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World Perspective | VENEZUELA

Despite Setbacks, Chavez Poised to Win Reelection as President

May 27, 2000|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — Since Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took office in February last year, Venezuelans have withstood a litany of woes.

The economy contracted by 7%. Unemployment hit a 30-year high. Violent crime doubled. In the country's worst disaster, floods killed at least 30,000 people.

Yet on the evidence of opinion polls, Chavez seems likely to win reelection by a substantial margin in upcoming voting, when Venezuelans will go to the polls for the fifth time since his 1999 victory. This time, they are being asked to "re-legitimize" Chavez and 6,201 other officials after a series of earlier votes resulted in the adoption of a new constitution.

It is clear that the prodigious oratory and tropical populism of this former paratroop colonel still appeal to the Venezuelan poor, who make up about 80% of the population.

But although Venezuela's democracy has lasted 40 years without interruption--a landmark in Latin America--it appears more dysfunctional than ever. Neighboring nations and the United States alike are worried: Venezuela, among the top U.S. oil suppliers, is a potential tinderbox in an Andean region inflamed by violence, authoritarianism and poverty.

Chavez's critics say the last-minute postponement of the balloting, which had been scheduled for Sunday, is symptomatic of his regime's disorganization. The so-called mega-election had to be pushed back after a nasty spat between the government and a U.S. company providing software and ballot materials.

When technical problems cropped up, members of Chavez's handpicked electoral council accused the Nebraska-based company of a conspiracy to destabilize Venezuela. Chavez joined in the anti-U.S. diatribes, scoffing at the response of the U.S. technicians, who blamed inexperienced Venezuelan officials and ballots that are cumbersome because thousands of candidates are running for city, state and national office.

At one point, police behavior toward the technicians caused the U.S. Embassy to formally protest alleged "verbal and physical harassment" of U.S. citizens.

Finally, the electoral council on Friday recommended holding the elections June 25.

The dark side of the alternately charming and bellicose Chavez has been increasingly on display, according to critics. Opponents find it ominous that he recently compared his "revolution" to the "people's movement" of Moammar Kadafi, the dictator who has ruled Libya since 1969.

The top presidential challenger said Chavez, 45, has become isolated as he drops democratic pretenses.

"He's alienated just about everyone close to him--business interests, the church, much of the military and even his closest advisors and allies," Gov. Francisco Arias Cardenas of Zulia state said in a recent interview.

"The cruel irony is that the people who most support him don't know Chavez the man. Chavez's authoritarian style, his Fidel [Castro]-style leadership, is wrecking this country."

Although Arias does not have a good chance of winning, his rise as the leader of the political opposition shows that Chavez's seeming political omnipotence has been dented. The president's popularity rating has fallen from a peak of 90% to about 60%.

Undaunted, the president has stuck to the tactics that have worked wonders during a term marked by virtually incessant campaigning. Wearing his trademark red beret, Chavez dives into adoring crowds and cranks up their enthusiasm with marathon speeches full of military imagery.

During one campaign stop Tuesday, he said, "We have begun our final offensive."

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