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Venezuelans Likely to Vote In a Strongman


CARACAS, Venezuela — Gen. Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan national hero and liberator of South America, once lamented that the nations of the continent were "condemned to oscillate between anarchy and tyranny."

Venezuela has fought off tyranny for 40 years, clinging to a boisterous democracy while its neighbors suffered under dictatorships.

Yet today, Venezuela has come close to anarchy. Its oil-dependent economy is in shambles. The credibility of political parties has crumbled. A large and larcenous bureaucracy has crippled schools, hospitals and other public services. The streets are full of fear and rage.

That rage propels the populist presidential candidacy of former Col. Hugo Chavez, the man who would be Bolivar, a self-described "citizen-soldier" with a startling resume. Six years ago, Chavez led the tanks that rammed the doors of the presidential palace in a bloody attempted coup.

Opinion polls and the results of recent legislative elections make Chavez the favorite to win today's presidential election.

"The Commander," as he is known, appeals to the downtrodden with his red paratrooper's beret and his revolutionary rhetoric about liberating Venezuela from predatory elites and "savage" free-market economics. An estimated 80% of the population here lives in poverty, and almost half those people once considered themselves middle class.

"We are living in the time of the apocalypse: Something ends and something begins," Chavez declared last week in a melodramatic baritone that mixes the styles of a commander, a preacher and a boxing announcer. "We are at a crucial moment in our history. I believe it. I feel it. We are seeing with our own eyes the resurrection of a people, a people that has risen with dignity and conscience. We are on the threshold of writing indelible pages of our nation's history."

Candidate Seen by Foes as a Throwback

Opponents fear that Chavez is the inevitable tyrant of Bolivar's prophecy. Business leaders, foreign investors, diplomats and many ordinary Venezuelans see this maverick admirer of Fidel Castro as a throwback to the days of authoritarian populism. They say he means disaster for the democratic institutions and economy, South America's fourth largest, of a nation that is the top supplier of oil to the United States.

Chavez scares traditional bosses so much that in the campaign's final days, the two main parties--Democratic Action and COPEI--dumped their candidates and endorsed an independent, former Gov. Henrique Salas Romer of Carabobo state. A Yale-educated economist known as an innovator, Salas has struggled to close a gap in polls of 5 to 10 percentage points by portraying himself as a modern reformer and the last chance for a nation on the brink of a big mistake.

"What is at stake here is not the presidency of Venezuela, but liberty," Salas said last week.

Chavez's powerful patchwork alliance--leftists, rightists, nationalists, the poor, even some big landowners--heralds a gathering wave in Latin America.

Disgusted with stagnant, chaotic democracies whose economic modernization has made life harder for millions, voters are turning to figures who resemble the messianic, militaristic strongmen of old.

The Chavez phenomenon, according to political analysts, recalls Cuba's Castro, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Juan Peron, the Argentine general whose populism somehow incorporated Marxist guerrillas and fascistic nationalists.

The Venezuelan candidate also echoes contemporary leaders: Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, the steely anti-politician who shut down Congress in a "self-coup"; former Gen. Lino Oviedo, the convicted coup plotter whose behind-the-throne power threatens Paraguay's stability; and the eccentric Abdala Bucaram, who won election with populist flamboyance but lasted less than a year as Ecuador's president before he was ousted last year for mental incompetence.

"This has happened before," said Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, a Colombian author of two recent books on Latin American politics who visited this Venezuelan capital last week. "When a nation reaches the peak of disorder, which is reflected by the poverty, the failure of the political parties, our nations look for the magic solution, the providential man. The strongman. What is terrible is that we keep going in circles. We must stop going in circles."

Venezuelans blame their woes on decades of looting and ineptitude by archaic party machines. The traditional bosses' switch to Salas, therefore, could prove a mixed blessing. The frantic stop-Chavez movement unmasks the desperation of a doomed system, Chavez said recently.

"All the corrupt politicians have banded together so we can beat them on a single day," he chuckled. "It's practically a miracle."

Despite its faults, Venezuelans are proud of a democracy restored in 1958 after decades dominated by military rulers. So it is remarkable that they might elect a cashiered colonel who spent two years in prison for trying to overthrow the government.

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