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Crossing Continents Thursday, 4 November, 1999, 12:05 GMT
Venezuela's strongman at the helm
In Venezuelan shop windows, images of President Chavez jostle with Che Guevara and Mother Theresa
By Nic Caistor

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Two groups of workmen are busy mixing cement in Catia, one of the slums on the hills surrounding the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. The odd thing is that half the men are civilian, while the others are dressed in their military fatigues.

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Together, the civilians and armed forces personnel are building a new school for the neighbourhood to replace the tumbledown one-storey edifice that has long since become too small and inadequate in a country where almost half the population is of school age.

This is an example of Bolivar 2000 at work. As the leader of the project, Captain Moreno, explains, the Bolivar 2000 project is one of the ways in which the former lieutenant colonel Hugo Chavez - elected civilian president of Venezuela since February 1999 - hopes to make an immediate impact on the country.

"Bolivar 2000 has already rebuilt or refurbished some 4,000 schools, clinics and hospitals," Captain Moreno says. He is under orders to finish work on this one by the end of October, because the president wants to come and officially open it by then.

President Chavez is a man in a hurry. He was swept to power on promises to end the misrule and corruption that has seen poverty increase dramatically in Venezuela despite the fact that it is one of the world's leading oil producers.

The voters blamed the two parties who have ruled the country since 1958 for the disastrous state of its schools, roads, social services and above all, a justice system that seemed to many Venezuelans to be the exact opposite of what it was meant to be.

Interviewing visitors to the Dignity Tent
This is what has led Mireya Suarez to visit one of the Dignity Tents that President Chavez has installed in the centre of Caracas, just outside the elegant colonnaded Congress building. Mireya has come for free legal advice to resolve the problem of a piece of land she bought several years earlier on the outskirts of the capital.

Although she bought the land legally, Mireya was never given a proper title to it. Until now, she has shied away from seeking legal help, knowing she could not pay for it and that it would probably not get her anywhere.

But now, Mireya says, President Chavez has promised she can get free advice here at the Dignity Tent, and she is hopeful that the new government will do something to resolve the situation.

Nic Caistor in the Constituent Assembly
While Mireya is seeking advice for her problem, inside the Congress building next door, 131 people are also struggling to fulfil another of the President's initiatives. Realising that to change a society, you have first to change the rules that govern it, President Chavez has called a Constituent Assembly to write a new national constitution, for what he calls Venezuela's "Fifth Republic".

The assembly members are not Venezuela's traditional politicians. They include indigenous people, folk singers, representatives of women's groups and other associations, and even one popular television horse-racing commentator. They too have a deadline of the end of the year to have the new constitution in place.

Luis Miquilena
According to Luis Miquilena, president of the Constituent Assembly, it will sweep away the injustices of the old one, by making all branches of government more accountable. It will, says Miquilena, help Venezuelans feel they can participate in the changes President Chavez is proposing to restore the fabric of society.

Nonsense, say opponents of the new constitution such as the independent politician Jorge Olavarria, one of the few Chavez critics in the assembly. He notes that it allows the president - in other words Chavez - not only a longer, six-year term once elected, but also the possibility of being immediately re-elected for a second term.

Olavarria sees President Chavez as just the latest in a long line of Latin American strongmen who have used a power base in the army to take control of a country and satisfy personal ambitions. He points out that Chavez's wife and one of his brothers are important members of the constituent assembly, and that his father has become governor of their home state. "He'll end up like Peron in Argentina, or Castro in Cuba," Olavarria warns.

For now, not many Venezuelans pay much attention to critics such as Olavarria. Like Mireya and the inhabitants of slum neighbourhoods like Catia, most of them are waiting and hoping that President Chavez can fulfil his promise of "bringing real change without violence" to a country puzzled as to why there is so much poverty and injustice despite all its potential wealth.

On the table in the Dignity Tent there are photos of the president, flanked on one side by a portrait of the Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and on the other, a picture of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. However hard it may be to imagine, Venezuelans are hoping their new president will somehow combine the compassion of the one with the passion for change of the other.

Pasion Infantil - one of Venezuela's many pre-teen idols
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: we examine Venezuela's flourishing New Age movement, and visit one of the country's many pre-teen pop groups. In an overwhelmingly youthful society, the young are now abandoning techno for a more traditionally Latin sound.

See also:

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