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For Venezuelans, Chavez Has Brought Politics to Life

The president may be beleaguered, but many who saw civil affairs as belonging only to the upper crust have been energized by his plight.

January 04, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — Maeca Lopez used to have a comfortable life. She owned an art gallery, dabbled in painting and had a circle of friends who volunteered for charities.

Now, the widow and mother of two is at war with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. She sold her business. She goes to political meetings to plot his ouster. And she leads a group of women who show up at every march with gas masks and manicured nails.

No matter what happens to Chavez, he has already assured himself this legacy: He has managed to awaken the political consciousness of a nation where politics were once a distant realm populated only by the rich and powerful.

"It's the only good thing he's done," Lopez said, laughing.

Venezuela may now be the most politically active country in Latin America. Politics here are lived, felt in the long lines that have stretched everywhere since Chavez's foes launched a crippling nationwide general strike last month: lines for gas, lines for money, even lines to register to vote.

Politics are the main topic of conversation in boardrooms and hovels, in coffee shops and at bus stops. They dominate the nation's TV shows, its radio stations, the graffiti on walls.

All of this discussion surrounds Chavez: how to kick him out or how to keep him in office.

The passion could be plainly seen in the last few weeks, as the National Elections Council, which oversees voting, launched a drive to register voters for a referendum, proposed for February, on Chavez's rule.

People waited in line for as long as six hours to register. More than 380,000 people signed up in 18 days. Nearly 70% of them were young, first-time registrants, equal to about 2.2% of the country's 12 million registered voters.

All this for a referendum that would be nothing more than a giant opinion poll -- a "consultative" vote with no binding power.

For the referendum is not guaranteed to happen. Chavez's supporters have challenged it, saying the elections council is flawed, as is the wording of the question, which asks whether Chavez should resign.

None of that mattered to those who got up as early as 4:30 a.m. to register.

"We have to get him out in any way possible. With Chavez, there's no work," said Mai Lozano, an unemployed 24-year-old who spent nearly all of a recent Sunday in a noisy, sweaty subway station to register.

Chavez's foes see the controversial leader as a threat to democracy. They believe his vision of an ill-defined "revolution" to aid the country's millions of poor has instead driven the nation to ruin. Unemployment is high, about 17%; inflation is running at 30%; and the oil-rich country's economy has actually shrunk during a year of relatively high petroleum prices.

The opposition, a diverse group whose members range from homemakers to anti-Chavez politicians, holds marches every day across the country. The Chavez foes gather every night on street corners for cacerolazos, during which they bang pots and pans in protest.

It is an exhausting pace, a daily grind that is fraying nerves and drying up savings accounts. But so far, it has not broken the opposition supporters' resolve. They want Chavez to resign and make way for new elections early this year.

Chavez's supporters are just as determined. They hold counter-marches, counter-cacerolazos, and have their own drive to oust a key Chavez opponent by means of a recall election. They want to expel Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena from office for running a police force that has repeatedly quashed pro-Chavez protests.

They sleep in the street around the presidential palace, vowing to defend Chavez's rule with their bodies. They light fires in barrels, huddle in doorways and are always on guard.

Chavez was ousted in a coup in April, then returned to power two days later with the support of his followers and loyal military units. Nineteen people were killed in the course of an opposition march leading up to the coup.

Like leftist uprisings in Nicaragua and Cuba, Chavez's nascent "Bolivarian revolution" has awakened a political consciousness in the poor. For the first time in Venezuela's history, small grass-roots groups, called Bolivarian Circles, have formed in impoverished neighborhoods to demand improved living conditions such as running water and new sewers.

According to Nancy Perez, who came down from her poor neighborhood in the hills to protest for the first time in her life last month against Lopez and her allies, "all they want is for Chavez to leave. They have never taken into account the poor. They call him a murderer, but we don't see him that way. He's our leader."

There is no question that many people hate Chavez. Polls -- more accurate and professional here than in many Latin American countries -- show that about 70% of the population disapproves of him. Opposition is strongest in the upper and middle classes, but a bare majority of the lowest economic class also has turned against him.

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