Caracas Envoy's Job: Sell Chavez: President's Plans Fuel Skepticism

Article excerpt

Alfredo Toro Hardy, Venezuela's new ambassador to the United States, knows that he has an uphill struggle in explaining the government of President Hugo Chavez to skeptics in Washington.

A former paratrooper who led a failed coup and then spent two years in prison, Mr. Chavez is a fiery populist with an "affinity with Fidel Castro," who recently threatened to dissolve Venezuela's Congress if it stood in the way of constitutional reform.

Critics fear Venezuela's new president is a Latin American strongman, but his supporters argue he is the man needed to reform a moribund and corrupt democracy.

"Normally, when the democratic model is exhausted, what usually comes next is a military regime," Mr. Toro Hardy told reporters and editors at a luncheon yesterday at The Washington Times. "After 40 years, the Venezuelan democracy was exhausted, but we are resolving the problems with another democracy. That is unique in Latin America."

Mr. Chavez was elected president in a landslide in December. So onerous have the ruling parties become that popular candidates, such as former Miss Universe Irene Saez, sank as viable national contenders.

Over Congress' initial objections, Mr. Chavez was able to push through a national referendum on a new constitution.

With about 40 percent of eligible voters voting, some 80 percent favored writing a new constitution. Mr. Toro Hardy said more people would have voted but the president's mandate was so popular the outcome was a foregone conclusion and many people stayed home.

As a result of the referendum, Venezuela's "constituent assembly" of 103 members is to be chosen June 25. This constitutional congress is expected to enact election and judicial reforms, enabling voters to pick congressmen and judges as individuals, rather than voting for a party that then picks loyalists for different posts.

Mr. Toro Hardy, who only came to Washington two weeks ago, said that a new constitution was required to break the 40-year stranglehold the two major parties, Copie and Democratic Action, have held on Venezuelan politics. …