Setbacks for Venezuela's Leader Embolden a Vigorous Opponent

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 19, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chávez exercises broad power over Venezuela. His allies sit on every seat in the National Assembly. His supporters stack the Supreme Court. And every futile opposition effort to oust him, from a coup to a national oil strike to a recall referendum two years ago, has left him stronger and his foes weaker.

But now, with Chávez buffeted by setbacks abroad and rising complaints about rampant crime, corruption and mismanagement at home, the opposition has united in recent weeks to mount a vigorous, if extremely difficult, challenge to unseat him.

Analysts say they believe Chávez will ultimately win the Dec. 3 presidential election. Still, there are signs the government is anxious about a strong showing by the opposition, prompting an avalanche of pro-Chávez ads, which his foes say are paid for with state funds, and a campaign to pressure state employees to vote for the president or face dismissal.

At opposition rallies, loudspeakers on trucks blare the message "Dare to," as in dare to vote against Chávez and his party, the Fifth Republic Movement. Thousands have flooded streets for anti-government marches and rallies, a reminder of the multitudes who emerged in 2002, when the opposition movement reached its peak before its long, hard fall.

"We are united, and we are sure we're going to win," said Henry Parras, an engineer dressed in the three colors of the Venezuelan flag during a recent protest that brought tens of thousands into the streets of this gritty capital.

"There are so many people, no exaggeration," he said, waving his arms as fellow government foes blew whistles and shouted for Chávez to leave office. "Just look at it. This is the reality. Just look at it."

Disparate factions, from former guerrillas to industrialists to right-wing radicals who had once advocated a boycott of the election, have coalesced behind Manuel Rosales, a wiry pit bull of a candidate who does not mince words when calling for a change in government.

In most polls, Rosales trails Chávez by at least 20 points. Nonetheless, some polls show him with the support of more than 30 percent of the electorate, up from just 9 percent in August. Political analysts attribute the surge to Rosales's constant criticism that Chávez, in buying Argentine bonds and providing aid to Africa and El Salvador, has wasted the country's oil revenue while ignoring festering problems at home.

"We see him as a failed government," Rosales said in an interview at his headquarters in an elegant neighborhood of Caracas. "No one understands how the government is giving away Venezuela's riches, as part of a political and ideological strategy, when there are bad services, a bad health system, a bad education system, bad policies for housing construction."

The government, meanwhile, has ignored Rosales almost completely and is focusing instead on President Bush, whom Venezuela's leader has portrayed as the country's archenemy.

In recent months, Chávez has not let up his verbal barrage against the White House, which in 2002 offered tacit support for a coup that failed two days after its start. He has toured the world to warn of the American threat and called Bush the "devil" during a rambunctious speech at the United Nations in September.

Polls show Venezuelans are worried about crime, unemployment and inflation, which rose to a one-year high of 15.5 percent in October, not about an invasion from the north. But billboards and banners draped across roadways announce what this election is about for Chávez's government -- the fight against the imperialists and their leader.

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