Hugo Chavez as International Leader

Jay Moore research at
Mon Oct 2 18:11:21 MDT 2000

Latin America's new international champion
Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez is setting himself up as a world figure,
but he is not without domestic critics and problems, writes South America
correspondent Alex Bellos

Monday October 2, 2000
The Guardian (UK)

When President Hugo Chavez last week hosted the summit of the Organisation
of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (Opec) in Venezuela's chaotic capital,
Caracas, the charismatic leader launched himself as an international
statesman and a champion of the developing world.

For those who have followed Chavez's rise from renegade paratrooper to
Venezuela's most powerful president in 43 years of democracy, the way he
dominated the summit can be compared to how he has reshaped almost every
other institution he has been part of.

In the year and a half that he has been head of state, Chavez, aged 45, has
dissolved congress, rewritten the constitution, installed allies in the
judiciary, been re-elected for six years and won enhanced new executive

He is Latin America's most outspoken leader, counts Fidel Castro of Cuba as
a close personal friend, and is not afraid to incur the wrath of the
industrialised world - as he did in August when he became the first world
leader to visit Saddam Hussein in Iraq since the Gulf war.

Supporters of Chavez say that he is a leftwing visionary with great popular
appeal who is uniquely capable of restoring the fortunes of a country where
80% live below the poverty line.

But an increasing number of critics say that he is a demagogue-in-waiting, a
throwback to the stereotypical Latin American strongman who relies on
authoritarian rule.

But Chavez, who models himself on South American independence hero Simon
Bolivar, has achieved through the ballot box more than he originally
attempted through violence.

As a young military commander in 1992, he led a botched coup for which he
spent two years in jail. On his release he traveled the country to gather
support for what he calls his "peaceful revolution" of the oil-rich nation.
Once he was elected president at the end of 1998, he launched into campaign
to dismantle all the democratic institutions and replacing them with
versions in his own image.

He closed down the congress, setting up a temporary "constituent assembly"
while a new constitution was written. Once the constitution was approved by
a referendum, he won a general election and the new congress is filled with
his supporters.

He has installed military friends in many high-ranking jobs, giving him a
stranglehold on the administration of the country.

Even though some of Chavez's former coup plotters have broken with him,
saying he has betrayed the revolution, Chavez remains overwhelmingly popular
with the Venezuelan poor. He has a masterful populist touch as was evident
in his folksy Opec speeches. When he ended with a traditional poem,
commentators said he was being restrained - he usually breaks into song.

While no one doubts that the regime that he took over from was corrupt,
analysts worry that Chavez's anti-business stance and centralisation of
power is simply replacing one bad system with another.

Venezuela's economy is dependent on oil and Chavez has been lucky that the
price has tripled since he took power. However, few believe that the price
will stay as high and once it drops the country will face more difficulties.

As things stand, despite Venezuela having the largest oil reserves outside
the Middle East, the nation of 24m people already has one of the worst
poverty rates in Latin America.

With the Opec summit giving him the appearance of a world statesman, the
high price of oil alleviating pressures on the economy and the six-year
mandate won in August, Chavez is currently enjoying a better-than-expected
political honeymoon.

He now has all the powers he desired to implement his "revolution". But it
remains to be seen whether he can bring long-term prosperity to the country
that he has already renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

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