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Venezuela: Is Reconciliation Possible After Coup Attempt? - 2002-04-18


Since his restoration to power Sunday after being held prisoner by rebellious military men for two days, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been speaking of reconciliation. Some of his opponents have also made goodwill gestures and spoken in favor of dialogue. But, political analysts who are critical of the populist president see little hope for dialogue and are fearful of more trouble ahead.

In his speeches over the past few days, President Chavez has softened his image considerably by reaching out to opponents and asking for national unity. He has gone so far as to admit having made mistakes and has asked all Venezuelans to come together in a dialogue aimed at restoring peace and social order.

But Mr. Chavez also says he hopes the events of recent days have shown people in the United States and other countries the truth about his nation. He has portrayed his return to power as a great triumph for the Venezuelan people against what he refers to as a conspiracy to undermine the constitution. Even some of his supporters say he has not given sufficient thought to the huge demonstrations against his government that preceded the military move against him.

Mr. Chavez has also given little indication that anything in his style or policy will change. Political analyst Anibal Romero says it is unlikely that Mr. Chavez will alter his course in spite of what happened.

"Hugo Chavez is a true revolutionary. He is not your ordinary Latin American populist demagogue, although he is a demagogue," Mr. Romero said. "There is more to it than that. There is more to him than that. He is a revolutionary, committed to his principles and objectives, and he will not deviate substantially from them. He will make tactical adjustments, as he is doing now, because he got a big scare. He was practically overthrown, and he came back from the grave, politically speaking."

One of the things that saved Mr. Chavez was the huge outpouring of support from the poorer sections of the country, especially in the slum areas of Caracas. Mr. Romero says opposition leaders perhaps underestimated the reaction that would come from pro-Chavez sectors because opinion polls had shown support for Mr. Chavez down below 30 percent. But he says, pollsters never go to the poor shantytowns where a large portion of the country's population lives.

While Mr. Chavez does have some critics among the poor, for most of them, Mr. Romero says the populist president provides an outlet for their anger.

"They see in Chavez not necessarily the man who will solve their economic problems, who will make them prosper," he said. "But the person through which they can express their resentments and frustrations. That is sad, because it does not lead anywhere."

The sector of Venezuelan society that played the biggest role in both the coup against Mr. Chavez and the effort to restore him was the military.

Armed Forces leaders remain uneasy, says Mr. Romero, because they see government funding and arming of civilian supporters of the Chavez revolution as a threat to their own institution. Mr. Romero says the next split in their ranks may not be along lines of ideology, but along generational lines.

"What are the younger officers thinking after they saw their generals and admirals behaving in such a confused and wasteful, politically speaking, way?", He asked. "They ask themselves if these people are up to the task. I would not be surprised if we had the younger officers in the different branches of the armed forces coming together to act in the near future."

During his visit this week, Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria urged that the military be removed from political life in Venezuela.

But Anibal Romero thinks that is unlikely to happen any time soon. He says that in spite of what happened in recent days, the armed forces remain an important element in the political picture and that President Chavez should not assume that he will continue to have their support.

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