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Venezuela’s Fate Hangs on Turf Wars

October 30, 2002

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ It’s the only ``rebel territory″ in Latin America featuring couples walking dogs and baby strollers, young professionals and grandmothers stretching out in lawn chairs and cheerleaders and folk dancers keeping the crowd upbeat.

Yet President Hugo Chavez’s government accuses the festive gathering at Caracas’ tree-lined Altamira plaza _ Latin America’s only middle-class led uprising _ of being a dangerous threat to the region’s stability.

The peaceful, week-old camp-out by opposition activists demanding Chavez’s ouster has become the focus of the pettiness, quarreling and inflated rhetoric nearly paralyzing Venezuela and exhausting patience in Caracas. The city’s neighborhoods are divided up in a turf war reflecting the country’s deep divisions between pro- and anti-Chavez factions.

While Chavez has not said what he will do about the Altamira camp, Vice President Jose Rangel called it ``a demonstration that is highly dangerous for the entire Latin American region.″

``This cannot continue,″ he said.

The situation almost came to a head this week in a typically petty way when a top Chavez man, the commander of the country’s national guard, decided to have dinner at an expensive steakhouse near the Altamira plaza.

He crossed turf lines and quickly was surrounded by shouting opposition supporters, who prevented him from leaving. A National Guard detachment rescued him by using tear gas on the crowd.

Rangel blamed Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of the Altamira suburb, for the incident and told him to crack down on the opposition. Lopez, a well-regarded mayor who did not ask the rebels to set up camp in his district, basically told Rangel to grow up.

``What’s happening in Venezuela seems to me childish, irresponsible and dangerous, if the vice president doesn’t want to recognize that what we have (is) a problem of government,″ Lopez told a local radio station.

Patience even wore thin for Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, who said, ``The differences just don’t appear big enough to justify further confrontation.″

Yet they continue.

``They (Chavez supporters) can’t come here, but we can’t go to downtown Caracas,″ said Carmen Campagna, an anti-Chavez activist who has attended the Altamira camp-out daily.

Meanwhile, Chavez’s rough-and-tumble, red beret-clad supporters man downtown checkpoints around the presidential palace and stage noisy, almost daily marches supporting the president.

Campagna was busy signing up voters for a petition demanding Chavez, a bombastic leftist, submit to a referendum on his 2-year-old rule. But for some here, Chavez _ who has polarized the country with his racially and class-charged rhetoric _ already is gone.

``We Are in Liberated Territory,″ says a banner hanging over the dozen tents where Mauricio Salazar, a 27-year-old who sold his business during the dot-com boom, and about 20 other anti-Chavez activists have slept for eight days.

A massive balloon bearing the legend ``This Is Not A Coup″ floats nearby.

``Our country has been taken away from us, in the sense that this man Chavez does not represent us,″ Salazar said.

Like most other ``rebel″ movements in Latin America, there are some military uniforms around, mainly officers removed from active duty because of their opposition to Chavez. They spend their time talking to reporters or chatting beneath a white tent in the plaza, not plotting guerrilla war.

Still, Chavez remains president, although a bumbling coup in April removed him from power for a day before he returned triumphantly.

So it remains a tense standoff _ Chavez refusing to leave office and the opposition refusing to recognize him _ with both sides preferring to toss insults up and down Caracas’ mountain valley.

Chavez and his supporters use terms like ``squalid fascists″ and ``gorillas″ to describe the opposition, who in turn call Chavez names ranging from lunatic to dictator.

``Chavez, go back to Cuba,″ reads on Altamira banner, referring to Chavez’s friendship with Fidel Castro.

What has suffered in all of this is the quality of life for average Venezuelans.

Chavez regularly interrupts soap operas _ and even a recent World Series game _ to broadcast hours-long diatribes or parade loyal military officers before the cameras of the government-run television station.

Opposition-oriented stations, on the other hand, feature stultifying hours of coverage from Altamira or interviews with the latest military officer to defect from Chavez’s ranks.

``I love watching soap operas and baseball, but on the television there’s always somebody on talking about politics,″ complained Caracas taxi driver Jovel Simon.

``When I see that, I feel like my brain is swelling up. Someday my head is going to explode.″

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