For Venezuelans, Chavez Has Brought Politics to Life

Times Staff Writer

Maeca Lopez used to have a comfortable life. She owned an art gallery, dabbled in painting and had a circle of friends who volunteered for charities.

Now, the widow and mother of two is at war with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. She sold her business. She goes to political meetings to plot his ouster. And she leads a group of women who show up at every march with gas masks and manicured nails.

No matter what happens to Chavez, he has already assured himself this legacy: He has managed to awaken the political consciousness of a nation where politics were once a distant realm populated only by the rich and powerful.

"It's the only good thing he's done," Lopez said, laughing.

Venezuela may now be the most politically active country in Latin America. Politics here are lived, felt in the long lines that have stretched everywhere since Chavez's foes launched a crippling nationwide general strike last month: lines for gas, lines for money, even lines to register to vote.

Politics are the main topic of conversation in boardrooms and hovels, in coffee shops and at bus stops. They dominate the nation's TV shows, its radio stations, the graffiti on walls.

All of this discussion surrounds Chavez: how to kick him out or how to keep him in office.

The passion could be plainly seen in the last few weeks, as the National Elections Council, which oversees voting, launched a drive to register voters for a referendum, proposed for February, on Chavez's rule.

People waited in line for as long as six hours to register. More than 380,000 people signed up in 18 days. Nearly 70% of them were young, first-time registrants, equal to about 2.2% of the country's 12 million registered voters.

All this for a referendum that would be nothing more than a giant opinion poll -- a "consultative" vote with no binding power.

For the referendum is not guaranteed to happen. Chavez's supporters have challenged it, saying the elections council is flawed, as is the wording of the question, which asks whether Chavez should resign.

None of that mattered to those who got up as early as 4:30 a.m. to register.

"We have to get him out in any way possible. With Chavez, there's no work," said Mai Lozano, an unemployed 24-year-old who spent nearly all of a recent Sunday in a noisy, sweaty subway station to register.

Chavez's foes see the controversial leader as a threat to democracy. They believe his vision of an ill-defined "revolution" to aid the country's millions of poor has instead driven the nation to ruin. Unemployment is high, about 17%; inflation is running at 30%; and the oil-rich country's economy has actually shrunk during a year of relatively high petroleum prices.

The opposition, a diverse group whose members range from homemakers to anti-Chavez politicians, holds marches every day across the country. The Chavez foes gather every night on street corners for cacerolazos, during which they bang pots and pans in protest.

It is an exhausting pace, a daily grind that is fraying nerves and drying up savings accounts. But so far, it has not broken the opposition supporters' resolve. They want Chavez to resign and make way for new elections early this year.

Chavez's supporters are just as determined. They hold counter-marches, counter-cacerolazos, and have their own drive to oust a key Chavez opponent by means of a recall election. They want to expel Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena from office for running a police force that has repeatedly quashed pro-Chavez protests.

They sleep in the street around the presidential palace, vowing to defend Chavez's rule with their bodies. They light fires in barrels, huddle in doorways and are always on guard.

Chavez was ousted in a coup in April, then returned to power two days later with the support of his followers and loyal military units. Nineteen people were killed in the course of an opposition march leading up to the coup.

Like leftist uprisings in Nicaragua and Cuba, Chavez's nascent "Bolivarian revolution" has awakened a political consciousness in the poor. For the first time in Venezuela's history, small grass-roots groups, called Bolivarian Circles, have formed in impoverished neighborhoods to demand improved living conditions such as running water and new sewers.

According to Nancy Perez, who came down from her poor neighborhood in the hills to protest for the first time in her life last month against Lopez and her allies, "all they want is for Chavez to leave. They have never taken into account the poor. They call him a murderer, but we don't see him that way. He's our leader."

There is no question that many people hate Chavez. Polls -- more accurate and professional here than in many Latin American countries -- show that about 70% of the population disapproves of him. Opposition is strongest in the upper and middle classes, but a bare majority of the lowest economic class also has turned against him.

But there is also no question that many people still love Chavez. He has the rock-solid support of about 30% of the people, and the figure is even higher among the poorest of the poor, who see him as a savior finally paying attention to their misery, even if he has not yet eased it.

The question is: Should Chavez resign or leave early, thereby weakening a democracy that has established, fixed presidential terms? Or should he stay stubbornly in power until his term ends in 2007, trying to govern a country heading toward economic collapse?

So far, there are no clear answers. Nor is there an end in sight to the stalemate between Chavez and his foes.

"The problem is that Chavez isn't afraid of the people, and the people aren't afraid of him," said Pedro Nikken, an advisor to opposition negotiators who are seeking a solution to the crisis at the bargaining table.

In part, Venezuela's politicization is exactly what Chavez wanted. A former paratrooper, he joined fellow military officers in the early 1980s to create a group designed to combat the corrupt political system.

They developed a kind of nationalism dedicated to turning the struggling country into a First World nation. They based their movement on Venezuela's history as the cradle of South American liberation -- Simon Bolivar launched his revolution against the Spanish from here -- and its status as the world's fifth-biggest exporter of oil, with the largest proven reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

Chavez first tried to put his ideas into practice in 1992, when he led an unsuccessful military coup against a president widely considered corrupt. He was imprisoned for two years, agreeing to give up his fight "for now."

By 1998 he was back, winning the presidency with 56% of the vote after a hard-fought campaign. He immediately set about drawing up a new, more democratic constitution.

Written in a National Assembly dominated by Chavez supporters, the 1999 constitution has since become a cultural phenomenon.

Venezuelans both rich and poor have memorized long passages. Chavez carries a miniature copy with him at all times, as does every soldier.

Copies of the constitution are sold at shops throughout the country. Nearly everyone has a favorite passage to justify his or her actions. The opposition usually says the entire strike is based on Article 350.

This article, in their interpretation, guarantees the right to rebellion -- allowing military officers to seize a plaza in upscale eastern Caracas and declare it "liberated territory" and permitting striking ship captains to anchor state-owned oil vessels against Chavez's orders.

"The people of Venezuela, true to their republican tradition and their struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values, principles and guarantees or encroaches upon human rights," the article says.

Chavez and his supporters say they have not violated democratic values or trod on human rights. They say the opposition must wait until August to hold a referendum, citing an article of the constitution that allows such votes halfway through an officeholder's term.

Not following the constitution, they say, would create a dangerous precedent that would allow any determined opposition to remove a president from office at any time. The president's supporters say more time must be given to allow Chavez to carry out his revolution.

"It's advancing slowly, but it's advancing. It's a long process," said Jannette Pino, 42, a freelance journalist and mother of three who supports Chavez. "We're just learning, because it's never existed before."

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