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Venezuela President Controversial

May 24, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ To his critics, President Hugo Chavez has failed the poor and rich alike, taking Venezuela down a path of economic destruction while inciting a class war.

But he’s still a hero to millions of slum dwellers who see him as an antidote to despair _ and polls give him a comfortable lead going into this weekend’s presidential elections.

``He is the only hope we have,″ says Carmen Teran, a 38-year-old street vendor, as she jogs alongside the president’s motorcade during one of Chavez’s recent campaign trips to the western state of Zulia.

Drenched in sweat from hours spent waiting to see Chavez as he makes his way through the working class neighborhoods, Teran says she supports the president because ``he speaks our language and understands our needs.″

With just four days to go before the May 28 vote, Chavez is the frontrunner. Recent polls show him with a 20-point lead over his closest rival, Francisco Arias Cardenas, a former army officer who helped Chavez stage a failed 1992 coup attempt but now says the president has betrayed the ideas behind their rebellion.

That commanding lead is largely due to Chavez’s ability to attract the country’s poor.

Here, in the slums and working class neighborhoods that are home to more than half of this nation of 23 million, Chavez has captured a loyal base of support. Voters say the charismatic leader is making good on his promise of a ``social revolution.″

``People say we don’t understand because we are poor and that he hasn’t done anything, but that isn’t true,″ says Daniel Reyes, an unemployed schoolteacher who clapped and whistled during a recent Chavez rally. ``He has already made changes in the government and the economy will be next.″

Among those changes is a new constitution pushed through by Chavez last year that requires Venezuelans to ``re-legitimize″ most public offices, including the presidency, congress and governorships, in Sunday’s elections.

In fiery speeches, Chavez promises an ``electoral knockout″ against his challenger, calls the country’s top Catholic clergy a ``corrupt oligarchy,″ and invokes 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar as a model for modern Venezuela. If his words still draw applause in the barrios, they get a poor reception in board rooms.

``Chavez has managed to exploit the poor’s frustration,″ says Carlos Pardi, a prominent businessman from the oil-rich state of Zulia. ``I’m not a politician but what I see is the poor aren’t any better off and the investors and business class are leaving Venezuela.″

For Pardi and others, the president’s strong invectives against the business sector, his public expressions of admiration for the governments of Cuba, Iraq and Libya, and his perceived neglect of good relations with the United States and Colombia _ Venezuela’s two main trade partners_ are dangerous signs.

``Venezuela has passed through a lot of tough economic moments but this is the most difficult,″ says Jorge Redmond, a former president of the country’s largest business association. ``There is a lot of confrontation between the haves and the have-nots and that is really dangerous.″

Chavez has managed these divisions to his advantage.

Born in the western farming town of Sabaneta, Chavez gave up on dreams of a baseball career for a chance to enroll in Venezuela’s Military Academy.

After graduating in 1975, Chavez spent the next few years building an underground organization inside the army to oppose military corruption. That movement was discovered by military commanders who banished Chavez to an isolated outpost near the Colombian border.

Eventually, Chavez managed to become commander of an elite paratrooper unit _ a position he would use in 1992 to help launch a failed uprising. Chavez and three other midlevel officers led 15,000 rebel soldiers intent on installing a ``progressive″ civilian-military junta in a coup attempt against then President Carlos Andres Perez.

The failed revolt would cost Chavez two years in jail but helped turn him into a folk hero. He spent the next few years crisscrossing the country to build support for his ``Bolivarian″ political movement.

Then in 1999, seven years after his failed uprising, Chavez was sworn in as president on an anti-corruption platform that promised to end to the rampant mismanagement that for decades excluded most Venezuelans from the bounty of the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.

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