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VENEZUELA - A Nation On Edge, June 2003

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Chavez 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.

"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
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 collapse.

"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 economies prevail.

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 of supporters.

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 marches.

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.

"It is not that the government won, but rather that the opposition lost." -- newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff
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.

"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 presidential bid.

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 percent.

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 strike.

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 Rally Is Stalled

As Venezuela Slides, the Poor Stand By Their Man

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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 please visit

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