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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)

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"Venezuela is one of the most polarized countries in the world, and it really pains people when they see him reinforcing that," Feierstein said. "When we'd do focus groups with Chavistas, they would talk in mostly positive tones about Chávez, but the one thing that would bother them is CChávez's belligerence."

The president's behavior has been making international headlines since early this month when, at a summit in Chile, he called former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar a "fascist." After a long diatribe by Chávez, the king of Spain, Juan Carlos, became so agitated that he leaned across a table and said to the Venezuelan: "Why don't you shut up?"

Chávez has not paid heed. He also hasn't forgotten -- or forgiven. He later declared that relations with Spain, a major investor in Venezuela, would be "frozen" until the king apologized. The king has yet to do so.

"There will not be a million kings who will want to keep my mouth shut, because I speak in the name of Venezuela," Chávez later said.

Then, after President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia last week ended CChávez's role in mediations with that country's guerrilla group, Chávez said that Uribe's actions were "brutal" and disrespectful of Venezuela -- even if Chávez had sidestepped diplomatic protocol, as Uribe contended.

Chávez withdrew his ambassador from Bogota and, in televised comments Wednesday, said Uribe was capable of "barefaced lies." "If he does that to me," Chávez said, "imagine how he is with the poor Colombian people."

In the closing days of campaigning for the referendum, with the government holding huge rallies, officials have continued to warn of anti-Chávez plots that could originate in the church or the business community.

Indeed, the authorities said they were going to investigate church leaders as well as CNN, which came under criticism after placing a caption reading, "Who Killed Him?" on a photograph of Chávez. The network said the caption was an error, designed for a story about the investigation into the murder of Washington Redskins player Sean Taylor.

On Friday, a day when an estimated 200,000 people in Caracas rallied in support of Chávez, officials saw yet one more possible sign of conspiracy. Toilet paper is in short supply -- as are milk, eggs and other staples.

"We know there are sectors hiding toilet paper," Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas said on state television. "A group of business leaders are playing mean, playing dirty." He said it was designed to "create the sensation of product shortage during the election."

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