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Venezuela's Chavez Defies Foes - 2002-03-01

Venezuelans are growing increasing wary of their President, Hugo Chavez. Public opinion polls show support for Mr. Chavez has fallen from its high of over 80 percent, three years ago to below 30 percent today. But a graceful and peaceful exit by the embattled president seems ever more unlikely.

If Hugo Chavez had not been elected by the Venezuelan people in a free and fair election three years ago, his opponents' effort to brand him an autocratic dictator might be easier. But even his critics admit that he came to power on a tremendous wave of popularity. Opponents accuse him of autocratic attitudes that threaten their rights and the democratic system, but President Chavez says he respects their right to dissent.

He says all groups have a right to their ideas, their colors and their banners, as long as they remain loyal to Venezuela.

But that is where the division starts. When Mr. Chavez speaks of his nation, his rhetoric spins a vision of a land where the rich and powerful no longer dominate. He speaks of conquering his nation's pervasive poverty and he attacks those sectors of society that, he claims, have caused poverty, corruption and inequality. His verbal attacks on business leaders, church leaders and the news media have sometimes been complemented by physical attacks on these targets by his supporters.

To the chagrin of the business sector, President Chavez has caused friction with Venezuela's largest trade partner, the United States, by maintaining close relations with Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro. He has also gone out of his way to be friendly with such figures as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

According to political analyst Anibal Romero, President Chavez has undermined his own program by alienating much of society. "We are also witnessing here a case study in political suicide," he said. "This is a man who has actually managed to get into trouble with Washington, the Vatican, the media in this country, the church in this country and the business class in this country."

Mr. Romero says that after three years in office, Hugo Chavez has little to show for the more than $7 billion his government has spent. He has provided money to poor communities, but Mr. Romero says this has not alleviated the long-term problem of poverty. The Venezuelan economy, meanwhile, continues to stumble. In the past few weeks the national currency has lost around ten percent of its value and many business leaders are worried about the effects of further unrest.

Even the president's hold on the military seems shaky after four high-ranking officers, in separate declarations over the past few weeks, called for his resignation.

Chavez supporters dismiss such incidents as the product of disgruntled individuals. Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel says attempts by opponents to incite a military coup against the president are bound to fail. He says there is no basis for a rebellion in the ranks and that the armed forces remain loyal to the Chavez government. The defense minister notes that this week, the U.S. State Department expressed clear opposition to any military revolt against the democratically elected government.

Mr. Romero is among the Chavez critics who hope for a legal way out of the crisis. "He controls the Congress, but he has lost a lot of votes over the last few months," he said. "I am told that ten to 15 crucial votes are now in doubt. So, they might go against him. If this happens, we could have a referendum. Also, the Supreme Court in this country might start the procedures for impeaching the president."

The political analyst also believes pressure on President Chavez will grow later in March when union leaders and other groups join to carry out a massive strike. If this succeeds, Mr. Romero says, the country's economy would come to a standstill and Mr. Chavez would have few options left.

"If this does not work, I think we can expect open street rebellion," said Mr. Romero. "The military will then have to make up their minds and either come down and repress the people violently or ask Chavez to leave and resign."

Chavez supporters reject such a scenario. They say the opposition is trying to use scare tactics to undermine what Mr. Chavez calls his "revolution." But even in some of the poorest areas of the country, where his populist appeal once resonated, Hugo Chavez is now losing ground. His biggest challenge in the coming few months will be to shore up his support and try to diminish the animosity of those who oppose him.