Page last updated at 19:47 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 20:47 UK

Testing times ahead for Chavez

By James Ingham
BBC News, Caracas

A Venezuelan soldier watches a military manoeuvre
A Venezuelan soldier watches a military manoeuvre

Under a burning tropical sun, a group of Venezuelan generals stare through binoculars as two Navy patrol boats begin manoeuvres.

TV cameras watch the boats from the tiny Caribbean island of La Orchilla. Viewers are told enemy boats have been spotted in territorial waters and the Navy has been given the order to move in.

Soon afterwards, a missile is fired at the target and a squadron of Russian-built Sukhoi fighter jets roar over the island, almost too fast to track.

This is Operation Socialist Fatherland - a military exercise designed to show the strength of Venezuela's combined forces.

President Hugo Chavez says Venezuela is fighting a war of resistance. He warns his supporters on a regular basis that the US is ready to attack.

Crucial time

"We're not threatening anyone," Vice-Admiral Zahim Ali Quintana Castro, the commander of the navy, tells me.

Soldiers during the military exercise
The exercise shows how serious Venezuela is about defending itself

"But neither will we allow ourselves to be threatened. We will never let anyone take away our spirit of liberty and independence."

The week-long exercise shows just how serious Venezuela is about defending its socialist revolution.

The US flatly denies any interest in military confrontation, but the Venezuelan government continues with the rhetoric to fire up its supporters.

This is a crucial time for Venezuela. President Chavez is pushing forward his socialist revolution and his opponents are continuing to fight against it.

Looming regional and local elections have increased the tension in this politically divided nation.

Saturday morning and thousands of the president's opponents have gathered in Caracas to show their anger at a ruling they say is aimed at undermining them.

The more he destroys the country, the more he creates conditions that will allow him to achieve his aim - to keep himself in power
General Raul Baduel
Former defence minister

Nearly 400 people have been barred from running in November's elections.

The government says they are all being investigated for corruption and are therefore ineligible - but 80% of the names on the list are from the opposition.

"The constitution is clear," says Leopoldo Lopez, one of the best-known politicians on the list.

"None of us are legally disqualified. We will fight on the streets to make sure Venezuelans have the right to choose who they want."

He says the government has barred them "because they know we can win".

'American enemy'

In general, though, the opposition are optimistic and increasingly buoyant.

They hope to capitalise on a win last December, when voters by a slim majority said no to constitutional changes that would have enshrined socialism into Venezuela's law and allowed a president to stand for re-election an unlimited number of times.

Despite this setback, Mr Chavez was soon back to his old form, and his ministers are now talking about trying again to change the law so that he could bid to stay in office after 2013.

student shouts slogans during a demonstration supporting the "right to choose" and "freedom of expression" in Caracas
Venezuela's opposition to Chavez is getting more vocal

But for that to stand a chance of succeeding, the government has to remain in control - one reason November's elections are so crucial, and why all sides are putting such an effort into campaigning so far ahead of polling day.

Mr Chavez recently warned members of his newly-formed United Socialist party not to "think the enemy is small".

"They're backed by North American imperialism, our true enemy," he said.

"They're preparing a secessionist dagger to divide the country into pieces," he told a meeting in Tachira, close to the Colombian border.

Mr Chavez looked as confident on the stage as ever - but he knows his opponents could pose a threat to his revolution.

That might explain some major U-turns in recent weeks, the most prominent of which followed uproar - from both human rights lawyers and the Church - when he passed a new intelligence law.

Campaigners said it would turn Venezuela into a police state, obliging citizens to comply with new secret services.

Mr Chavez quickly withdrew it, admitting that he had made mistakes.

On the international front, Mr Chavez surprised many with his call on Colombia's Farc rebels to disarm - only a few months after describing them as a legitimate army.

Fine line

The flip-flopping might partially be explained by accusations from Colombia that Mr Chavez financed the Farc himself.

But more generally, it is clear that he has a fine line to tread to keep all within his "chavismo" movement happy.

Hugo Chavez at a rally
President Chavez can still rely on fervent backing some sectors

Far-left radicals argue he is not being strong enough; moderate leftists favour a more conciliatory, calmer approach. Keeping his supporters happy is a big challenge if he is to avoid internal schisms.

But opponents are more cynical.

"The more he destroys the country, the more he creates conditions that will allow him to achieve his aim - to keep himself in power," says General Raul Baduel, Mr Chavez's former defence minister and commander in chief of the army.

"We must not fall into his trap of distraction."

However for many millions of Venezuelans, Mr Chavez was their salvation - and still is.

The poorest in society, who felt strongly that Mr Chavez was looking out for them, have rewarded him with their loyalty.

While some acknowledge there are issues to be discussed within the revolution, others shake their head when you ask them if they can see any problems.

"It's not Chavez - it's those around him," is a response I am getting used to hearing.

"They're not doing what they've promised and they have to know that people may stop supporting them," says one woman.

"We have real problems, especially with crime. We want things done."

So are supporters who feel like this likely to turn away from the president at the polls? Maybe, maybe not.

How much longer will you give him, I ask.

"I'd say five years," she says, smiling.

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