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Venezuelans Hope To Get New Leader

December 1, 1998

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ To critics, he’s an arrogant elitist who would rule Venezuela for the benefit of the rich.

But to supporters, Henrique Salas Romer is Venezuela’s last hope of saving democracy and the only candidate with a chance of defeating former coup leader Hugo Chavez in Sunday’s presidential election.

Salas is banking on his reputation as an efficient executive who as governor shook up the state of Carabobo by reducing corruption, cutting costs and making a notoriously chaotic government run smoothly.

``I inaugurated a new way of doing politics in the country,″ Salas, 62, a political independent, told The Associated Press last week aboard his campaign plane.

The race has polarized Venezuelans between the poor, who see Chavez as a hero partly because of his tough anti-corruption talk, and the middle- and upper-classes who fear he will impose a leftist dictatorship.

Venezuela’s political establishment has spent the last two weeks scrambling to convince other candidates to quit the race to boost Salas, who is in second place in polls.

Even his detractors acknowledge the one-time economics professor made impressive improvements in Carabobo in the heart of Venezuela’s industrial belt.

At Puerto Cabello port, Salas slashed the payroll from 5,300 to 190 workers while boosting the amount of cargo handled from 4.5 million tons to 10 million tons a year.

He cracked down on widespread theft of medicines and equipment at public hospitals, created the only police emergency telephone system in Venezuela and computerized highway toll booths to keep workers from stealing.

``We collected more on the first day than in the entire month before,″ said Abdon Vivas O’Connor, Salas’ campaign manager and the former head of the highway program.

Critics say many of Salas’ programs such as airport improvements mainly benefited the rich and failed to get at the root of problems such as mass poverty and crime.

``Salas Romer’s project is for 10 percent of the population and the other 90 percent gets left out,″ said Omar Meza Ramirez, a Chavez adviser.

Salas says his administration built 18,000 subsidized houses, helped slash infant mortality rates by 35 percent and created a low-interest credit program for small-business owners.

He says he will implement the credit program nationwide if he wins the presidency, double or triple the number of tourists who visit Venezuela’s Caribbean beaches, Andean mountains and Amazon jungles, and slash the government’s bloated payroll of 1.3 million workers by at least half.

Salas is betting his strong ties with the United States also will help him. He and three of his brothers attended prestigious Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey and then Yale.

Venezuela is the number one foreign supplier of oil to the United States. Chavez has been denied a visa to enter that country because of his 1992 coup attempt.

Over the weekend, Democratic Action, one of Venezuela’s two major traditional parties, dumped its candidate and threw its support to Salas. And on Monday the other main party, COPEI, followed suit, switching allegiance from Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe running fourth in polls, to Salas.

Party leaders insist nothing less than Venezuela’s democracy is at stake.

``I am a person that can unify the country,″ says Salas.

Yet Salas’ detractors accuse him of having authoritarian tendencies. Venezuela’s national journalists’ association recently accused him of verbally abusing several reporters and pressuring TV and newspaper owners to pull them off his campaign beat.

Salas denies the charge.

``I don’t think there are rights or lefts in today’s world,″ he said. ``Today’s political fight is really between the efficient and the inefficient, the honest and the dishonest, legitimacy against illegitimacy.″

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