"If Chavez Goes, There Will Come Another Chavez"

Jay Moore pieinsky at igc.org
Tue Dec 17 09:58:13 MST 2002


Chavez followers stay loyal despite Venezuela crisis
Clashes between supporters, critics rage in Caracas

By Mike Ceaser, Globe Correspondent, 12/17/2002
Boston Globe

CARACAS - The neighborhood called January 23d has massive apartment blocks
with faded, flaking paint, high unemployment, poverty, and violence - and
tremendous support for President Hugo Chavez, on whose watch the lives of
many residents have become more difficult.

''We are going to defend the constitution to the death,'' one speaker said
during a press conference in the neighborhood last week by Chavez supporters
who wore red berets and vowed to defend their leader's ''Bolivarian
Revolution.''

Chavez's enduring popularity in spite of a plummeting economy, social
strife, and spiraling inflation is one of the paradoxes of the phenomenon
called ''Chavismo.''

It was Chavismo that fueled the eruption of public fury that swept the
charismatic and confrontational president back into power after a group of
military officers deposed him for two days in April in favor of a
businessman-president.

Chavismo has also covered the capital's walls with pro-Chavez slogans and
made videos and compact discs praising Chavez's bestsellers on the capital's
sidewalks.

But Chavismo has also led to an equally passionate opposition, which has
shut down the nation's vital petroleum industry for two weeks and plunged
the nation into political and economic crisis in a bid to force Chavez to
resign or call early elections.

Clashes between Chavez supporters and critics continued yesterday, as police
fired rubber bullets and tear gas into buildings and streets of this capital
city of about 6 million people. Chavez loyalists continued their attempts to
break an opposition-led strike that has crippled the country.

For Chavez's predominantly poor supporters, their president's appeal stems
from a feeling of involvement and a hope that this oil-rich nation's
impoverished majority will finally receive a fair share of the country's
wealth.

Susana Rodriguez, a community activist in the January 23d neighborhood,
acknowledged that joblessness has increased under Chavez and now affects a
third of the community's 60,000 residents. But she insists that living
conditions have improved in less tangible ways: hospitals are better
equipped and the police treat residents with more respect, Rodriguez said.
She said that children learn ''better values'' in school and more of them
can study because of Chavez's ban on school fees.

Rodriguez said residents have organized to manage their own neighborhood -
all thanks to Chavismo. The neighborhood's political slant is indicated by
its name, which commemorates the day in 1958 on which a military dictator,
Marcos Perez Jimenez, was overthrown.

Another part of Chavez's appeal is cosmetic: the son of small-town
schoolteachers, he looks and speaks like the great majority of Venezuelans,
who are mestizos of mixed African, European, and indigenous descent.

Many attribute the country's ills to the president's enemies, in particular
businessmen, whom they accuse of hoarding much of Venezuela's wealth.
Underdevelopment, Chavez supporters argue, preceded the president and cannot
be resolved overnight.

The Chavismo phenomenon has almost religious qualities. The president's most
devoted followers plaster walls with Chavez's image and never leave home
without a tiny blue copy of Venezuela's ''Bolivarian Constitution,'' which
was amended in 2000 with Chavez-inspired proposals.

''We'll have to wait many years in order to reach that maximum of
happiness,'' says Rodriguez. ''There are many obstacles to be overcome.
We're working little by little.''

But much of the country's political establishment is also working to win
back the Chavez followers. When Chavez and his Fifth Republic Movement party
swept to power in 1998, they were helped not only by the support of the
poor, but also by a political oligarchy widely viewed as corrupt and
elitist.

''The parties distanced themselves from the people and turned into managers
of interests, not of ideas,'' said William Davila, leader of Democratic
Action, one of the two traditional parties, which he argues will become more
democratic to respond to people's needs.

Chavez's popularity has dwindled, according to polls, to about 30 percent -
although that is still more support than other Latin American leaders have
drawn. But the president benefits from passionate supporters, including
militant groups known as Bolivarian Circles, which are alleged to have
carried out grenade attacks on opposition union members and media offices.

Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American states, has
positioned himself as a mediator in the strike and says it is crucial that
Venezuela carry out clean and transparent elections.

The Bush administration urged Chavez last week to hold early elections, but
the president has rejected the idea, noting that the constitution would not
allow elections until August.

''If President Chavez's people think that he lost power in an illegitimate
way, that is very risky,'' Gaviria said last week.

Political analyst Alberto Quiros says that regardless of what happens to
Chavez, political parties will have to pay closer attention to public
sentiment.

He also said that if Chavez falls, his party could maintain a key role as
long as Chavez steps down gracefully and avoids street violence. Quiros said
Chavez has a good shot at being reelected president if the next government
fails.

''The backlash could return him to power,'' said Quiros.

Chavez's opponents would prefer to see Chavez tried and convicted on charges
including corruption and allegedly planning the shooting of opposition
marchers just before the April 11 coup.

But Chavez supporters like Hester, who sells crafts on the street, said she
believes that, with or without their leader, Chavismo will continue until
the nation's social problems are resolved.

''If Chavez goes, there will come another Chavez,'' she said.




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