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Chávez under pressure
Andrés Cañizález
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Popular discontent with the Venezuelan president is spreading.

In early February, President Hugo Chávez spent several days traveling to festivities in various parts of the country, marking the third anniversary of his Feb. 2, 1999, inauguration. On Feb. 4, he declared an official day of celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the failed coup attempt that launched his political career.

But the revelry soon gave way to alarm.

Three significant events between Feb. 6 and 13 put Chávez in the spotlight again, with pressure building from all sides.

According to political analyst Manuel Felipe Sierra, a combination of domestic and international factors and the administration’s increasing isolation have left Chávez facing the most difficult test of his presidency.

On the international front, the United States is causing the greatest concern. High-level US officials, including the secretary of state and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, expressed irritation at Chávez’s style and criticized Venezuela’s position on the fight against terrorism declared by US President George W. Bush.

Four declarations by top US officials during the first week of February indicated that the Chávez administration is "under observation" by Washington, analysts said, although the US criticism has been moderate.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the United States "is closely following events in Venezuela" and hoped that the situation would "evolve within a democratic framework." He added that US officials had asked Chávez to "respect democratic institutions."

Since late last year, Chávez supporters have turned out in force for street protests, but have found themselves on the defensive.

"Chávez is facing a complex situation of high political tension. After three years of hegemonic leadership, a group of very heterogeneous opposition forces and players, more social than political, is emerging," Sierra said.

"It is significant that public unrest is still the hallmark of the search for solutions. The street has been the decisive place," said Teodoro Petkoff, director of the daily Tal Cual.

The second major event came Feb. 7, during a conference on freedom of expression in Caracas that coincided with a visit by Santiago Canton, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Canton’s visit came one month after Chávez supporters held a protest outside the offices of the daily El Nacional, accusing the publication of lying in its coverage of an anti-Chávez protest (LP, Jan. 28, 2002).

During the conference, Air Force Col. Pedro Soto called on Chávez to resign and criticized the government’s use of the armed forces for political ends. Afterward, when police attempted to detain Soto on a crowded Caracas street, spontaneous protests by passers-by prevented the arrest.

Questions remained about whether his words expressed the view of a broader segment of the armed forces. On Feb. 18, Rear Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo also called for Chávez’s resignation.

Although Soto claimed to represent 75 percent of the country’s military officers, he appeared alone and refused to provide the names of others who shared his views. Capt. Pedro Flores of the National Guard later joined him, publicly calling on Chávez to resign. Although the two were not detained, they will face internal disciplinary procedures that could result in their dismissal from the armed forces.

Military support is crucial for Chávez, a retired military officer who lacks a solid political organization. His party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), which was created to win his election, is a heterogeneous mix of political figures and retired military officers.

Retired or active-duty military personnel hold a significant number of positions of trust in the executive branch of government. The armed forces — through the "Bolívar Plan," which puts troops to work repairing schools and hospitals, providing vaccinations and coordinating medical campaigns — also carry out much of the social policy that has been a priority for the president (LP, Dec. 18, 2000).

More than an expression of widespread military discontent, Soto’s protest appeared to be a spark that lit a new series of protests against Chávez, especially among middle- and upper-class Venezuelans. The president, who was elected by a landslide, has seen his popularity slide in recent months, especially in the capital.

The opposition, which has publicly criticized Chávez, is also a heterogeneous mass — including community organizations, political parties and business associations — without clear leadership.

The political turmoil of the past few weeks "is unsustainable, considering that most of Chávez’s term still lies ahead," said the Rev. Arturo Sosa, a political analyst and provincial superior of the Jesuits in Venezuela.

The president took office three years ago, but because of a series of institutional reforms and a new Constitution, he has actually completed only 18 months of his second six-year term, after being re-elected in July 2000 (LP, Dec. 27, 1999, and Aug. 21, 2000).

The country’s delicate economic situation could become Chavéz’s Achilles’ heel. For political reasons, the government had long refused to impose economic adjustment measures. On Feb. 12, however, officials announced that they would cut spending, raise taxes and let the currency float against the US dollar, measures applauded by the International Monetary Fund.

Some analysts said the measures were insufficient. The market’s first reaction was a 30-percent increase in the currency exchange rate.

Francisco Rodríguez, head of Congress’ economic advisory office, said the measures should have been taken earlier.

"The adjustment is sharper now because it was postponed for so long," he said.

Chávez said there had been a 22-percent decrease in estimates of government revenues for the 2002 fiscal year. Officials hope that a new tax on bank transactions will net another US$1.7 billion, while broader application of the sales tax is expected to increase income by $1.3 billion.

The administration also has $2.5 billion in a special "macroeconomic stabilization" fund.

According to estimates by the congressional economic advisory office, this year’s budget deficit could exceed $4 billion, despite Chávez’s most recent efforts, because of increased public spending over the past three years and because international petroleum prices have been falling since the third quarter of last year.

Sosa says the political climate has had a negative effect on the economy.

"Chávez must encourage dialogue and come to an understanding with various sectors of the country," he said.


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