Chávez Bluster Surges Ahead of Referendum

Supporters cheer as Chavez arrives at the rally in Caracas, which drew an estimated 200,000 people. He has been increasing his verbal attacks on foes.
Supporters cheer as Chavez arrives at the rally in Caracas, which drew an estimated 200,000 people. He has been increasing his verbal attacks on foes. (By Howard Yanes -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 1, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 30 -- On the eve of a referendum that President Hugo Chávez has cast as a plebiscite on his rule, the populist leader is escalating his verbal assaults on foes real and imagined, picking a fight with neighboring Colombia one day and assailing Catholic Church leaders as "mental retards" the next.

Chávez's behavior appears increasingly unpredictable, but some political analysts say the bluster may be a tactic designed to generate support for the constitutional changes that Venezuelans will vote on in Sunday's referendum. Although a few weeks ago the proposals had been expected to receive easy approval, polls released last week showed that the opposition could ultimately prevail in a tight contest.

"He's decided that his best tactic to recover the control of his movement is to instill fear in his people that there's a world conspiracy against Venezuela," said Demetrio Boersner, a political analyst and former diplomat. "It's a tactic that uses histrionics as a weapon to unite the people so they vote for him on Sunday."

The government says the rhetoric is no scare tactic, but rather a response to concerns that a destabilization plan is in the works. Officials point to negative press coverage, coupled with the Bush administration's statements questioning the fairness of the vote.

"There's an offensive to criminalize Venezuela, to say that Venezuela is falling into an abyss, that it's a country of dictators, of Castro-style communism, a country that helps terrorists," Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, said Friday in a phone interview.

This week Chávez accused CNN of instigating an assassination attempt, asserted that the church is fomenting dissent and called the president of neighboring Colombia a "liar" who couldn't be trusted. He didn't forget the United States, either, saying the CIA was busy hatching a plan to stir tumult.

In speech after speech, Chávez avoids dwelling on unpopular proposals for change, including one that would permit him to run for office indefinitely and another that would give him the power to appoint provincial governors. Instead, he depicts his opponents as conspirators out to crush his self-styled revolution. He vows to thwart any coup attempts, like one in 2002 that briefly ousted him and had Washington's tacit support.

"The revolution is peaceful, but it's not unarmed," he warned his foes on state television. "There's an army. There's a navy. There's an air force. There's a national guard. There's soldiers, there's cadets and the people. Don't consider it, because you'll repent."

He then added: "If you launch an offensive, I will launch a counterattack."

The harangues are a staple of Chávez's government, which in its nine years has transformed Venezuela's social and political model by ousting the elites who once ruled and providing widespread programs for the poor. Those programs have given Chávez solid, sometimes overwhelming support.

But some analysts say the particularly bellicose behavior of recent days may be working against Chávez.

Mark Feierstein, an American who has polled in Venezuela for years, said the president's supporters, known as Chavistas, also tire of the rhetoric.


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