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THE WORLD

Opposition Wishing for Ultimate End to Chavez

July 07, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARACAS, Venezuela — Jose Antonio Gil is among Venezuela's elite.

He moves in circles of money, power and influence. He was educated in top U.S. schools. He heads of one of the country's most prestigious polling firms.

And he can see only one way out of the political crisis surrounding President Hugo Chavez.

"He has to be killed," he said, using his finger to stab the table in his office far above this capital's filthy streets. "He has to be killed."

Nearly three months after Chavez was forced from office, then returned two days later in a mass uprising of the poor, Venezuelan society remains deeply divided. Tensions remain high, and the country seems as polarized as before the events of April 11.

Reconciliation efforts have completely failed. Opposition leaders openly long for Chavez's death. One of the country's leading historians recently wrote a front-page article whose headline read, "It's OK to Kill a Leader Who's Not Following the Laws."

Chavez, whose firebrand rhetoric and erratic behavior have made him one of the most controversial leaders in the country's history, has taken steps to moderate his tone, but they have not been enough to appease the various sectors arrayed against him, from business leaders to union officials to media members.

There is no getting past the bitterness. In a week of interviews in Venezuela, opponents used the following terms to describe Chavez: Hitler, assassin, psychopath, terrorist, messianic, Stalinist, communist, fascist, authoritarian, country bumpkin and several other epithets not fit for breakfast reading.

Security has become a top concern for the president. A populist who once loved wading through crowds, he has almost eliminated public appearances. Late last month, he had ground-to-air missile batteries installed around the presidential palace after intelligence reports warned of a planned aerial attack. A group calling itself the United Self-Defense Forces of Venezuela claimed to have 2,200 paramilitary troops ready to kill Chavez.

By some estimates, he has fired or demoted more than 240 military officials who he believes were involved in the coup attempt. The actions have deepened dissent among those in the military who already opposed Chavez.

Meanwhile, the economy continues to worsen. The currency, the bolivar, has plunged almost 45% against the dollar since last year. Unemployment and inflation both continue to rise. Venezuela is a country holding its breath, waiting for more violence.

Rumors of a second coup fill the country's boardrooms and airwaves, although others dismiss such talk as wishful thinking. More recently, a growing number of observers has come to believe that an assassination attempt against Chavez is a near certainty.

"I've never seen a more divided or polarized society than Venezuela," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, who has spent more than two decades observing Latin America's guerrilla wars and dictatorships.

The coup began April 11 after opposition leaders held a mass march that headed toward Miraflores, the Venezuelan version of the White House. Each side accuses the other of opening fire on the marchers and the counterdemonstrators supporting Chavez.

In the melee that followed, 17 people were killed and Chavez was forced from office. Coup leader Pedro Carmona, a businessman, nullified the constitution and dissolved the government.

But two days later, poor Venezuelans who form the bulk of Chavez's support came streaming into the city center to demand his reinstatement, as did loyal military units. Soon, the coup leaders fled, and Chavez triumphantly returned to office.

Chavez immediately promised to reconcile with the opposition. He shook up his Cabinet, firing or transferring some of the most controversial ministers to other posts. He also replaced a controversial ally who was managing the state's oil company.

Chavez also took steps to moderate his fiery rhetoric. A former paratrooper, he has stopped calling opponents "the squalid ones" and has stopped wearing his military uniform during public appearances.

Most recently, Chavez held out the possibility of a referendum on his leadership as soon as next year, even though his term in office doesn't end until 2007. His popularity soared after the coup, increasing 10 percentage points to reach 43%.

Top government officials said Chavez is sincerely seeking cooperation but is faced with an intransigent opposition that has so far refused to sit down and talk.

"It takes two to tango," Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton said. "We are trying to find a means to negotiation, but it's very difficult."

Still, as Chavez made clear during a recent appearance to commemorate a historical battle, he continues to believe in his "Bolivarian revolution," a political movement to drastically reduce inequity in Venezuela. More than 80% of the population lives in poverty.

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