NYTimes.com Article: How Venezuelan Outlasted His Foes

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Fri Feb 7 07:28:17 MST 2003

Not bad for a NY Times article, considering
how atrocious most of their reporting on Venezuela
has been.  Nevertheless, the author still accepts at
face value the public opinion polls that show
Chavez with only 30% support in Venezuela.
The flaws of public opinion polling in Venezuela
have been discussed rather extensively, both
on this list and elsewhere: for instance the unreliability
of telephone polls in a country where most of the poor
do not have phones, which produces results as about
as accurate as the infamous Literary Digest poll of
1936 which had Alf Landon beating FDR.  And even
the non-telephone polls in Venezuela are of limited
reliability, since the employees of polling firms are
rather reluctant to venture into the slums of Caracas,
where the bulk of Chavez's supporters live.

Jim F.

How Venezuelan Outlasted His Foes

February 7, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 6 - When Venezuela's opposition
movement started a national strike on Dec. 2, the objective
seemed easily within reach. Its leaders portrayed President
Hugo Chávez as rash and weak and predicted he would soon
resign or call early elections under the pressure of a
punishing walkout.

But through the two-month strike that strangled oil exports
and generated the deepest recession in years, Mr. Chávez
never wavered.

The military stayed by his side, ignoring calls to revolt.
The state oil company, though nearly shuttered by thousands
of striking workers, made enough of a comeback to keep the
country afloat. Mr. Chávez insisted, even in his darkest
hours, that the only settlement would be a referendum on
his rule later this year, a proposal his adversaries

Now, the strike is over, the opposition is splintered, and
Mr. Chávez is savoring victory over enemies whose tactics
to unseat him have failed.

The president is not in a forgiving mood. He has opened
investigations into the actions of the country's
antigovernment television stations.

Today, his government imposed foreign-exchange controls
intended to stabilize the currency, the bolívar, which has
lost 30 percent of its value since the strike. But Mr.
Chávez warned that the controls could be wielded as a
weapon to cut access to dollars for opposition businessmen.
"Not one dollar for coup-mongers," he said in a televised

Earlier this week in a speech to supporters he signaled
more retribution for his political enemies, telling them:

"The coup-mongering, fascist opposition had their turn with
the bat and they have struck out three times. Now it's our
turn to bat."

He called this the "year of the revolutionary offensive,"
and speaking in the third person, added: "Chávez is still
here, tougher and stronger than ever."

Political analysts say the opposition's critical mistake
was to underestimate Mr. Chávez, a pugnacious former army
paratrooper, who through the years has often found a way to
snatch victory from defeat.

Like a boxer using the rope-a-dope strategy, Mr. Chavez
bounded and ducked, and though hit hard by a strike that
paralyzed the country, continued standing as his opponents

“The opposition pounded away, made little progress, and
ultimately lost steam and became exhausted,” said Michael
Shifter, a Venezuela expert at the Washington-based
Inter-American Dialogue, who has spoken to opposition
leaders about their tactics. “They had Chavez, but were so
lacking in organization, strategy, an idea of what to do.”

Opposition leaders spent time characterizing Mr. Chávez as
an unbalanced dictator while playing down his support as
marginal compared to the throngs of Venezuelans who
attended anti-government demonstrations. Meanwhile, the
anti-Chávez news media, which forms a radical wing of the
opposition, presented commentator after commentator who
predicted he would be forced out by the sheer magnitude of
anti-government sentiment.

The government instead hunkered down and, with each passing
week, the strike weakened while the opposition appeared
increasingly wobbly.

“If only the strike had focused solely on an electoral
solution,” lamented Felipe Mujica, president of an
opposition party, Movement Toward Socialism. “The
opposition thought that it would lead to Chavez’s
resignation and that was a mistake.”

Carlos Fernández, president of the country's most
influential business association, said: "I did not think
the president would be so callous. I thought he would be a
democrat and sit down at the table to resolve the problem."

Mr. Chávez adopted a simple strategy, minimizing the
effects of the strike while using the military to take over
oil installations. That allowed the government to
reactivate the industry that is Venezuela's economic
lifeblood, leading to a war of attrition the opposition
could not win.

"Chávez does not negotiate; he pretends to negotiate, which
is different, but he is really trying to buy time," said
Alberto Garrido, a critic of the opposition's tactics who
has written several books about Mr. Chávez. "For Chávez,
politics is a continuation of war, a form of war."

Rafael Simon Jimenez, vice president of the National
Assembly, called Mr. Chavez’s strategy one of
confrontation, where he did not give an inch and thus threw
the opposition off kilter while reassuring supporters.

“The opposition made a terrible error by fighting Mr.
Chavez on the turf where he rules,” Mr. Jimenez said. “They
have to get it out of their heads that they will take
Chavez out from one day to the next.”

The opposition is still trying to apply pressure, as its
leaders push for a constitutional amendment to shorten Mr.
Chávez's term. The government, though, has rejected the
proposal, and political analysts say it is becoming more
likely that the president's foes will end up settling for
the referendum in August that Mr. Chávez had offered weeks

Still, he is not out of danger, since polls suggest that 70
percent of the population opposes him. Those polls show
that while he would win the highest number of votes against
a field of candidates, he could easily lose, too, because
opposition voters could coalesce around one candidate, as
has happened in previous elections.

Although support for Mr. Chávez remains strong in the poor
neighborhoods where most Venezuelans live, analysts and
community leaders say residents in those districts could
grow restless if he fails to deliver on his pledges.
Already, the president will find it difficult to provide
much assistance this year, since the economy is expected to
shrink by 14 percent and oil earnings will plummet.

"We have not received what has been promised," said Juan
Blanco, a pro-Chávez community leader. "The assistance we
get is very small; we do not even feel it. I ask, what is
the goal of the revolution - where are we headed?"


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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