Chavez Argues His Reforms Are Democratic

Article excerpt

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the former coup leader who emerged from jail to lead a peaceful but revolutionary change in his country's government, yesterday rejected charges he is undermining democracy.

"The main guarantee that you have that [this is democracy] is that the Venezuelan people are like a wave leading this process," Mr. Chavez said yesterday, speaking at a Washington news conference.

"I am just a drop of water in a wave. If the drop decided to become a dictator, it would be crushed by the wave."

Just six months in office, Mr. Chavez has worried many in the international community with his fiery populist rhetoric, his friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his recent clashes with Venezuela's Congress.

Mr. Chavez, a failed military coup leader who served two years in jail and at one time could not get a visa to the United States, was in Washington at the end of a whirlwind U.S. trip during which he spoke at the United Nations.

Elected last year with nearly 60 percent of the vote, Mr. Chavez met with President Clinton for one hour in New York. While in Washington, he spoke with a host of lawmakers, academics, policy-makers and international lending officials.

On Wednesday, he found time to pitch a couple of innings of softball at Fort McNair's Inter-American Defense College.

Saying he is not a dictator or a Latin American "caudillo," Mr. Chavez and his supporters claim that Venezuela's democracy is so rotten, only a radical revolution can change it.

"We are coming back to our democracy," he said. "This is a solid process of change that is extremely beautiful to us, because we are doing away with the past of deception, corruption and lies."

Mr. Chavez's background and rhetoric has raised concerns of Clinton administration officials.

However, since Venezuela is the top U.S. supplier of oil, officials are taking a "wait-and-see" attitude toward Mr. Chavez.

"We have to listen to his rhetoric but pay closer attention to his actions," said one administration official on condition of anonymity. …