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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 17:22 GMT
Uncertainty takes its toll on Caracas
Protestors
People are increasingly worried by divisions
test hello test

By Sarah Toyne
BBC News Online
line

The inscriptions "Fuera Chavez" or "Chavez out" now compete for space with pro-Chavez slogans on the walls and underpasses around Venezuela's capital, Caracas.

As the world's fourth largest oil supplier and the United States' third, Venezuela is rich in natural resources.

But there is growing economic and political dissent in the city against the populist government of Hugo Chavez.


If the riff-raff criticise you, then you press ahead

President Hugo Chavez

It is three years since Mr Chavez's landslide victory - won on an anti-poverty, anti-corruption platform.

But according to some polls people have become increasingly disillusioned with his government.

Caracas is more tense than normal and people are fearful. The country's future is an increasing worry for Caraquenos. The political situation is changing from day to day and becoming increasingly confused.

Paternal politics

Mr Chavez, friend of President Castro of Cuba, is an outspoken figure - often on the road travelling around the country preaching his brand of populist politics.

He talks for hours - even sings - and tells personal and historical anecdotes in his weekly broadcasts.

They are filmed in front of a painting of Simon Bolivar - his hero and liberator of part of Latin America - or outside on one of his "Hello President" road shows.

Cacerolas

While the broadcasts may captivate his supporters and infuriate his opponents, people are turning on their sets to judge how he is reacting to the recent political troubles.

Over the last few weeks there has been increasing dissent in the capital.

He has to contend with the unions, critics in the extreme left, the Roman Catholic church, and the media.

Over the last few weeks, a spate of military figures has openly criticised the president.

According to critics, the most significant - because he is a former general and widely respected - is Guaicaipuro Lameda, ex president of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's oil company.

He was replaced by leftist economist Gaston Parra.

A newspaper advert said that 3,000 workers at state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) were protesting against the decision.

Chavistas

"You are either Chavista or you are not" is now a frequent comment.

The divisions between rich and poor in Caracas have been clear for many years.

The barrios - slums - cling to the hillside on the mountains, overlooking the city.

But critics say that while there is a need to change the country, they accuse the president of exacerbating the divisions.

In an interview with a newspaper on 17 February, Mr Lameda said: "In 1998 there was a convergence of ideas to generate a national transformation, but three years later we have a society fractured in two."

Litmus test

While others take to the streets to criticise the president, a stream of Venezuelans on Sunday's "Hello President" road show voiced their support for Mr Chavez - one crying with gratitude.

When Mr Chavez came to power in 1998, after a failed coup attempt in 1992, he promised to improve the lives of Venezuela's poor - and redistribute the country's wealth.

He re-wrote the constitution and imposed by decree in November a series of controversial laws on land reform, and increased state intervention in industries such as oil and fishing.

But his government now faces an ever tightening fiscal straightjacket in which to deliver its economic policies.

Cheap oil prices, political instability, and world recession have slashed his budget.

His uncharacteristically neo-liberal decision to free float the Bolivar against the dollar, was aimed at stemming fiscal flight.

But for ordinary people, the move has already led to higher prices.

This is in turn will exacerbate the economic hardship of his core supporters, the poor, and social and economic tensions within the country are likely to increase as a result.

Chavez's mates

Mr Chavez is standing firm despite these criticisms.

"If the riff-raff criticise you, then you press ahead," he said. "We are not going to give up either our strategic policies or our principles."

Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez is standing firm

Mr Chavez's brand of outspoken politics has upset the US - the pawnbroker in Latin American politics.

Chavez is quick to tell his radio listeners and viewers that he is "mates" with Chirac of France, Pastrana in Colombia, and Bush in America, but not all are convinced.

There has been a steady stream of criticism and concern voiced from Washington.

But on Tuesday he said that he had received assurance from the outgoing US Ambassador Donna Hrinak that Washington would not back any attempt to oust him by force.

There is also concern that following the collapse of peace talks in Colombia, there will be a flow of refugees over the border.

Others fear a growing guerrilla problem within the country.

Uncertain future

Mr Chavez said on Tuesday: "There is no serious threat from the military ranks to the nation, democracy, or revolutionary government."

While there are increasing demonstrations, there is no obvious opposition leader emerging.

The president's platform of anti-corruption and anti-poverty which won the landslide in 1998 is still in the hearts of Venezuelans, and there is a movement for continuing change.

Telmo Almada, a journalist at El Nacional, a Caracas-based broadsheet says that there is no turning back the clock.

"The old order is not acceptable anymore. People do not want to return to old style government."

See also:

18 Feb 02 | Americas
Third officer demands Chavez quit
26 Feb 02 | Americas
Chavez unmoved as officers desert
13 Feb 02 | Business
Venezuela to float currency
04 Feb 02 | Americas
Chavez marks his failed coup
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