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Venezuelan Opposition Worries About Country's Direction

In August of last year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won a recall referendum vote that opposition forces had mounted to remove him from power. Since then, the fiery populist leader has moved forward with plans to consolidate what he calls the "Bolivarian revolution," named after his hero, Simon Bolivar, who led the independence struggle against Spain in South America in the early part of the 19th century.

But, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Caracas, many Chavez critics believe he is following the model of another man--Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro.

Relations between Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro could not be stronger. Under Mr. Chavez, Venezuela provides Cuba with the oil it needs to run its struggling economy, while Cuba provides Venezuela with thousands of doctors and educators.

Cuba is also providing military and intelligence assistance to Venezuela and, under rules established by the new constitution put in place by a Chavez-controlled constitutional assembly and Congress, a new military reserve is being formed.

At a recent meeting of opposition figures and former military officers in Caracas, Retired General Oswaldo Suju Raffo questioned this policy. "I noted that the law calls for such a reserve only in case of national emergency and I asked what emergency exists now?"

Political analyst and longtime Chavez opponent Anibal Romero says old-line military men are worried that President Chavez is creating a parallel force that could displace the traditional armed forces. "They are gradually being replaced by a so-called reserve, a military reserve, which is a copy of what Fidel Castro has had in Cuba for many years, a territorial army, which is, in reality, a politicized militia in service of the regime."

Small meetings of opposition groups are pale echoes of the massive anti-Chavez rallies opponents staged before the August referendum. Some opposition leaders still claim the election was rigged, even though foreign observers found no signs of fraud.

But Mr. Romero admits that the Chavez victory in that election was a hard blow to the opposition.

"We need to regroup. We are demoralized. We are disoriented. We do not have a credible leadership group that can direct the energies of the opposition in a clear cut direction. It will take some time until we recover."

And the opposition now faces an even tougher road. A new media law, approved by the Chavez-controlled Congress, makes it illegal to report anything that might incite unrest. As a result, the tone of independent, private station news reports has softened, while the government channel continues to promote the Chavez plan.

Anibal Romero says some newspapers continue to criticize the government, but that television stations “are very, very intimidated and fearful of what the government can do to them."

Chavez supporters dismiss all this as sour grapes from an opposition that lost and now has nowhere to turn. Those who back Mr. Chavez tend to come from the poorer segments of society and see him as their savior.

Government social programs in Venezuela have expanded with funding from the state-owned oil company's increased earnings. But Venezuela's debt has also increased and critics say the Chavez government's rhetoric has deepened the divide between the upper and middle classes and the poor.

Anibal Romero is among those who worry about the future. "I do not discard the possibility that the Venezuelan crisis will eventually lead to civil war. I do not discard that possibility. Or to a bloody confrontation between different factions in the military," says Mr. Romero.

But a coup attempt that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez in April, 2002 ended in failure and strengthened the president's grip on power. Having survived that and the August recall vote, even his critics concede that Hugo Chavez is likely to remain in office for some time to come.