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Monday, December 7, 1998 Published at 10:07 GMT

World: Americas

Venezuela's democratic record

Supporters of Hugo Chavez meet their hero

By Nick Caistor of the BBC Latin American service

With 40 years of uninterrupted civilian rule since the overthrow of the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, Venezuela is proud of its democratic record in a continent where in the 1970s and 1980s military government were the norm.

During that time, two main centrist parties vied for power: the Christian Democratic COPEI, and the social democratic Democratic Action.

Whichever of the two was in power was able to devote a high proportion of government spending to social programmes, thanks to the revenues from Venezuela's main export, oil.

[ image: Venezuela is South America's longest uninterrupted democracy]
Venezuela is South America's longest uninterrupted democracy
But in recent years, this good fortune has dried up.

In the last decade, falling revenues from oil have brought crisis to Venezuela.

Governments have had to abandon free-spending policies and subsidies have been cut as the need to balance budgets became more and more pressing.

This has made them very unpopular, especially as these austerity measures coincided with fraud and embezzlement scandals involving prominent politicians, including a president.

Hugo Chavez and popular protest

Such popular frustration has boiled over into the streets. For several years, there were violent protests in the capital, Caracas, and other large cities, where the economic crisis hit hardest.

The most serious of these protests came in 1992 when Colonel Hugo Chavez led his parachute regiment to surround the parliament.

It was only the loyalty of other troops that prevented a military takeover.

Mr Chavez was dismissed from the army and jailed for two years, but he always claimed that he was merely interpreting the mood of the country, and he remained a popular figure.

After lengthy legal wranglings, he was allowed to stand as a candidate in presidential elections.

Topping the polls

Almost immediately, opinion polls made him the man to beat.

The two traditional political parties were slow to react to the Chavez phenomenon.

[ image: Former Miss Universe Irene Saez has seen support wane]
Former Miss Universe Irene Saez has seen support wane
Democratic Action chose one of its veteran figures to stand, while COPEI could not agree on a candidate, and finally decided on an independent, the former Miss Universe beauty queen, Irene Saez, to represent them.

Despite her glamour, neither Miss Saez nor COPEI's choice was able to make any impression on Hugo Chavez's apparent popularity among would-be voters.

In the week before the elections, the two parties panicked.

Both withdrew their official support from their own candidates, and urged their followers instead to back an independent candidate from the business sector, Henrique Salas Romer.

Mr Salas offered a similar austerity programme to that of previous governments.

What will be different, he says, is that his administration will be honest and will make sure that whatever hardships this entails are suffered by the whole of Venezuelan society.

Sword of justice

Against this, Mr Chavez is promising to reverse most of the measures taken in the past few years.

He will halt the move towards privatisation and a more open economy defending state sector jobs whilst boosting expenditure on health and education.

And he says he will clean up politics by setting up a popular assembly to draw up a new national constitution.

He will, as he puts it, wield the sword handed down to him by the national hero Simon Bolivar to bring justice to Venezuela. Mr Chavez presents this as the way to take Venezuela forward to a better future.

But many in his own country and in the rest of Latin America see the former colonel not so much as offering a new way forward, but as representing a retrograde step to the region's past, where autocratic military leaders wielded personal power for their own ends.

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