- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela "I put on my uniform whenever it pleases me," President Hugo Chavez told his cheering supporters at the closing rally of his successful re-election campaign two weeks ago.

In response, spray-painted graffiti appeared on a wall the next day outside Venezuela's gold-domed Capitol building: "Chavez: Ponte el uniforme" (Chavez: Put on the uniform), a reflection of Venezuelans' hunger for strong leadership to lead them out of a nagging recession and to correct long-standing social injustices.

On election day, July 30, the 46-year-old president, a former paratrooper who once led a failed coup to overthrow Venezuela's once envied but now sullied democracy, was dressed stylishly in a white suit with blue shirt and gold tie when he cast his ballot in a Caracas school.

But at 11 p.m. that night, once it became apparent that his countrymen had handed him a 59.2 percent mandate to lead them for the next six years, the flamboyant and charismatic president appeared in uniform and his trademark red paratrooper's beret to address an adulatory throng from the Balcon del Pueblo, or Balcony of the People, of Miraflores Palace.

His vote percentage exceeded by three points his landslide victory just 20 months ago, when he was elected on a platform to rid the country of endemic corruption attributed to the two traditional parties and to effect a more equitable distribution of the country's prodigious oil wealth. His message was enthusiastically received, as 80 percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line.

Mr. Chavez's balcony address on election night resembled those of his friend and idol, Fidel Castro. His 70-minute oration was tinged with leftist rhetoric that still is heard in Havana but has since gone out of style in such other Latin American countries as Nicaragua and Chile. Two small Cuban flags waved in the multitude; one man hoisted a poster of Che Guevara. Hundreds in the crowd wore red berets, the symbol of Mr. Chavez's so-called "Bolivarian revolution."

What his critics wonder now is, can Venezuela's democracy long endure his revolution?

Since his election in December 1998, Mr. Chavez has beckoned Venezuelans to the polls four more times. In a referendum in April 1999, 92 percent of them approved scrapping the 1961 constitution once regarded as a model for Latin America.

Then, last July, they elected members of a constituent assembly, 90 percent of them from Mr. Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement, or MVR. That assembly drafted a new, organic law that, among other changes, abolished the Senate, gave the president broad new powers, extended the president's term from five to six years and permitted immediate re-election of the president. The document also guarantees the people "truthful and accurate" information, a clause believed aimed at Mr. Chavez's critics in the media.

Last December, voters approved the new constitution in a referendum by 71 percent.

On July 30, besides renewing Mr. Chavez's mandate, they elected a new 165-member unicameral National Assembly, 23 governors and state legislatures and a mayor of greater Caracas.

The Chavez phenomenon is not new in Latin America, and it predates Mr. Castro as well. Mr. Chavez is the classic caudillo, the charismatic military man on horseback who guides his people with benevolent despotism. His red beret has replaced the saber and fringed epaulets of his other idol, Simon Bolivar, El Libertador.

The balcony scene on election night was eerily reminiscent of another famous balcony, that of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, where Juan and Eva Peron addressed the masses and pledged social justice for "los descamisados," or shirtless ones.

Mr. Chavez's wife, Marisabel, like Evita blond and attractive, periodically wiped her husband's brow like an operating room attendant as he spoke. His voice was electric, like a soccer announcer's or an evangelical preacher's. The working-class crowd thrilled at every populist passage.

As usually happens when a populist or leftist demagogue comes to power in Latin America, Mr. Chavez has sharply divided Venezuelans along class lines. The once privileged elite and the small but growing middle class rallied around his principal opponent, Francisco Arias, who received 37 percent of the vote. Also a former paratrooper and coup participant who was a friend and ally of Mr. Chavez until a falling out earlier this year, Mr. Arias was seen as less truculent toward the rich and less frightening to foreign investors.

"It's amazing how the people love him," Hrant Zarikian, a 60-ish businessman, said grudgingly of Mr. Chavez. "I can't believe this country can't find any leaders. All we have is these two little soldiers. For 40 years they [politicians] have been stealing, but they're going to steal, too."

