Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-VENEZUELA: Growing Fear of Triumph of Authoritarianism

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Jul 7 1998 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera is at the head of an alarmed movement which is sounding the alert against the risk of authoritarianism as former coup-leader Hugo Chavez consolidates his position as poll-favourite for the coming presidential elections.

In an interview with the local media, Caldera said that whoever wins the elections will have to recognise the legitimacy and nature of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, because otherwise “failure will be the immediate result.”

With six months to go to the Dec. 6 presidential elections, Caldera, an 82-year-old independent christian democrat, criticised the aim of imposing in Venezuela what he dubbed “necessary tutelage by a gendarme.”

In a speech delivered on the 187th anniversary of Venezuelan independence Sunday and an interview on the occasion of the re- launching of a local newspaper, the ‘Diario de Caracas’, Monday, Caldera objected to the possibility of a government of force being imposed on the country, and attempted to make it clear that he had no responsibility with respect to the Chavez phenomenon.

Lieutenant-Colonel Chavez staged a failed coup d’etat on Feb. 4, 1992, the first of two bloody attempts to overthrow the government of Carlos Andres Perez that year. He was released from prison by Caldera when the president took office in 1994 and suspended all charges against him.

The 44-year-old retired army officer is the front-runner in opinion polls, with ratings of 30 to 36 percent, having dethroned 36-year-old Irene Saez, former mayor of a municipality of Caracas and internationally known as Miss Universe 1981.

The former coup-leader’s popularity has been nourished by widespread discontent with the steep decline in living standards – the latest, not yet released official figures to which IPS had access put the proportion of the population living below the poverty line at 70.9 percent.

That slide has been sharpened by this year’s crisis in oil prices, corruption and the lack of renovation of the model of party politics which has governed local democracy since 1958.

Chavez, who now heads the Movimiento V Republica, proposes the dissolution of Congress and the convocation of a Constituent Assembly to ‘refound’ the country. In the realm of the economy, he promises regulation and controls – which has already led to capital flight and turned investors away.

Maintaining a military discourse and milieu, he declares himself a “soldier” and has drawn allies from both the extreme left and extreme right, as well as the backing of Patria Para Todos (PPT) and Movimiento Al Socialismo, a party which has supported Caldera up to now.

A third candidate, businessman and former governor Henrique Salas, whose star is rising in the polls, one of which showed him ahead of Saez, also proposes dissolving Congress along the lines of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s “self-coup” if he were to win without the necessary majority in parliament to push through the changes so urgently needed by the country.

The impoverishment of the population, collapse of basic services, lack of political reforms and rise in violence under the Caldera administration have led to a sector of his 1993 voters to turn towards a radical “anti system” candidate like Chavez.

Chavez’ popularity and Salas’ rise in the polls based on proposals backed by promises of “order” and “authority” are also considered a response to the weakness or neglect by the institutional powers, especially the government, in tackling the country’s pressing problems.

Caldera argued that the patriotic ideals of Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, continually cited by Chavez, “cannot serve as a pretext for a government of force,” which, he adds, have proven ineffectual throughout the history of the region.

The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, the head of Accion Democratica (AD) Ixora Rojas, also criticised those who aim “to use the protective mantle of votes” to later deprive democracy of an essential element – Congress.

AD candidate Luis Alfaro said that “every country has the government it deserves.” He added that the “Chavez problem” is not only a problem of the political leaders but “of all the voters.”

The 76-year-old Alfaro said the media has contributed to bolstering Chavez’ candidacy thanks to the high-profile coverage it has granted him, even though the press is among the sectors that stand the most to lose with a Chavez triumph.

But Pablo Medina, secretary-general of the leftist PPT, said that in his speech on Sunday, Caldera “exaggerated the dangers of authoritarianism,” and maintained that Chavez’ proposal consists of creating “a new democracy on constituent foundations.”

The Venezuelan president said Monday that his government had not fielded any candidate in the present campaign, but that the people had to choose from among those who guaranteed peace and freedom.

Caldera left the christian democratic Copei party in 1993, with which he had reached the presidency in his first term (1974-79). He described himself as a candidate going “beyond parties,” and drew the support of small leftist and right-wing forces, as well as of other Copei dissidents.

The president told the ‘Diario de Caracas’ that he had not justified Chavez’ uprising in his speech in parliament shortly after the frustrated coup attempt, when he said it was impossible to ask “a hungry people to defend democracy.”

According to local analysts, his speech at that time put Caldera back in the limelight and legitimated the rebellion, the first result of which was his 1993 triumph – and the end result of which could be a December victory for Chavez, and the defeat of Caldera’s current government.

Caldera said the release and pardon of Chavez and his comrades in arms as well as the leaders of the November 1992 rebellion was due to “lofty political reasons” in response to the people’s demands.

The president said he only knew Chavez “through television” – a remark interpreted by observers as an attempt to mark his distance from the retired officer.

Since Chavez left prison he has not skimped on criticism for the government of Caldera, who he recently termed “a bastard son” of his rebellion, maintaining that the elderly politician made it back to the presidential palace thanks to his stance towards the rebellion.

Analysts of different stripes say Caldera thinks it would be disastrous to hand over the presidential sash to Chavez on Feb. 2.

In recent days the president has stepped up his warnings of the dangers of authoritarianism. But he also stressed this week that the election outcome would be respected “no matter who wins the presidency,” and denied that there was any risk of a coup d’etat before or after the elections.

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