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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Chavez, the Poor Man's Survivor

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; 11:14 AM

Hugo Chavez survives again.

The leftist president of Venezuela, backed by 58 percent of voters, easily rebuffed a recall referendum on Sunday. In the course of his political career, the 48-year-old former military officer has endured jail time and overcome two well-funded electoral rivals, an abortive military coup, a general strike and, now, a well-funded, internationally supported campaign to end his presidential term early. Chavez's reputation as a populist survivor is getting burnished in the international online media, if not in Venezuela itself.

Chavez's victory, if it survives allegations of fraud from the opposition, "would be a fillip for those campaigning against US influence in the region and a big success for leftwingers, including Fidel Castro, president of Cuba," notes the Financial Times.

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The London daily describes Chavez as "an out-spoken critic of the 'neo-liberal' economic policies supported by Washington." But the FT acknowledged his pragmatic side as well, noting Chavez's government "has met foreign debt payments and maintained reasonable relations with multinational companies in the oil, telecommunications and other sectors."

As a result, even TalCual (in Spanish), an independent Caracas daily often critical of Chavez, reported Monday that his victory "dispelled doubts about the stability of the world's fifth largest petroleum exporter and contributed to calm," at least temporarily, in oil and stock markets.

"I ask that we give a prayer to God thanking him for this victory that is clean, transparent, and forceful," Chavez declared Monday morning while speaking from the balcony of the presidential palace, according to a report in Colombia's El Tiempo (in Spanish) newspaper.

In the Spanish-speaking world, Chavez's allies were quick to claim victory. Cuba's Granma (in Spanish), the government-controlled daily, hailed Chavez's "transcendental victory," saying it represented the worst setback yet for Chavez's adversaries and was a sign of growing popular support for his so-called Bolivarian revolution. (Chavez is a great admirer of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century general who fought for the independence of Latin America.)

Argentina's left-wing president, Nestor Kirchner, sent congratulations to Chavez, according to El Nacional (in Spanish), another anti-Chavez daily in Caracas. El Universal (in Spanish) carried a wire service story that the leader of El Salvador's leftist political party, a former guerrilla fighter, had done the same.

In Spain, El Mundo (in Spanish) reported the country's center-left government had also sent its congratulations. (The Madrid daily reported that 95 percent of Venezuelan expatriates in that country had voted for recalling Chavez.)

The overconfidence of Chavez's foes—a diverse collection of middle- and upper-class political forces with tacit support from the United States —was exemplified by the columnist Omar Estacio writing in El Universal, a fiercely anti-Chavez daily. On the day of the voting, Estacio predicted Chavez's foes would prevail by a wide margin and soon be dancing in the streets "without attacking or offending anyone."

Less than 24 hours later, the federal electoral commission had reported Chavez had won by 16 percentage points and the opposition was calling for demonstrations, not dancing. By late Monday afternoon, El Universal reported that four opposition protestors had been wounded (one later died) by unidentified, but presumably pro-Chavez, gunmen at a rally.

A statement from former U.S. president Jimmy Carter that his observation team had not detected significant fraud was picked up by the Guardian of London and the Chinese news agency, Xinhua.net .

Chavez's success, including his penchant for rhetorically confronting the United States, has not gone unnoticed in other oil-exporting countries in the Middle East either.

Al-Jazeera.net credited Chavez with an "ambitious program of wealth redistribution" aimed at helping the 80 percent of Venezuelans who live in poverty.

"To the majority of Venezuelans -- mainly the impoverished -- Chavez became a hero," said the Qatar-based cable news network. An Arab student studying in the Netherlands told the BBC, "that most of the Arabs look at Venezuela with envy! We hope one day we will have our own Chavez."

"It remains to be seen whether the result referendum will calm the situation in Venezuela for the remainder of Mr. Chavez' term in office," cautioned Radio Netherlands.

The Dutch broadcast network quoted one analyst who said that, "those who suspect that Mr. Chavez is planning a Cuban-style dictatorship will continue to do so, and the people in the slums who voted for him will still support his revolution of the poor. … [W]ith this result it's very improbable that the opposition is going to accept the current situation".

Many Venezuelans shared the same view.

In a voluntary online survey, Tal Cual asked readers to chose from three statements about the future of Venezuela.

As of Tuesday morning, 26 percent said they expected reduced political conflict, 29 percent expected the economy to improve and 44 percent said they expected everything to stay the same.

In other words, Hugo Chavez's survival skills will probably be tested again.

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