Mr. Zarikian, who explained that his parents immigrated from Armenia and built a fortune in textiles, real estate and hotels, said that Venezuela's elite have stashed "millions" in foreign banks since Mr. Chavez became president.

Miriam Suarez, 37, a publicist with a fashion magazine who described herself as "lower middle class," said she did not vote for Mr. Chavez in 1998 although all her relatives did.

"Now they're half and half," she said. "Chavez is a social outcast. What he's doing is not patriotic."

Asked if she thought Mr. Chavez would become a dictator, she shrugged and said: "Well, if he applauds Cuba… . How can someone who has that kind of power say, 'I'll put on my uniform when I feel like it?' "

A similar assessment came from Edgar Rodriguez, a dermatologist. "I fear for the future of the country," he said. "I think Venezuela is going to become a second Cuba. The Venezuelans want a leader, and Chavez has exploited that."

Typical of those who support the Chavez revolution, however, is Edilberto Hernandez, 34, who is working his way through art school as a bellhop at a Caracas hotel.

"These changes are necessary for the construction of a country and a people," he said. "The people were tired of the poverty and the mistreatment. Before, no one could report a police officer or a military person for abuse of power, but now we can."

Asked if his own situation had improved during the 18 months Mr. Chavez has been president, he hedged and said, "Well, the floods [last December] set everyone back economically, but we believe in the change."

"Look what democracy has done for them," Roberto Castillo, an independent taxi driver, said sarcastically as he pointed to the slums between Caracas and the international airport on the Caribbean coast. "Yes, I'm for Chavez. Before, there were government employees on the payroll who did no work. Chavez put a stop to that."

Juan Domingo Vargas, a 63-year-old waiter at a sidewalk cafe in the upscale Sabana Grande section of Caracas, unabashedly wrote down orders with a Hugo Chavez campaign pen.

"He's a good man, and he has a good head," he said of Mr. Chavez. "He thinks about Venezuela. He has provided education and medicine for the children."

Asked if Mr. Chavez had improved the lot of people his age, Mr. Vargas, who said he immigrated from Colombia 23 years ago, said, "Yes, he has provided us with retirement. We had it before, but he has provided greater security for private pension plans. Before, we paid into private plans, and a lot of people never got anything out of them."

Unlike Mr. Castro, however, Mr. Chavez's fiery election night rhetoric was tempered with calls for reconciliation with "those who today are sadly feeling defeat at the hands of the people. This was a complete knockout."

Mr. Chavez vowed to make Venezuela a "model for the world" within 11 years, when the country will observe the bicentennial of its independence. But to turn the nearly moribund economy around he will need to reassure investors, who have been shunning Venezuela like a homely girl at the prom. He reached out to them, too.

"I feel morally obliged to call out to those who have put their personal interests above the interests of the nation," he said. "To the opposition, we must ask for loyalty to the fatherland. I take this opportunity to call out to the Venezuelan businessman, to those who may be afraid, to have no more fear, to put fear behind you. I say to everyone, welcome; union, union."

Mr. Chavez may be forced to learn to govern by consensus. Although his MVR won 57 percent of the vote for the National Assembly, which should translate into about 95 of the 165 seats, that is less than the two thirds he needs to pass major legislation.

The opposition, however, is fragmented. Democratic Action, one of the two traditional parties, came in second with only 20 percent, or about 33 seats. Mr. Arias' Project Venezuela was third with 5 percent, or eight seats. A scattering of other parties hold the remaining seats.

The MVR or parties allied with it apparently won 15 of the 23 governorships, while independent candidate Alfredo Pena was elected mayor of Caracas.

The often erratic Mr. Chavez has tended to steamroller his opponents in the past, leaving pundits to wonder whether Venezuelan democracy can survive his heavy-handed approach to government. But if he makes good on his promises to root out corruption, end social injustice and broaden the middle class, will the long-suffering Venezuelans even care if it survives?

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