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Last Updated: Friday, 13 August, 2004, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Analysis: Chavez at eye of storm
By Becky Branford
BBC News Online

Every Sunday, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds court on his live TV show, Alo Presidente (Hello President).

For an average of five hours at a time, Mr Chavez rants, jokes, advises and entertains - by turns politician, showman, baseball fan, balladeer, and propagandist.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Look out! On 15 August I am going to hit [a home run] so hard that it will land in the gardens of the White House!
Hugo Chavez, speaking during Alo Presidente, 1 August
His supporters - many from the slums outside the capital Caracas - turn on in their millions.

But for his detractors, it is Mr Chavez at his most vulgar and offensive - and if they get their way, this Sunday will be his last transmission.

In the latest battle of the war over Venezuela, Mr Chavez will face a national referendum on whether he should remain in power.

At the eye of the storm is Mr Chavez and - with his black and Indian ancestry, and provincial accent - the kind of Venezuela he represents, say analysts.


Edgardo Lander, sociology lecturer at Venezuelan Central University, says before Mr Chavez arrived on the scene, Venezuelan politics were "like an upper-class party in which everything was very refined and educated and cosmopolitan.

"All of a sudden these people from the outside come into the party - people who smell, who are Indian and black, who have no manners."

Venezuelan farmers walk in a field in which the word No has been carved
Chavez's base is mostly among Venezuela's poor
For years, power in Venezuela was concentrated in the hands of a mostly white, middle- and upper-class elite, who controlled the country's huge oil wealth - Venezuela is one of the world's largest oil producers.

In 1989, austerity measures imposed after an economic downturn, coupled with a two-party democratic system considered corrupt and cronyist, triggered street protests in Caracas brutally put down by military force.

At least 1,000 people are estimated to have died in what became known as the Caracazo.

Three years later, a group of dissident army officers attempted a military coup - among them a 38-year-old colonel, Hugo Chavez.


The coup failed, but authorities decided to allow Mr Chavez a minute on TV to persuade his collaborators to surrender - and in doing so, made a spectacular blunder.

Mr Chavez admitted responsibility for the coup attempt and lamented the lives lost - but defended the attempt to overthrow an unpopular, languishing system.

Looking into Venezuelan homes across the land, Mr Chavez promised to give up his arms "por ahora" - "for now" - leaving lingering the implicit threat that he would be back. In 60 seconds, he had become a household name.

Six years later, Mr Chavez did come back - this time through the front door, enjoying a backing of 56% in 1998 presidential elections.

The results shocked Venezuela's political classes - some even suggesting devastating floods shortly after Mr Chavez assumed power reflected the divine upset over his victory.

Mr Chavez's rewriting of the constitution, re-structuring of parliament, tendency to appoint loyalists in high office, authoritarianism and "communist" rhetoric further enraged his opponents - who also accuse him of using thuggery to maintain his hold on power.

Since his election, they have waged a tireless campaign - work stoppages, huge demonstrations, and, in April 2002, a short-lived coup - to see Mr Chavez out of office.

Small change

The vitriol directed at Mr Chavez belies the fact that his policies have in reality been moderate, according to Mr Lander.

"There has been no real redistribution of wealth, and land reform has been very timid," he says.

A woman walks past a mural that reads Si - Yes - to ending Chavez's presidential term
To succeed in Sunday's referendum, the opposition needs:
A turnout of at least 25% of Venezuela's 14m eligible voters
More than the 3.7m votes Chavez received in the 2000 elections
More votes than Chavez's supporters
"There's been hardly any private property confiscated... and hardly any change in the tax structure, apart from in the attempt to collect taxes more. There's been no real change but a really dramatic change in political culture - and this is seen as extremely threatening."

Julia Buxton is a Venezuela expert at Kingston University who has just returned to the country.

She agrees that Mr Chavez's initiatives - such as his "missiones", outreach programmes which aim to improve health and education in poor districts - have failed so far to have much impact on statistical indicators, but says they have led "to a tremendous sense of community".

Again, she says Mr Chavez's persona is central to his project.

"The amazing thing about the Chavista [pro-Chavez] movement is that they've got middle-class people in there as well as the working-class and marginal people," she told BBC News Online.

"But the only thing that's holding them all together is Chavez - and if he wasn't there all of that would fragment... [That makes] the whole of the government incredibly vulnerable."

Violence lurks

This vulnerability led one of the most outspoken members of the opposition - former President Carlos Andres Perez - recently to suggest that Mr Chavez should "die like a dog".

But Mike Gonzalez, a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University, says resorting to violence would be "incredibly dangerous" for the opposition.

Violence will allow us to remove him. That's the only way we have... [Chavez] must die like a dog, because he deserves it
Ex-President Carlos Andres Perez
Interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional
"What would the impact of assassination be, in a Venezuela which has a long history of social eruption? It could cause absolute chaos," he told BBC News Online.

"The opposition needs to defeat Chavez [politically] - an assassination would provoke a crisis of the most extraordinary proportions."

The opposition has its chance, this Sunday, to exact that political defeat - though analysts warn that whatever the outcome, Venezuela has a bumpy ride ahead.

The BBC's Claire Marshall
"Given the size of the opposition... the question now is can President Chavez survive the pressure"

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