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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 17:24 GMT
Analysis: Floods a test for Chavez

Tens of thousands have been made homeless in the disaster

By regional analyst Jonathan Fryer

When the radical, populist President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was elected exactly a year ago, he knew there were obstacles ahead.

Venezuela Floods
There was hostility among a rich elite and businessmen who were alarmed by his rhetoric, and fears in Washington and elsewhere that he could become another Juan Peron of Argentina, or worse still, a Fidel Castro.

But no-one predicted he would have to face a disaster of the scale Venezuela now faces with the effects of catastrophic floods - the country's worse disaster this century.

Some conservative Catholics, offended by Mr Chavez's description of Church leaders as 'devils in vestments', see the unseasonal deluge that has left thousands dead and many more homeless, as divine retribution.

After all, the president has overseen what opposition politicians and some of the judiciary have characterised as the undermining of Venezuela's democracy by introducing sweeping constitutional changes which have nonetheless been ringingly endorsed by the poor and the frustrated masses who form his power base.

Security angle

What is undeniable, though, is that the floods are acting as a test of President Chavez personally, and of Venezuela's ability to cope with a national emergency.

Fortunately, they have not had any major impact on the country's greatest revenue-earner, oil. But the cost of the overall damage - in both human and physical terms - will be enormous.

There is also a security angle, in that the government had to show it can keep looting and other forms of delinquency under control.

So far, Mr Chavez has sprung into decisive action in stark contrast to some senior politicians in Mexico and Central America, when confronted with similar, recent emergencies.

Relief efforts

Indeed, he has been dubbed 'Action Man' - his military background suddenly turned into an asset, rather than a liability.

He has personally led the rescue efforts, while his wife, Marisabel, has encouraged Venezuelans to open their homes as well as their hearts to the victims of the floods this Christmas.

What Venezuelans will now be waiting for is to see if President Chavez can turn promises into reality - not just about overseeing the relief efforts effectively, but also about managing the necessary rebuilding despite the notoriously slow and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy.

Under the new constitution, there will fresh presidential elections in February and the electorate will soon have the opportunity to give a verdict.

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21 Dec 99 |  Americas
30,000 feared dead in floods
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