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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 08:18 GMT
Chavez reshuffle defies protesters
Protesters carry mock coffin for Chavez on Wednesday
Chavez is making enemies across Venezuelan society
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has reshuffled his cabinet after the resignation of a close political ally, the moderate Luis Miquilena, who was interior and justice minister.

Mr Chavz announced that the new interior minister would be former navy captain Ramon Rodriguez.

He appointed a radical left-winger, former Vice President Adina Bastidas, to the post of trade minister.

There is a division between radicals and moderates and the president appears to have sided with the radicals, where he feels more at home

Luis Vicente Leon

The reshuffle appears to be a defiant response to a massive street protest this week against the autocratic style of leadership of the ex-paratrooper.

Venezuela's Roman Catholic leaders have also spoken out against the president, rejecting recent criticisms he made of its role.

During Wednesday's march by an estimated 80,000 people through the capital, Caracas, protesters called on the president either to moderate his policies or resign.

But the resignation of Mr Miquilena appears to have radicalized Mr Chavez's left-wing government even further.

As the BBC's Adam Easton reports from Caracas, rumours had been circulating for weeks that the minister planned to resign over the president's unwillingness to negotiate with the country's business sector.

President Hugo Chavez surrounded by supporters in downtown Caracas
The tough-talking Chavez still has a groundswell of support

Mr Chavez said he accepted Mr Miquilena's departure with regret: "I will never say good-bye to Miquilena. He will always be in my heart."

The appointment of Ms Bastidas to the post of trade minister is being seen as a move towards radicalising the government.

The former vice president made headlines shortly after the 11 September terror attacks on the United States by linking terrorism to the dominance of Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the world.

The country's largest business association said her appointment was not a good signal to business.

Mounting opposition

The resignation of Mr Miquilena could damage the government, as the 83-year-old former prime minister holds great sway in Mr Chavez's party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), and could upset its parliamentary majority.

One pollster, Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis, said Mr Miquilena's departure left "other moderates in the government without support".

"There is a division between radicals and moderates in the MVR, and the president appears to have sided with the radicals, where he feels more at home," he said.

Mr Chavez also now faces open opposition from the church in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

The president recently compared the church to a tumour, saying it opposed his reforms without helping the country's poor.

The head of the church in Venezuela, Bishop Baltazar Porras, said the comments showed Mr Chavez's intransigence.

After three years in power, the president's popularity has halved to just around 40%.

Wednesday's demonstrations were the largest since he came to power.

The BBC's Adam Easton
"The march has brought together opposition parties"
See also:

16 Dec 01 | Americas
Chavez warns Venezuela banks
11 Dec 01 | Americas
General strike paralyses Caracas
01 Dec 01 | Business
New law sparks Venezuela oil row
29 Mar 01 | Business
Venezuela outlaws oil strike
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Venezuela
31 Jul 01 | Americas
Timeline: Venezuela
24 Jan 02 | Americas
Rival marches in Venezuelan capital
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