- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

NEW YORK Despite the almost certain re-election of President Hugo Chavez on May 28, many observers believe his administration has lost momentum and accuse the former coup leader of dictatorial tendencies.

"His proclivities certainly seem to be authoritarian and demagogic," said Brian Latell, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and former national intelligence officer for Latin America at the National Intelligence Council.

If it were not for close international attention, "he probably would be ruling as a fairly harsh military dictator," said Mr. Latell.

Polls predict a decisive victory for Mr. Chavez. His strongest contender is his former brother-in-arms, Francisco Arias Cardenas. Mr. Cardenas and Mr. Chavez fought side by side during a failed 1992 coup and remained very close after that.

But internal clashes among the former army officers in Mr. Chavez's government ultimately led to the defection of a faction led by Mr. Cardenas.

The divisions intensified Monday with the withdrawal of a coalition partner's support for Mr. Chavez's re-election bid.

Leaders of Fatherland For All, one of three parties making up Mr. Chavez's ruling coalition, agreed late Monday night to abandon the government and withdraw their support for Mr. Chavez's candidacy.

"The party's decision is that we are not backing any presidential candidates," said Pablo Medina, the group's secretary-general, after an all-day closed-door meeting.

The move carried potential international ramifications, since Oil Minister Ali Rodriguez, the current president of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, belongs to Fatherland For All. Party leaders said Mr. Rodriguez would be free to decide for himself whether to stay in the government.

Venezuela is the world's third-largest oil producer and the main oil exporter to the United States.

With oil prices near record highs and the U.S. government debating an aid package for Colombia's war on drugs, some believe the Clinton administration may be reluctant to challenge Mr. Chavez's authoritarian ways.

"Pressuring Chavez on democracy could be very counterproductive for U.S. interests in the region," said Diego Arria, former representative of Venezuela to the United Nations. "Having said that, last week the U.S. ambassador in Caracas criticized the government for violations of the freedom of the press, which shows growing concern in Washington about the most fundamental of democratic freedoms."

Since taking office in February 1999, Mr. Chavez has done away with the political establishment that ruled the South American nation during four decades of democracy. He pushed through a new constitution that eliminated the Senate, increased the power of the presidency and called for new balloting this month to "relegitimize" most public offices, including the presidency.

He says radical changes were necessary to rescue Venezuela from corrupt leadership that he insists squandered the Western Hemisphere's largest oil reserves, plunging the vast majority of the population into poverty.

"The culture of the cronyism of the past has not been altered," said Mr. Arria. "Chavez personally chose all of his party's candidates for the upcoming election. He demands absolute power as a condition for peace. To disagree with the government is tantamount to being a traitor, a parasite or a corrupt member of the elite that ruled the country in the past."

The latest electoral drive involves about 6,000 candidates running for more than 1,000 posts on the national, state and municipal level, including the presidency.

It follows the approval of Venezuela's new constitution, which replaces Congress with a unicameral legislative body, the National Assembly, and grants Mr. Chavez wider powers.

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