Saying regime has survived bosses' strike, Chavez hints at coming to U.S.

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon Dec 16 19:56:05 MST 2002


NYT; Washington Post. 16 December 2002.
Venezuelan Chief Says He's Weathering
Crisis; Chavez Sees Resignation As Unlikely.

CARACAS -- President Hugo Chavez said in an interview today that he would
consider resigning if violence and economic turmoil make this oil-rich
country ungovernable, but he assured Venezuelans and the international
community that the worst of a 14-day national strike seeking to drive him
from office has passed.

In an interview with four U.S. newspapers that began late Saturday night and
stretched into this morning, Chavez said the organized opposition was trying
to push the country into chaos by paralyzing the lifeblood oil industry,
marching in the streets and keeping stores shut during the peak Christmas
season.

But he outlined steps he has taken in recent days, most of them focused on
ensuring a stable food supply and restarting idle oil refineries, that he
said would allow his government to weather the crisis. Chavez has also
assembled a makeshift supply network to import milk, meat,
rice and gasoline to the country, which has the largest oil reserves outside
the Middle East.

Chavez appeared so confident in his ability to reactivate the economy and
maintain his core political support that he unequivocally ruled out calling
early presidential elections being sought by the opposition and the United
States, saying that even a constitutional amendment allowing him to do so
would not apply to his current six-year term.

"If I realize that I have failed, the president could resign, but not if
they
put a gun to his head," Chavez said. "That's an option that is there, but of
course I would fight with all the force that I have."

"A week or two ago they were driving us toward that scenario [of being
ungovernable] and you could say that the country got close to that
scenario,"
he added later. "But I can say today, responsibly, that we are moving away
from that scenario, recovering ground."

Dressed in bluejeans, running shoes and a yellow, blue and red warm-up
jacket
-- the colors of the Venezuelan flag -- Chavez appeared at ease two weeks
into the deepest crisis facing his government since April, when he was
briefly ousted in a military-led coup.

The talk, which lasted a little more than three hours, served as his most
detailed explanation since the strike began on how he plans to withstand the
financial hardship and social unrest evident in many parts of the country.

The interview took place in a small courtyard in the residential quarters of
Miraflores, the 19th-century presidential palace now surrounded by loyal
Chavez supporters pledging to defend a man many consider a populist hero.

Firecrackers echoed in the warm night as Chavez smoked cigarettes, drank
coffee and alluded to author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Abraham Lincoln,
philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jesus Christ as he sought to explain
the political confrontation that has consumed Venezuela for much of the past
year.

While acknowledging that some of his opponents had legitimate ideological
grievances with his government, Chavez maintained that he was primarily
confronting a powerful economic elite that was using the media to
destabilize
his administration and inspire a second coup. Comparing the media coverage
to Adolf Hitler's propaganda machine, Chavez said, "Some people hate me but
they don't know why."

Chavez used the interview to appeal for international support for his
government, elected in 1998 and again in 2000, a day after the United States
sided with his political opponents by calling for early elections.

Venezuela's 1999 constitution, the first approved by voters, does not allow
for early elections, and Chavez said today that even an amendment could not
be applied "retroactively" to his current term. The president said early
elections would not be discussed in the negotiations being mediated by Cesar
Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, in an
apparent hardening of his position.

But Chavez placed much of the blame for Washington's "mistaken" position on
his own government, saying: "I should have gone to the United States in the
past six months, but I didn't do it. I should have gone to speak to the
media, speak with deputies, congressmen, friends and others who are not
friends."

"I do not want to clash with the Washington government," he said. "What I
want is for them to understand me. What we want here is democracy."

Chavez said the only acceptable electoral solution to the standoff was a
binding referendum on his administration that could be held as early as
August, and he called on the opposition to begin collecting signatures and
mounting a "democratic" campaign against him. "Why not wait until August?"
he asked. "That is the most logical thing. But
they do not act logically."

As the strike has worn on, Chavez has taken steps designed to avoid many of
the institutions that have complicated his political program throughout his
time in office.

Chavez has begun bringing in gasoline from a Venezuelan refinery in the
Virgin Islands, hoping to ensure a stable domestic fuel supply. He said he
has deployed 3,000 soldiers to protect gas stations and escort tanker trucks
to keep filling stations operating.

As domestic transportation has slowed food deliveries, Chavez said he has
brought in stores of rice, milk and beef from Colombia and the Dominican
Republic in Venezuelan military aircraft to bolster reserves in case of
severe shortages.

Chavez, who has defied the Bush administration by refusing to endorse a
hemisphere-wide free trade zone, said with a laugh, "I love free trade."

"This is something above everything else: We are right," Chavez said. "We
are not perfect. But we are on the right path. I say this because I feel
it. We are on the same path as Christ."

In the interview, he claimed continued support among the poor and vowed to
outlast opponents, who have pledged to maintain the strike until he agrees
to
early elections and resigns.

He was in a playful mood as he spoke in a garden at the presidential palace,
telling reporters with a laugh: "You have been here two weeks? Waiting for
the coup?"

He acknowledged the force of an emboldened opposition and said the strike
had
battered Venezuela, leaving the oil industry debilitated. But he said that
if his foes were not ready to end the strike, his government would weather
what he called an "economic war" meant to topple him.

"I think the country has the capacity to withstand all these pressures," he
said. "Our people are people who are able to endure," he said. "Our people,
especially the poor, have resisted hunger and misery for
decades."


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