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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 11:14 GMT
Chavez: Hero or demagogue?

Hugo Chavez: Hugo Chavez: His route to the top has been an eventful one

By Americas Regional Editor Robert Plummer

Long before Hugo Chavez took office as President of Venezuela he had proved himself to be a man capable of arousing strong opinions.

To his detractors he is a populist demagogue with a patchwork quilt of political beliefs. To his supporters he is the leader that Venezuela needs to sweep away a corrupt and outdated establishment.

But whichever view you take, there is no doubt that the 45-year-old ex-paratrooper's journey along the road to power has been an eventful one.

Founded secret movement

Mr Chavez first came to prominence in February 1992 when he led an attempt to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andres Perez amid growing anger at economic austerity measures.

But the foundations for that failed coup had been laid a decade earlier, when Mr Chavez and a group of fellow military officers had founded a secret movement named after the father of South American independence, Simon Bolivar.

The February revolt by members of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MBR) claimed 18 lives and left 60 injured before Colonel Chavez gave himself up.

He was languishing in a military jail when his associates tried again to seize power nine months later.

Carlos Andres Perez Carlos Andres Perez was also arrested
That second coup attempt in November 1992 was crushed as well, but only after the rebels had captured a TV station and broadcast a videotape of Colonel Chavez announcing the fall of the government.

Mr Chavez spent two years in prison before being granted a pardon. But the man he tried to oust, Mr Perez, fared little better - he was removed from office and sentenced to two years' house arrest on corruption charges.

While Mr Perez fell on hard times, Mr Chavez became a national hero in the eyes of many. As he made the transition from soldier to politician, his movement changed its name from MBR to MVR (standing for Movement of the Fifth Republic).

At the same time, the old Venezuelan order was falling apart. Unlike most of its neighbours, Venezuela had enjoyed an unbroken period of democratic government since 1958 but the two main parties who had alternated in power stood accused of presiding over a corrupt system and squandering the country's vast oil wealth.

Economic problems loom

Clearly the stage was set for a dramatic upset and Mr Chavez duly won a landslide victory in last December's presidential election.

But with his Patriotic Pole coalition controlling a mere one-third of seats in congress, the revolution was never going to end there.

Now Mr Chavez has rendered congress an irrelevance, thanks to his National Constituent Assembly which has declared itself the sole source of power in Venezuela and which is overwhelmingly packed with his supporters.

But as the assembly begins its primary task of rewriting the Venezuelan constitution, the day draws nearer when Mr Chavez will have to tackle the looming problems of the country's economy.

Apart from saying that he wants to promote "humanist" economic policies and rejecting what he calls "savage neo-liberalism", he has given little indication of what he will do - and he has provided no alternative to the austerity measures that provoked him to take up arms against the government more than seven years ago.

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27 Aug 99 |  Americas
Venezuela's Congress vows defiance

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