Still on Top in Venezuela After Tough Year
by New York Times and FRONTLINE/World
correspondent Juan Forero
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 11, 2003 -- The economy is expected
to shrink by as much as 20 percent this year, the nation remains
sharply divided and his opponents are still trying to force
him from office. But a year after he survived a coup, President
Hugo Chavez is as strong as ever.
He has purged the military of the disloyal officers who betrayed
him. He weathered a two-month national strike at the start of
the year devised to force him from power again.
He has since tightened the government's grip on the state
oil company and, against long odds, nearly restored production.
Key opponents have abandoned the country, or are in disarray.
Today the opposition at last abandoned efforts to force Mr. Chavez
to call a new presidential election before his term ends in 2006,
and instead agreed to a referendum on the president's rule later
this year, as Mr. Chavez himself had long offered.
So undaunted is the president, in fact, that Mr. Chavez marked
the anniversary of the coup today in a buoyant mood, holding
a convention of leftist leaders and intellectuals from around
the world who have come to celebrate his revolution, and planning
three days of boisterous rallies.
He is charging ahead with what he dubs "the year of the revolutionary
offensive." That agenda, critics say, is intended to punish
his enemies and consolidate the leftist program that has pushed
Venezuela into political turmoil and to the brink of economic
|"Let no one forget that we are
on the offensive, and we have to maintain the rhythm of
the offensive. We cannot let the offensive grow cold in
any way." -- President Hugo Chavez
"Let no one forget that we are on the offensive, and we have
to maintain the rhythm of the offensive," Mr. Chavez told a
crowd of supporters. "We cannot let the offensive grow cold
in any way."
The turnaround is remarkable for a man whose government has
been on the ropes repeatedly in the last year. Rather than the
political opposition, Mr. Chavez's greatest challenge at this
stage, critics and supporters say, is the economy, which is
expected to fall harder than any other in a region where weak
Thousands of Chavez backers are expected to turn out this
weekend to commemorate the events of a year ago, when the president
was deposed after 19 people died in a huge protest and then,
just two days later, reinstated by loyal troops and throngs
His opponents -- big businessmen, labor leaders, politicians
and private media owners who make up a coalition called the
Democratic Coordinator -- not long ago were themselves able
to convene hundreds of thousands of people in antigovernment
But today the coalition's tactics are so reviled and its failures
so pronounced -- their strike cost the economy an estimated
$7 billion and led to a rash of bankruptcies -- that some prominent
Chavez opponents are distancing themselves from the group.
The two most visible leaders of the strike, Carlos Ortega,
the fiery labor leader who headed the C.T.V. labor confederation,
and Carlos Fernandez, the president of Venezuela's largest business
group, Fedecamaras, have left the country.
Mr. Ortega has sought exile in Costa Rica. Mr. Fernandez, who
is supposedly under house arrest for organizing the strike,
is in Florida, where he is being treated for his failing health.
A third leader, Juan Fernandez, the head of the dissident oil
workers, has also lowered his profile and has been traveling
frequently to the United States, where opposition leaders say
he is raising money for a possible presidential campaign.
|"It is not that the government won, but rather that the opposition lost." -- newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff
"There is no legitimate leadership in the opposition, which
has been defeated," said Alberto Garrido, a political analyst
and author who has been critical of the government as well as
the opposition. "This has led to a vacuum of power."
Henrique Salas Romer, a former governor who finished second
to Mr. Chavez in the 1998 presidential election, has broken
with opposition coalition and appears to be preparing another
Another key player in the Democratic Coordinator, the First
Justice Party, has said it will focus more on its own outreach
programs as it prepares for possible elections.
"This distances us from the Coordinator," explained Jose Mejias,
the party's secretary general. "because all the Coordinator
does is fight with Chavez. We cannot let ourselves be kidnapped
by the Coordinator. At this point what the Coordinator needs
are new alternatives."
Members of the Democratic Coordinator minimize its problems.
"I wouldn't say the opposition is split," said Edgar Paredes,
a leader of dissident oil workers who was dismissed by the government
during the recent strike. "On the contrary, I would say this
is a renaissance of the Democratic Coordinator."
But independent analysts disagree. They say that the government
is buoyant, feeling that it can best its foes and in the coming
months consolidate its gains.
"It is not that the government won, but rather that the opposition
lost," said Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and analyst.
"But the government came out ahead, stronger overall, though
it is facing a catastrophic economic situation."
Indeed, Mr. Chavez faces the monumental task of steering an
economy that contracted 9 percent last year and may tumble another
17 percent this year, according to the International Monetary
Fund. Some private economists say the fall could even top 20
More than 5,000 industrial companies failed last year, nearly
20 percent of the population is unemployed, inflation is soaring
and 56 percent of Venezuelans work in the informal economy,
many of them selling trinkets and fruit on the streets.
For some opposition leaders the strategy now is to lie low
and watch the economy worsen, hoping that the president will
be dragged down with it.
"We have gone to a situation where the issue is not political
rights but the right to eat," said Mr. Salas Romer. "The president
is fighting not against just the opposition anymore. He is fighting
against his own bad management."
The next election is not until 2006, when Mr. Chavez could
run again. For now his hold on power is firm, even if opinion
polls reveal strong opposition as well. One polling firm, Consultores
21, recently found that if the elections were held now, Mr.
Chavez would receive only 34 percent of the vote and that 54
percent of Venezuelans would vote for an opposition leader,
though who that could be is far from clear.
In the meantime, after today's accord with the opposition,
Mr. Chavez will almost certainly face a referendum on his rule,
though the timing remains unclear.
To hold such a vote, the opposition needs to collect 2.5 million
signatures, which it says it did already in February. Mr. Chavez
has called those signatures invalid, arguing that the Constitution
requires the mechanisms leading to a referendum to begin halfway
through a president's term, which in this case is Aug. 19.
Before then, Mr. Chavez has wasted no time taking the offensive
against his opponents. The president has been crisscrossing
Venezuela urging supporters to organize local referendums to
remove opposition lawmakers. His government is proposing several
measures to tighten control over anti-Chavez newspapers and
television and radio outlets.
It has also enacted strict controls on foreign exchange, saying
it is needed to stem capital flight, though many business owners
say the step is intended to punish them for their role in the
At the same time, supporters are being rewarded. Land titles
have been handed out to squatters, and the president has promised
to push through other social programs, delighting supporters.
"Facing all this adversity has made us stronger," Deyanira
Gonzalez, an ally of the president, said at a community meeting
in the poor western end of the Caracas this week. "It is very
hard for a group of oligarchs to destroy what we are building."
Inquiry Into a Deadly Venezuelan
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This article was originally published
in The New York Times on April 12, 2003. Copyright ©
2003 The New York Times. For more New York Times articles
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