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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 04:36 GMT 05:36 UK
Chavez: More than empty promises?
Firefighters tackle looted shops in Caracas
The violence of the past few days claimed at least 40 lives
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By Adam Easton
The BBC's correspondent in Caracas

The sense of relief felt by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez when he arrived back at the presidential palace in downtown Caracas on Sunday morning after being detained in three different military prisons was evident in his beaming smile.

Wearing a red and blue tracksuit with his name emblazoned in capitals on the back, Mr Chavez punched the air before being mobbed by his security guard and ministers as he walked down the steps from the helipad.

When he was forced to leave I cried. He thinks of everybody, not just his cronies like previous presidents

Chavez supporter

The crush was so intense the weight of the crowd smashed a pane of glass in the door of the ornate early 20th Century Miraflores palace.

Outside the wrought-iron gates, thousands of his supporters waved Venezuelan flags and chanted: "He's Back!" and "a united people will never be defeated."

Mr Chavez inspires fierce loyalty among his mainly poor supporters.

"When he was forced to leave I cried. He thinks of everybody, not just his cronies like previous presidents. Chavez has given us the most democratic constitution the country has ever had," said Leila Vargas.

Some of his supporters told me they would be prepared to die for their president, who has increased public spending on healthcare and education in a country in which 80% of the people live in poverty.

Weekly entertainment

Mr Chavez inspires such adoration, partly because he is seen as a man of the people.

In a predominately mixed race society, Mr Chavez has quite dark skin and peppers his speeches with jokes.

During his weekly radio show he croons traditional ballads and signals news of policy triumphs with a quick tinkle on a xylophone.

Chavez supporter in Caracas
Mr Chavez inspires fierce loyalty among his mainly poor supporters
However, Mr Chavez has also alienated Venezuelans through his refusal to negotiate with many sectors of society and his personal attacks on "savage capitalism" and neo-liberalism.

He has called business leaders "rancid oligarchs" and referred to some Roman Catholic Church leaders as a tumour on society.

His hard line against striking managers from state oil company PDVSA - whom he accused of earning "immoral" salaries - sparked the march of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, which ended in the deaths of 13 last Thursday.

The bloodshed caused the military coup which ousted him for 48 hours.

Mr Chavez was restored after lower-ranking military officers rebelled and tens of thousands of Chavez supporters took to the streets in his support.

Capital outflow

Venezuela is a country deeply divided over Mr Chavez.

I want to feel at home in my country, but I feel like a tourist

fashion designer Maria Escalona

Opinions polls suggest his popularity has dropped from highs of 80% when he was elected three years ago, to just 30% shortly before the coup.

His close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro worries many wealthier Venezuelans. His fiery style has dented investor confidence with up to an estimated $9bn leaving the country in capital flight last year.

Since his return, Mr Chavez has struck a conciliatory note.

He has agreed to concessions in the oil conflict and convened a multi-sectoral advisory council to initiate dialogue to tackle the country's severe social and economic problems.

But for some Venezuelans, his words are merely empty promises. They have heard it all before.

"I feel a great loss of hope, exposed. I want to feel at home in my country, but I feel like a tourist. I'm now channelling all my efforts to look for a future for my family and myself outside Venezuela," said fashion designer Maria Escalona.

See also:

15 Apr 02 | Americas
Chavez urges unity
15 Apr 02 | Americas
Washington's Chavez dilemma
15 Apr 02 | Business
Oil prices rise on Chavez return
14 Apr 02 | Media reports
Chavez calls for national unity
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