Chavez Support Fragile, but Remains Intact ; Charismatic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Masterfully Holds on to Power

Article excerpt

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez assembled his ministers before a national television audience to give his version of the capture of Peruvian fugitive Vladimiro Montesinos, it was vintage Chavez.

For months, he had denied that South America's most-wanted thug - suspected of drugs and arms trafficking to directing death squads - had found refuge in Venezuela. Now Mr. Chavez was under pressure to explain how Mr. Montesinos, former spy chief and top aide to disgraced Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, had been able to hide out in Caracas. (The Financial Times reported last week that government officials here now admit Montesinos was protected by high-ranking officials of the Venezuelan political police.)

But there was no sign of contrition.

Instead, he accused Peru's officials of violating Venezuelan sovereignty with an undercover police investigation, while participating in an international conspiracy to tarnish Venezuela.

In his public-relations march, Chavez showed once again the brashness that propelled him from a youth of poverty to national leadership.

Chavez, whose childhood hero was 19th-century South American liberator Simon Bolivar, rose through the Army and led a failed 1992 coup attempt before being elected president in 1998. But some now wonder if the man in the red beret is fit for running the country.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar termed Chavez's recently televised discourse "verbal aggression" and called home the Peruvian ambassador.

Increasingly, Venezuelans in traditional power circles of business, the media, or internationally connected civil activism find Chavez's brand of leadership at least embarrassing, and, at times, threatening.

It's a style Sergio Dahbar, editor of the Caracas daily El Nacional, calls "el guapo del barrio" - a term that might be translated as "ghetto prince."

"He's charismatic, but the approach to people who don't fall under his charm is confrontational," says Mr. Dahbar. "So far, there's been no censorship, we're not in a dictatorship in that sense. But he is very intimidating; it's governance through intimidation."

Part tough guy, part charmer, part feudal lord, Chavez has a big vision for his nation. He envisions a role as a countervailing wind, buffeting (if not halting) the steamship of globalization and American global hegemony, and offering an alternative to the roughly decade-old free-market economic model that has often only deepened Latin America's poverty.

But Chavez is finding his vision hitting a wall. His accomplishments to date have been political: a new "Bolivarian" Constitution - which offers him a chance to win a second term that would stretch until 2013 - and a sympathetic Congress elected largely on his coattails. Congress, in turn, has appointed a supportive supreme court.

But few inroads have been made into a stagnated economy - suggesting to critics that he doesn't know what to do.

That judgment fails, however, to give Chavez credit for the key international role his government has played in giving OPEC new life and keeping profits high for oil-producing countries.

Still, since Chavez won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote in December 1998, the Venezuelan economy has shrunk further. The 80 percent of the population that either is poor or has felt its living standard retreat over the past decade is no better off.

High oil prices have given Venezuela, the largest oil producer outside the Arab countries, a safety net. …