon Bolivar, Chavez thumbs through a pocket-size copy of the "Bolivarian constitution," coming across alternately as a long-winded father and a finger-wagging scold.

But Chavez has had few successes to report as he begins the third year of what he promised would be a peaceful revolution for Venezuela. That pledge, born amid a heady clamor of slogans, red berets and populist promises, has turned out to be a
revolution mostly in words. Chavez's résumé, coupled with his impatient revolutionary rhetoric, had caused diplomats and political opponents here to doubt his democratic credentials. So far, however, he has stayed well within democratic boundaries. But his language remains radical, leading many Venezuelans to view his presidency as a drama whose final act is still to be written.

Since taking office in February 1999, Chavez has overseen the writing of a new constitution, reorganization of the legislature and judiciary and demolition of a corrupt two-party system. But his nuts-and-bolts domestic programs have run aground.

Neither long-promised land reform nor pension reforms have emerged. Continuous labor unrest has consumed time and eroded Chavez's once-astounding popularity. The military, put to work on behalf of Venezuela's neglected towns, has shown resistance to his program. Education reform that would invest money in new schools, make it easier to fire teachers and introduce leftist notions into the curriculum has run into broad public opposition.

At the same time, Chavez's determination to steer Venezuela away from its long adherence to U.S. foreign policy goals has made him a source of worry and irritation in Washington. Chavez has displayed friendship for President Fidel Castro of Cuba,
for instance, and roundly attacked the U.S. anti-drug aid package for neighboring Colombia, refusing permission for U.S. reconnaissance flights to pass over Venezuela. But so far he has done nothing to disrupt the flow of Venezuelan oil to U.S.
shores, the most concrete bond connecting the two countries.

Revolution's Slow Pace

Even Chavez has shown signs of deep frustration with the pace of his revolution, which in its broadest strokes envisions a shift of Venezuela's wealth from a small circle of people to the four of every five Venezuelans who live in poverty. This month, he
said he would likely declare a state of emergency to combat corruption and implement social reforms, even though he already has vast powers to enact many measures by decree.

"We are making a superhuman effort to make a peaceful revolution without arms, but it has been very difficult," Chavez said in the garrison town of Maracay, 50 miles west of Caracas, the capital. "I am convinced that if for some reason this attempt to forge a revolution without arms fails, what would come next would be a revolution with arms because that is the only way out that we Venezuelans have."

The son of teachers from Venezuela's southwestern plains, Chavez emerged from rigorous military academies to become a paratrooper. In 1992, along with other restive officers, then-Lt. Col. Chavez helped lead an armed uprising against President
Carlos Andres Perez. The coup failed, but Chavez's brief television appearance denouncing corruption as he headed to jail launched a political career.

Of average height, Chavez appears most often in tailored suits and sober ties. But on special occasions he favors military fatigues and a red beret or, as he wore during Castro's visit, a baseball uniform that reveals a rather well-fed form. A natural populist, he works himself into an arm-waving lather during important speeches, including an election night performance that featured a solo rendition of the national anthem to a crowd beneath the presidential balcony. His wife stood by his side,
reaching over to dab beads of sweat from his forehead as his speech lasted into the cool early morning hours.

The Clinton administration was concerned about Chavez's history and rhetoric. But it pursued a policy of "public benign neglect," in the words of one of its architects, after Chavez's resounding electoral victory in 1998. That position could change, however, with the nomination of Otto J. Reich, the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, to head the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

"There have been some disappointments, mainly because our approach has not gotten him to entirely back off," said a former senior White House official. "There may now be pressures to review this policy, and perhaps take a more confrontational approach. I'm not sure it's a good idea."

Reich, who faces a potentially difficult Senate confirmation, is a Cuban exile known as a fierce opponent of leftist movements in Latin America. His history, including a role as chief U.S. propagandist for Nicaragua's contra army, seems to invite a clash with

"He is a very conservative man and . . . he has the mentality of the people in Florida, the immigrant community," said Jose Vicente Rangel, Venezuela's defense minister. "It is a very simplistic approach to complicated issues in this region. It would be more intelligent to be more flexible toward our politics."

Venezuela ships 3 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, making it one of America's top three suppliers, and shares a long, troubled border with Colombia. These major U.S. policy interests have forced Washington to take Chavez seriously even though Venezuela has a population less than three-quarters the size of California's.

Chavez has pursued several strategic alliances designed to capitalize on Venezuela's oil wealth. He has been credited with helping to restore discipline in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to preserve the high oil prices that have given his government a revenue windfall, and he has tried to resurrect the Group of Three Latin American oil exporters, made up of Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico.

In several trips to the United States, Chavez has shown himself to be an assiduous capitalist, courting Houston oilmen at Chamber of Commerce events and visiting Venezuela's CITGO Petroleum Corp. refinery in Louisiana. It is not every developing-world crusader who is introduced at New York City breakfasts by the chairmen of Exxon Mobil Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and a leading Wall Street investment house, as Chavez was last fall while attending the U.N. Millennium

Chavez urged participants in the breakfast meeting, about 1,000 executives and other potential investors, not to believe the image of him presented in the U.S. media -- and he did so for more than an hour. "He could use a little editing," an adviser said.

