Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-VENEZUELA: Chavez – Sweeping Away the Rot?

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Dec 2 1998 (IPS) - As the motorcade inches along in the blistering midday heat in a Venezuelan country town, youngsters and senior citizens on battered bicycles escort the vehicle of their leader, Hugo Chavez.

That is the man whom many see as the broom that will sweep Venezuela’s traditional parties into the dustbin at elections on Sunday Dec. 6, and the faces of his fervent admirers watch as the presidential candidate of the ‘Polo Patriotico’ drives through the town of Carora.

His charisma is buoyed up by fiery, direct speeches that draw a people hungry for heros. But the streets are not as packed as when Chavez, front-runner in the polls, hit the campaign trail in the past.

Chavez waves and shakes hands. He embraces children, does not shrink from the touch of his admirers, and laughs with his young wife and infant daughter when a group of uniformed teenage schoolgirls squeal as if they had found themselves before their favourite pop singer.

“He is the commander who will sweep the AD and Copei off the map, and that’s all that’s needed to give the country a push forward,” a wiry, grey-bearded man decked out in the red beret that symbolises Chavez says passionately as he pedals along.

AD is the social democratic Democratic Action party, and Copei is the christian democratic party (no one remembers what its acronym stands for). The parties are the two forces onto voters have vented their fury. They blame them for the plummeting of living conditions in this oil-rich South American country.

“The rotten party leaders of the AD and Copei took democracy hostage in this fatherland of ours, and I will restore a true and new democracy to the people,” says Chavez in the nearby city of Barquisimeto, in a speech broadcast live by a local TV station while his followers mass outside as if attending a rally.

Chavez, a robust, commanding 44-year-old retired lieutenant- colonel with predominantly indigenous features, went in the space of six years from an aborted attempt to seize power to being on the verge of doing so through the ballot box in the most crucial elections in 40 years of democracy in Venezuela.

The former paratrooper (a force whose emblem is the red beret) , he headed the first of two aborted coup attempts in 1992 – and for that reason around half of all voters are afraid of a Chavez victory, which is predicted by the polls.

But 93 percent of Venezuelans blame the AD and Copei for the poverty in which 70 to 80 percent of the population is steeped – depending on whether the statistics are official or not – and for the corruption, the collapse of services, the rising crime, the deterioration of public institutions and the economic crisis.

And that is the case even though the AD and Copei have not formally governed the country over the past five years, during which Rafael Caldera has presided over what his critics call the worst government of the century. Caldera triumphed as a candidate who transcended the parties, with close to the same number of supporters as Chavez now boasts.

But Caldera, age 83, has not thrown his support behind any candidate. And although he left Copei – the party with which he governed the country from 1969 to 1974 – to ride the wave of discontent against the parties that was crowned by Chavez’ uprising, Venezuelans today see him as the last dike of defence for the political status quo.

But although they share a common resentment against the frayed two-party system, one part of the population has put its faith in Chavez, while another fears or condemns him as an ex-coup leader who will usher in a dictatorship, whether of the left or right.

But Sunday’s elections are not only about opposition to AD and Copei. They are also a test of strength between Chavez’s supporters and his opponents, who have closed ranks in the last week of the campaign around former governor and independent politician Henrique Salas, who with his blue eyes and silvery hair is at age 62 the antithesis of the ex-coup leader.

The elections also have an ingredient new to Venezuela: they cut along class lines. Until the patronage-ridden party leaderships glutted AD and Copei of their identities, their pluralist grassroots memberships prevented voters from being split according to social strata, in a society characterised by social mobility.

Chavez is a magnet for the votes of those who have nothing to lose – classes ‘d’ and ‘e’, as the poor and extremely poor are called. According to the polling firm Datanalisis, 39 percent of the 23 million Venezuelans scrape by in category ‘e’, while a shrinking middle class now accounts for a mere 18 percent.

Chavez also draws those who harbour the hardest grudges against the politicians who governed the country since 1958, and who are blamed by 75 percent of the people for the skyrocketing poverty in a country that 83 percent see as very rich.

That army of bitter, marginalised Venezuelans sees in Chavez an avenger and a redeemer, an image he nourishes with speeches riddled with historical reminiscences (he calls the 20th century a lost century for Venezuela) and a colloquial style of speaking in which he continually interacts with his supporters.

“Hard, Chavez, give it to them hard!” his supporters shout in Barquesimeto, the capital of the western state of Lara.

Chavez says the masks of his opponents fell off when the leadership of the AD and Copei threw their support behind an independent candidate, Salas, “because they are desperate and do not know how to die in peace.”

“I’m a democrat from head to foot, but not of that democracy that they (the traditional parties) buried in the mud and rot,” he declares. His opponents all think his government will be authoritarian, but some believe he will imitate the Cuban system while others say he will follow the line of right-wing Latin American military regimes.

Chavez is backed by the ‘Movimiento V Republica’, dominated by former coup leaders, mainly leftists, including the ‘Movimiento Al Socialismo’ (MAS) which governs with Caldera, protectionist business sectors and public figures who switch allegiance every five years according to the electoral climate of the moment.

But that cocktail matters less in the heat of Carora and Barquesimeto, a MAS stronghold, where a public dominated by middle- aged and elderly men and women cheer each time Chavez lashes out at the AD, Copei, Congress or the courts.

“I was an AD man for many years, but that party betrayed us, only Chavez can give this people their dignity back,” comments Evaristo Marin, age 56, who describes himself as politically independent.

Referring to the fears of authoritarianism, Rosana Diaz, age 49, says “that is what the politicians say to frighten us. It is not democracy that is ending here but their corruption.” But she clarifies that “this country needs authority, here there is no government or anything, and Chavez has the steadfastness to keep us in line.”

Chavez’ key political proposal is to convoke a constituent assembly with the capacity to dissolve Congress and intervene in the courts, which its followers see as a break with the system imposed 40 years ago.

As Chavez returns to Caracas at the end of his last tour, perspiration shows on his campaign uniform which, besides the red beret, includes a red woollen vest unsuited to tropical climes atop a checked shirt chosen by his second wife to soften his image.

Informed of the surprising chain of new support – including AD and Copei – rallying to Salas’ cause in the volatile final days of the campaign, he says: “This is stretching out too long, Sunday never seems to arrive, and the people have already decided.”

Neither he nor many of his supporters seem to ready for that decision to contradict the opinion polls.

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