Chavez expected to win in Venezuela

But opposition grows as economy falters

July 30, 2000|By KNIGHT/RIDDER TRIBUNE

CARACAS, Venezuela - With his high-voltage smile and his trademark red beret cocked to one side, Hugo Chavez conjures the image of his nickname, "El Comandante," as he shakes his fists toward throngs of screaming fans at a political street party. But as Chavez faces voters again today as a result of the new constitution he helped fashion, his critics are multiplying, and, while they concede his likely victory, they foresee his political demise.

Chavez's frequent speeches, once called inspired, are more often described as political tirades now by pundits who point to a 30-point slump in his approval rating.

More Venezuelans than ever are hungry, unemployment is skyrocketing, and foreign companies who fear Chavez's attacks on the "wealthy oligarchy" are pulling out.

Even many of Chavez's old comrades, including several military officials, have broken ranks, openly criticizing him.

Yet all these signs of clouds on the horizon seem to have had little impact on Chavez.

He looks to the cheering crowd as his bedrock of support among the majority of Venezuelans who are poor.

"Chavez feels everything will be fine as long as he keeps his main source of support," said Eric Ekvall, a Caracas political strategist. "But his approval rating has gone down dramatically because all he has done is talk, talk, talk and no walk, walk, walk."

"His message is not about change," Ekvall said. "It is all about power - who has it and who doesn't have it."

Chavez, 46, who promised a "social revolution" when he swept into office on a wave of popular discontent, enters today's election in this country of 23 million with about a 20-point lead against his main challenger, Francisco Arias Cardenas. Arias is a former lieutenant colonel and Chavez ally from the days when Chavez was an outsider plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government in 1992.

Chavez believes he is walking in the path of Venezuela's famed leader Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century revolutionary hero.

Chavez so admires Bolivar that he pushed in the new constitution for the costly revision of having the name of the country changed to include "Bolivariana" in the title - now everything from currency to government stationery needs the new name printed.

Venezuela's middle and upper classes are rattled by a leader who seems to be throwback from an older era of Latin American strongmen.

"It has been 18 months of non-governance," said Allan R. Brewer-Carias, a Caracas lawyer and former opposition member in the Constituent Assembly.

But more than anything else, Chavez's Achilles heel is not his leadership style, but the economic problems in Venezuela.

Despite having the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East, Venezuela has long remained in the economic abyss - an oil-rich country with poverty, escalating crime and faltering public services.

Chavez, who blamed Venezuela's past leaders for the country's problems a year ago, now has critics blaming him. They say his rule has only deepened the crisis, because Chavez has paid scant attention to the economy.

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