Floods Test Skills of Venezuela’s Leader


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez swept into office a year ago promising to rebuild a crisis-torn nation. He marched from one political triumph to another, establishing himself as one of the hemisphere’s most charismatic and volatile leaders.

Today, the rebuilding of Venezuela will have to be literal. In the worst natural disaster in Venezuelan history, massive floods have spread death and destruction on an epic scale--and taken with them the president’s angry political rhetoric.

Since the tragic events last week, Venezuelans have seen another face of Chavez: the tireless soldier with profound sympathy for his people. Once again commanding his elite paratroop unit of yore, the former army colonel has personally led a valiant, if sometimes overwhelmed, operation to rescue and shelter more than 150,000 flood victims.


The 46-year-old Chavez was already in the international spotlight: His shoot-from-the-hip dynamism and verbose leftist nationalism inspire great expectations among his followers and fears among others that he is a would-be tyrant who epitomizes the woes of Latin American democracy.

Even before the floods, he faced the task of transforming an economy and political system that were among the most fragile and chaotic on the continent despite vast oil reserves and 40 years of uninterrupted democracy.

Now the world watches along with 25 million Venezuelans as Chavez steps into the apocalyptic landscape left by the kind of calamity that can become a leader’s defining moment. His performance in office during the past year has displayed the strengths and weaknesses that he will bring to a herculean mission.

“If Chavez understands that the whole paradigm has changed--that he must go from being divisive to uniting--he could help pull the country out of this,” said Eric Ekvall, a Caracas-based political consultant.

Among the president’s strengths is his longtime commitment to bettering the lot of the approximately 70% of Venezuelans who are considered poor--and the adulation and trust they bestow on him in return.

The disaster only reaffirmed the bond between the president and working-class Venezuelans. At the height of the chaos and carnage last week, slum dwellers trapped by raging waters called radio stations repeating a plaintive refrain: “Send the president to help us!”


In this sense, Chavez is a classic Latin American charismatic leader, the “providential man,” and he will have to make the most of it. The losses wreaked by the floods, estimated by private-sector experts in the billions, will only worsen unemployment, the budget deficit and the other economic crises he had promised to remedy.

Chavez will also have to use his charm overseas to win direly needed recovery aid.

“It’s a huge challenge but quite an opportunity,” said Alasdair Ross, an Oxford-based Latin America expert. “Chavez will need to champion Venezuela’s pleas for aid--he’s good at these things. Still, he stands at risk of being associated with any problems” that arise in the aftermath of the disaster.

In recent days, Chavez jumped into one of the toughest potential challenges: persuading tens of thousands of refugees who survived the destruction of precarious hillside slums to accept a plan to move them to proposed satellite industrial cities and farming communities in Venezuela’s interior.

A grand plan to relocate poor people from the coast to the heartland was on Chavez’s agenda before the floods. In fact, it drew some derision. But the underlying idea proved tragically correct: Unlike some of his predecessors, Chavez cared about the dangerous spread of ranchos, vulnerable Latin American shantytowns, along the mountain outskirts of Caracas, the capital. He wanted to do something about it.

In addition to his popularity and oratorical energy, Chavez will depend on his military expertise and control over the armed forces, which in Venezuela are unusually well regarded and closer to the people than in most Latin American nations.

The military played a key role in the rescue operations and will be central to the recovery. Venezuela, one of the world’s top oil suppliers, hopes to benefit from an anticipated windfall of $6 billion to $10 billion next year because of high oil prices.


Despite his proven capacity for action, however, Chavez is also a man of words and of ideology. His long-windedness and contentiousness have hurt him in the past and could really hurt him now.

Recently, during a bitterly divisive campaign over a new constitution that is the blueprint for Chavez’s populist vision of a new nation, he insulted the clergy in alarmingly blunt language, warned of vague plots to assassinate him and expended precious political capital to ensure that the constitution--which voters overwhelmingly approved--would rename the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

“There’s a risk that he could play politics with human lives,” Ekvall said. “I have some serious doubts about his effectiveness.”

The government has been accused of being disorganized and distracted. This year, for example, Venezuela held four elections--three of them related to the new constitution.

And it is not clear how long the political truce brought by the wholesale loss of life and property will last. Already, the president’s critics have pointed out the ironic juxtaposition of the constitution referendum and the disaster, which came on the same day. His opponents contrasted the angry preelection diatribes--Chavez’s apocalyptic language that his fight for the constitution was a war against the forces of the devil--to the solidarity shown by Venezuelans from all walks of life since the floods.

“Exactly the day that someone tried to divide Venezuela was the day we were most united,” wrote Julio Andres Borges in El Universal newspaper, noting the role played by executives, journalists and church leaders--favorite Chavez targets--in responding to the tragedy.


Without mentioning the president by name, Borges scoffed at a “leader who labels people” and declared: “It’s easier to be popular than to be a leader. It’s easier to destroy than construct, to separate than unite.”

Going a step further, commentator Roberto Giusti on Wednesday was among those who slammed the government’s response to the disaster, saying the Chavez administration demonstrated “weakness, ill-preparedness and incapacity.”

If such attacks multiply and draw counterattacks, Chavez could become embroiled in a new war of words at an especially inappropriate and delicate time. Venezuelan democracy has entered something of a parenthesis; the constitution’s approval left only a caretaker legislative council in place until new elections scheduled for February.