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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Chavez's 'plane of shame'
The presidents new plane
The Airbus A-319 caused an outcry (Picture: Jairo Araque, El Siglo newspaper)
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By Mike Ceaser

When hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets of Caracas demanding the resignation of President Hugo Chavez, one of many factors which fed their anger was the president's new aeroplane.

Mr Chavez was forced from office after military leaders turned against him - only to be returned to office two days later.
Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez was restored to power after two days

The officers said they became disgusted with Mr Chavez's leadership after 13 people were shot dead and dozens wounded during a demonstration.

The shooting may be seen as Mr Chavez's crucial error - but his decision to buy a new presidential Airbus A-319 was also seen as a blunder.

Mr Chavez had ordered the plane after seeing one belonging to a sheik of the United Arab Emirates.

'The plane of shame'

While most Venezuelans agreed that the president's 30-year-old Boeing needed replacement, the new Airbus's $65m price tag struck many as outrageous in a nation with two-thirds of its people living in poverty.

The plane became the subject of public ridicule.

"I am totally convinced that the Airbus will not be much used by Chavez," wrote Martina de Jesus to the El Universal newspaper, "because Chavez will not have anywhere to go. Nobody invites him, nobody wants him as a visitor."
Anti-Chavez protestor
The plane became the subject of public ridicule

But Mr Chavez's core supporters, primarily Venezuela's poor who feel disenfranchised and cheated by other governments, called the aeroplane controversy yet another attempt by the media to muddy the ex-president's image.

Justifiable luxury

And even political analyst Manuel Malaver, a critic of Mr Chavez, called the plane justifiable.

"It is a luxury," he said. "But I wouldn't criticise it so much. It's true that the nation needed it."

Mr Chavez became sensitive to the issue, and the new plane was delivered to the country during the Easter Holiday and parked in the hangar of a provincial airport.

The media caught only glimpses of the new plane, which newspapers nicknamed 'the plane of shame'.

But the secrecy may have backfired, as exaggerated accounts proliferated about the plane's luxuries - including an account that said it had a whirlpool bath on board.

The president's defence

The president, anxious to protect his image, declared that the plane was part of his "Bolivarian revolution for the poor".

"You know what," he said in a radio address. "The [old Boeing] is going to be the first plane of a mass tourism company so that the poor people can go see [the national park] Canaima, so that they can go to the Caribbean islands."

Mr Chavez also embarked on a detailed economic analysis, pointing out that the plane cost only $3.75 per air mile in fuel, whereas the old Boeing cost $4.54.

President's plane entering a hanger
The press named it 'the plane of shame' (Picture: Jairo Araque, El Siglo newspaper)
Mr Chavez emphasised that the new plane had lower maintenance costs, longer flight time, and that despite all of this it could still carry more passengers.

"See for yourselves the level of savings, in the middle and long terms," he said. "The savings are significant."

During the last week of anti-Chavez demonstrations many protesters, who termed him a communist, carried signs calling for him to fly in his new plane to Cuba.

In fact, Mr Chavez is yet to use the new plane, which would have belonged to his successors had he not been reinstated.

See also:

15 Apr 02 | Americas
Chastened Chavez promises change
14 Apr 02 | Americas
In pictures: Chavez defies opponents
15 Apr 02 | Business
Oil prices rise on Chavez return
12 Apr 02 | Americas
Venezuelan media: 'It's over!'
13 Apr 02 | Americas
Latin America ambivalent over ouster
12 Apr 02 | Business
Oil prices fall as Chavez quits
14 Apr 02 | Media reports
Chavez calls for national unity
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