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Chavez: Ever a Bush Critic, Ever Popular

The Venezuelan leader seems to delight in deriding 'Mr. Danger.' But his support is largely a result of his programs aiding the nation's poor.

November 06, 2005|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — As he does every Sunday afternoon for hours on end, President Hugo Chavez was holding forth to a captive television camera, by turns singing, taking calls, chumming it up with deferential guests and launching broadsides at domestic and foreign foes.

This time, the foe was otherworldly: Halloween ghosts and goblins.

Not surprisingly, he was referring to American ghosts and goblins, their seemingly harmless costumes merely a disguise for what the burly, loquacious Venezuelan president labeled cultural "terrorism."

"Dressing up the family like witches, it runs contrary to our customs," said Chavez, his brow furrowed, as he broadcast his show, "\o7Alo Presidente\f7," -- Hello, President -- from the eastern Venezuelan oil town of Maturin last week. He urged Venezuelans to ignore the "gringo custom."

"It's all a game of terror, very appropriate to gringo culture, to make other countries afraid, make its own people afraid," said Chavez, a former army officer who was elected democratically in 1998 after leading an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. A dozen solemnly attentive Cabinet ministers and local officials nodded approval.

Exporting a trick-or-treat culture was just one of the many crimes the leftist leader pins on Uncle Sam, his boogeyman Numero Uno. It's all part of Chavez's ongoing effort, central to a socialist agenda called the "Bolivarian Revolution," to demonize U.S. society, culture and politics, and rally his citizens and those of other Latin American nations to the example of Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom Chavez idolizes.

He seems to abhor President Bush, whom he sometimes refers to as "Mr. Danger" after an evil character in a classic Venezuelan novel. On many an occasion, he seems to enjoy deriding Bush, especially since Chavez faced an abortive military coup in April 2002 in which he accuses the U.S. of having a hand.

Seven years after his ascent to power, polls indicate that Chavez enjoys the support of a majority of Venezuelans, and he's an odds-on favorite to win reelection again next year. But that doesn't mean his strident criticism of the United States and his fervent lionization of Cuba are going over big here.

According to Datanalysis, a polling firm in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Chavez enjoys a 51% approval rating, which is better than it sounds, said the firm's Luis Vicente Leon, because the opposition is "totally atomized." At the same time, 76% of Venezuelans polled rejected Chavez's idea of using Cuba as an economic model, up from a 53% rejection rate in May.

"A majority thinks that talking about Cuba means losing your freedom and nationality," Leon said. "I am talking not only about the opposition, but the \o7Chavistas\f7, or Chavez supporters, of whom only 13% accept Cuba as a model."

The majority of Venezuelans are center-right politically, Leon said, and "if you separate the States from Bush, 36% said in a December poll they prefer the United States as a model."

What does matter for the time being is not so much Chavez's rhetoric but that Venezuela is awash in oil money, which he is spending lavishly on a host of anti-poverty measures, including free medical service, deeply discounted basic foodstuffs and education outreach.

As long as oil prices stay high -- and experts expect them to for the next 12 to 18 months, at least -- and the money flows, Chavez will face few obstacles.

Although the volume of Venezuelan oil output has stalled since 2003, the price per barrel is now more than four times what it was the year Chavez took office. The bottom line: Venezuela will reap about $49 billion in oil revenue this year, more than twice the $22 billion it earned in 2002.

The boom in oil prices helped fuel a 43% increase in Venezuela's public spending this year, to $37 billion. Economist Francisco Vivancos of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas expects another large increase during the next fiscal year.

Although some of the cash is going to public works such as a commuter train and the fourth phase of Caracas' subway system, the vast majority is funneled into programs benefiting Venezuela's poor, who make up 80% of the population. Chavez has created a nationwide chain of retail stores catering to poor Venezuelans. The 14,000 Mercal stores offer discounts averaging 35% less than supermarket prices.

These measures are appreciated by people such as Leida Gette, a poor seamstress and single mother of four. She lives in the La Vega slum in the southwest area of Caracas named after a nearby cement plant that shut down years ago.

"He has done many things for us -- not just the stores," Gette said as she emerged from shopping at a Mercal below the hillside shack where she lives. Raw sewage flowed through the street in front of the store, and beggars rummaged through a nearby garbage dumpster looking for food.

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