October 24, 2005

Venezuela’s Chavez in for the long haul

By Bernd Debusmann

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez, Washington's most influential foe in Latin America,
looks set to stay in power for another seven years unless he is
ousted through violence or the price of oil suffers a huge

Crystal ball-gazing in a country as volatile as Venezuela
is fraught with risk. But both Venezuelan and foreign analysts
here and in Washington find it increasingly difficult to
envision scenarios under which pro-Chavez parties would lose
congressional elections scheduled for December 4 and he would
be voted out of office in presidential elections in 2006.

In his first turbulent six years in office, briefly
interrupted by an abortive business-backed coup against him,
the burly ex-paratrooper has steadily consolidated power at
home and expanded his influence in Latin America as an advocate
of socialist reforms and a vocal critic of the U.S. government
and its free-market gospel.

Chavez peppers his speeches with references to "Mr. Danger"
(George W. Bush), the "empire" (the United States) and "the
desperate giant" (both Bush and the United States). Washington,
in turn, labels him a "negative influence" and a man of
"questionable affinity to democratic principles."

Venezuela's domestic opposition held mass protests before
and after the failed 2002 coup attempt but it was defeated in a
referendum that endorsed Chavez's rule in 2004. It is now
weakened and divided and concentrates on criticizing the Chavez

A long list of complaints include undemocratic practices,
cronyism, corruption, mismanagement, waste, intimidation, lack
of transparency, politicizing the army and militarizing

civil institutions.

"I'm asking them (the opposition) 'Where is your plan?',"
Chavez said recently on his weekly TV show, "'Where is your
alternative?' All they want is turn to Venezuela into a U.S.


Not so, according to Julio Borges, one of the two
opposition leaders who have already officially announced they
will run for the presidency. "Ours is a broken country, divided
and in need of a new generation of politicians," he said in an

"We need to build a new majority, working town by town,
barrio by barrio, house to house. This is a huge challenge."
Borges, a conservative attorney, is head of the Primero
Justicia party. He says his poll numbers are climbing toward 20
percent. Chavez's support in polls is regularly up to about 70

Political analysts say that splitting the anti-Chavez vote
among several candidates is a recipe for defeat.

Apart from the personal charisma and popular touch even his
enemies acknowledge, Chavez benefits from Venezuela's rich-poor
demographics and from the high price of oil.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and has
the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

According to a popular adage in Venezuela, the country
never had good or bad governments since it became an oil
exporter in the 1920s -- it had high-oil-price and
low-oil-price governments.

The last time crude traded at levels comparable to today's
-- more than $50 a barrel -- was in the 1970s, when the
supersonic Concorde flew three times a week between Caracas and
Europe and the Venezuelan middle and upper classes gained the
sobriquet Damedos (Spanish for "give me two") because of their
profligate spending in the malls of Miami.

Not much of the oil windfall trickled down to the poor,
Chavez's base of support, who make up more than two-thirds of
Venezuela's 26 million people. Over the past few years, vast
sums have been spent on social projects for the masses, from
education and health care to subsidized food.

Chavez calls this the Bolivarian Revolution, after Simon
Bolivar, the 19th century Venezuelan general who freed Latin
America from Spanish rule. A recent addition to the Chavez
vocabulary: "21st century socialism." It adds to the discomfort
of a middle class which tends to see the president as Fidel
Castro with oil.

That oil is pumped by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company
which finances social programs at home and underpins Chavez's
ambitions for leadership in Latin America, where popular
disenchantment with U.S.-inspired economic policies have
brought left-leaning governments to power in five countries
since 2000.


The oil wealth is helping Chavez spread his vision of 21st
century socialism in the region and has given him the highest
profile of any present Latin American leader. But at home, some
of his followers are showing signs of impatience with the pace
and scale of promised reforms.

In the first weeks of October, there were protests in
different parts of the country, in support of a variety of
complaints and causes.

They included delays in a promised sewage project, erratic
electric power service, compensation for flood damaged homes, a
mining project feared to inflict environmental damage to Indian
ancestral lands, government foot-dragging in opening talks on
wages for public employees, and a road linking a remote Indian
settlement to the nearest market.

Even Chavez has shown frustration at the sluggish pace of
programs, such as his drive to build housing for the poor, and
has publicly reprimanded several ministers for failing to
follow through with plans.

The protests were small, from a few dozen to a few hundred
people, and paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands
who poured into the streets in 2002 and 2003 against his
government. But they raised the prospect that growing
disillusion among his loyalists could swell the ranks of what
is know here as ni-nis.

A ni-ni (Spanish for neither-nor) inhabits neutral ground
in polarized Venezuela and would not vote for Chavez or an
opposition leader.

"The ni-nis are looking for a leader," said Alejandro Plaz,
the head of the election activist organization Sumate. "But
there is none in sight."