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Chavez Administration Coming Under Increasing Criticism - 2001-12-12

The one day national strike in Venezuela coincided with falling public support for President Hugo Chavez - especially when compared to his standing just six-months ago.

The loss of public support will make it increasingly difficult for the populist leader to surmount growing opposition to his leftist policies.

Juan Peralta says he helped elect Mr. Chavez President, but now he is disillusioned. I am really angry with him, he says. If opinion polls are right, Mr. Peralta is one of many Venezuelans who feel President Chavez has not fulfilled his promises.

Mr. Chavez, a charismatic former paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, won the presidency in 1998 with 59 percent of the vote, the highest percentage in 40 years of Venezuelan democracy.

He won on promises to end corruption and bring prosperity to a country where 80 percent of the population is poverty stricken, despite being one of the world's major oil suppliers.

The former paratrooper blamed Venezuela's two traditional political parties for the corruption and mismanagement, and his sweeping presidential victory led to their demise.

After taking office in 1999, Mr. Chavez embarked on changing the country's constitution - saying a new charter was needed to launch what he called a peaceful social revolution. A constituent assembly was elected and drafted a new constitution which was approved in a referendum later that year. In addition to spelling out various social objectives, the new charter gave the president expanded powers.

Most Venezuelans supported all these moves. But in recent months, they seem to have become disillusioned with Mr. Chavez. The polling firm Datanalisis says 57 percent of the population feels it is worse off now than three years ago, and just 24 percent of those polled say they would vote for him if elections were held today.

Datanalisis' chief pollster, Luis Vicente Leon, says all governments after they are in power for several years, lose a certain amount of support. The problem for Mr. Chavez, he says, is that he generated expectations that were too great.

Speaking through a translator, Mr. Leon says, "when Mr. Chavez was elected people wanted change and punishment for those responsible for their plight, but today people want jobs and security - concrete things."

President Chavez' supporters say the Venezuelan leader still retains substantial support. Congressman Tarek William Saab, who is a member of the ruling party, says the polls do not show the extent of Mr. Chavez' support among the poor.

"These sectors are solidly behind Mr. Chavez, and they are a majority and the ones that can decide any situation. The only worry we have, he says, is to continue meeting their expectations in terms of concrete actions," Mr. Saab said.

This is why President Chavez says he will not back down on a series of economic laws, including a measure to redistribute land that is opposed by the private sector. Monday's national strike, which brought together business and opposition-led labor unions, was aimed at pressuring the Venezuelan leader to modify the laws.

The president's hard-line position is welcomed by his supporters, like Caracas hotel worker Henry Benedetti who attended a downtown rally Monday to hear Mr. Chavez speak.

"We are supporting Presidente Chavez because we know he is the only man that can get Venezuela developed, because in the last 40 years we have been governed by a people that have just robbed us. They do not care about the people, but this president is taking care of the people," he said.

But some analysts believe the success of the strike shows the extent of the opposition to Mr. Chavez and his growing vulnerability. For analyst Anibal Romero, Mr. Chavez has lost more than just his popularity.

"It is not a problem merely of loss of popularity, it is a problem of loss of legitimacy. A normal, democratic politician in normal democratic conditions can lose his popularity, but the regime does not necessarily lose its popularity. In the Venezuelan case, what we are seeing is a different kind of situation. We are seeing that a charismatic leader loses his popularity and that the regime consequently loses its legitimacy," he said.

He vows no sign of acknowledging that he may be in political trouble. Despite calls for dialogue by the opposition, the Venezuelan leader has responded by threatening to take harder measures against his political opponents while vowing not to modify his controversial economic laws.

Given this stance, the prospect is for further unrest in this South American nation.