But mistrust hampers many of his relations here in the region. Chavez has been accused of sending emissaries to meet secretly with violent opposition groups in Bolivia and Ecuador to identify their "Bolivarian elements," resulting in formal complaints from those elective governments. The most recent objection came from El Salvador, where Venezuelan military relief teams sent after the January earthquake have been spending much of their time with former leftist guerrilla leaders, many of whom are now mainstream politicians. President Francisco Flores, a conservative, has asked the Venezuelans to return home.

Whether Chavez is working to inspire populist movements in other countries, which he denies, his coup-leader past and current rhetoric have fostered what a European diplomat termed unjustified paranoia. "Chavez has his hands full for the moment without bothering to export his views," this diplomat said. "I really don't think he's out there doing a 1960s Castro."

The tension has been greatest with Colombia, where $1.3 billion in U.S. military and social development aid to help fight an intensifying drug war has thrown off a delicate regional balance of power. Last year, Chavez sent a former navy captain and fellow coup participant, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, to meet with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the rebel force's safe haven in southern Colombia. Those contacts, at least seven of them, were not divulged to Colombian authorities, who accused Chavez of meeting with subversives. Ambassadors were briefly recalled.

Colombian Peace Effort

Chavez has characterized his guerrilla contacts as a way to ensure that Venezuela is not drawn into Colombia's civil war, and he now has a place among the group of "friendly nations" monitoring peace talks between the Colombian government and its two largest rebel armies. He blames contentions that he supports any illegal armed group on Colombia's "rotten oligarchy," and he recently offered to help broker a long-delayed prisoner exchange between the government and the FARC as a show of good faith.

Colombia's military command traveled to Caracas this month to work out a detailed agreement governing military operations along the border, a delicate topic given the steady stream of complaints by both countries about incursions. After three days of
talks, the military leaders emerged with a deal that for the first time set out rules of pursuit in dealing with guerrilla and paramilitary units along the frontier. Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez flew to Caracas for a ceremonial signing.

Soon after the signing, however, Rangel, the Venezuelan defense minister, received a call from Chavez, who said he wanted a paragraph added requiring the signatures of both presidents to make the agreement valid. According to an official with
knowledge of the negotiations, Chavez had second thoughts about the rules governing the entry of Colombian forces into Venezuelan territory in pursuit of Colombian armed groups.

Ramirez reluctantly agreed to add the paragraph, and Chavez said he would sign the agreement during a visit to Bogota scheduled to begin the following day. But he never did. It remains unsigned, although that has not been made public on either side of the border.

At home, Chavez has shown signs he is considering drastic steps to push on with his political program. He already controls the National Assembly and the judiciary, and he engineered the appointment of allies to head the three putatively independent
watchdog agencies created by the 1999 constitution.

Last year, the National Assembly gave him the power to enact economic, government reform and regulatory measures without legislative approval. But even Chavez's coalition partners have questioned whether declaring a "state of exception," suspending certain constitutional guarantees, is a necessary step or one timed only to rejuvenate the president's program as signs of deep confusion and some desperation become evident. Last month, Chavez announced the relaunching of the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement-200, the political organization of his failed coup. He has yet to clearly set out what it will do or how it will work with his political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, but, in the words of one political analyst, it gives "the revolution a sense of a dynamism that's not really there."

In the same vein, Chavez said in a speech this month that he ordered what he called the Political Command of the Revolution to consider jettisoning a key coalition partner that had criticized his proposed state of emergency. When questioned, Chavez's top
advisers acknowledged they had no idea who makes up the command or what exactly it is.

"At this point, I have a hard time taking him seriously," said Anibal Romero, a political science professor at the conservative Simon Bolivar University here. "He is not the threatening figure that some of us thought he was. He has shown that he is someone who is highly incompetent, who talks too much, and who doesn't deliver on his threat."

Much of Chavez's public hostility toward the U.S. anti-drug aid package to Colombia has disappeared since the Bush administration announced a $400 million plan to help Colombia's neighbors weather spillover effects from the drug war. And Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila said recently that Venezuela voted to keep the United States on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, a statement that is not verifiable because the balloting was secret, but one meant to convey an interest in good
relations with Washington.

But Chavez's independence from U.S. interests was on display last month at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. He was the only invited leader who did not support creation of a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005 -- a favorite cause of the Bush administration -- or requiring its members to maintain democratic governments.

His resistance to a free-trade agreement was based mostly on its timetable, and even some of his critics said he was right to question the urgency with which the United States is pushing it. But his position against the "democracy clause" was more obscure. He argued that "representative democracy" had cheated Venezuela, saying he favored "participatory democracy." He abstained from both votes.

The entrenched two-party process in place before Chavez's election operated largely as a spoils system for party leaders and cronies. Now Chavez's "participatory democracy" has come to mean putting most large reform-oriented questions before
voters in national referendums. He has done so several times -- to ratify the new constitution, to dissolve the leadership of the largest labor group -- and relied on his own extraordinary political skill to push them through.

Despite his success, public participation has declined sharply. Last December, roughly one in 10 eligible voters cast ballots in favor of Chavez's referendum to remove the leadership of Venezuela's largest private labor coalition. Rangel said Chavez wants
to "deepen the definition" of what democracy means in Latin America, and promised more referendums in the future.

"It is not Chavez who is radicalizing the process," the president said of himself this month. "It is the situation facing this country that demands it."

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