Sunday, October 30, 2005

Venezuela's Chavez In For The Long Haul

 Venezuela's Chavez In For The Long Haul
Mon Oct 24, 2005 1:59 PM ET

By Bernd Debusmann

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington's most influential foe in Latin America, looks set to stay in power for another seven years unless he is ousted through violence or the price of oil suffers a huge collapse.

Crystal ball-gazing in a country as volatile as Venezuela is fraught with risk. But both Venezuelan and foreign analysts here and in Washington find it increasingly difficult to envision scenarios under which pro-Chavez parties would lose congressional elections scheduled for December 4 and he would be voted out of office in presidential elections in 2006.

In his first turbulent six years in office, briefly interrupted by an abortive business-backed coup against him, the burly ex-paratrooper has steadily consolidated power at home and expanded his influence in Latin America as an advocate of socialist reforms and a vocal critic of the U.S. government and its free-market gospel.

Chavez peppers his speeches with references to "Mr. Danger" (George W. Bush), the "empire" (the United States) and "the desperate giant" (both Bush and the United States). Washington, in turn, labels him a "negative influence" and a man of "questionable affinity to democratic principles."

Venezuela's domestic opposition held mass protests before and after the failed 2002 coup attempt but it was defeated in a referendum that endorsed Chavez's rule in 2004. It is now weakened and divided and concentrates on criticizing the Chavez government.

A long list of complaints include undemocratic practices, cronyism, corruption, mismanagement, waste, intimidation, lack of transparency, politicizing the army and militarizing

civil institutions.

"I'm asking them (the opposition) 'Where is your plan?'," Chavez said recently on his weekly TV show, "'Where is your alternative?' All they want is turn to Venezuela into a U.S. colony."


Not so, according to Julio Borges, one of the two opposition leaders who have already officially announced they will run for the presidency. "Ours is a broken country, divided and in need of a new generation of politicians," he said in an interview.

"We need to build a new majority, working town by town, barrio by barrio, house to house. This is a huge challenge." Borges, a conservative attorney, is head of the Primero Justicia party. He says his poll numbers are climbing toward 20 percent. Chavez's support in polls is regularly up to about 70 percent.

Political analysts say that splitting the anti-Chavez vote among several candidates is a recipe for defeat.

Apart from the personal charisma and popular touch even his enemies acknowledge, Chavez benefits from Venezuela's rich-poor demographics and from the high price of oil.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and has the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

According to a popular adage in Venezuela, the country never had good or bad governments since it became an oil exporter in the 1920s -- it had high-oil-price and low-oil-price governments.

The last time crude traded at levels comparable to today's -- more than $50 a barrel -- was in the 1970s, when the supersonic Concorde flew three times a week between Caracas and Europe and the Venezuelan middle and upper classes gained the sobriquet Damedos (Spanish for "give me two") because of their profligate spending in the malls of Miami.

Not much of the oil windfall trickled down to the poor, Chavez's base of support, who make up more than two-thirds of Venezuela's 26 million people. Over the past few years, vast sums have been spent on social projects for the masses, from education and health care to subsidized food.

Chavez calls this the Bolivarian Revolution, after Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Venezuelan general who freed Latin America from Spanish rule. A recent addition to the Chavez vocabulary: "21st century socialism." It adds to the discomfort of a middle class which tends to see the president as Fidel Castro with oil.

That oil is pumped by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company which finances social programs at home and underpins Chavez's ambitions for leadership in Latin America, where popular disenchantment with U.S.-inspired economic policies have brought left-leaning governments to power in five countries since 2000.


The oil wealth is helping Chavez spread his vision of 21st century socialism in the region and has given him the highest profile of any present Latin American leader. But at home, some of his followers are showing signs of impatience with the pace and scale of promised reforms.

In the first weeks of October, there were protests in different parts of the country, in support of a variety of complaints and causes.

They included delays in a promised sewage project, erratic electric power service, compensation for flood damaged homes, a mining project feared to inflict environmental damage to Indian ancestral lands, government foot-dragging in opening talks on wages for public employees, and a road linking a remote Indian settlement to the nearest market.

Even Chavez has shown frustration at the sluggish pace of programs, such as his drive to build housing for the poor, and has publicly reprimanded several ministers for failing to follow through with plans.

The protests were small, from a few dozen to a few hundred people, and paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who poured into the streets in 2002 and 2003 against his government. But they raised the prospect that growing disillusion among his loyalists could swell the ranks of what is know here as ni-nis.

A ni-ni (Spanish for neither-nor) inhabits neutral ground in polarized Venezuela and would not vote for Chavez or an opposition leader.

"The ni-nis are looking for a leader," said Alejandro Plaz, the head of the election activist organization Sumate. "But there is none in sight."

© Reuters 2005


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