President Hugo Chavez has complained that the United States and other foreign countries have misunderstood his political reform campaign because his foes in Venezuela's traditional parties have unfairly portrayed it as anti-democratic.
Chavez said in a 90-minute interview Saturday night at the presidential palace that his opponents have "distorted" his agenda for change in the same way that they tried to deceive the world about their "corrupt" and oligarchic domination here for 40 years.
"In some measure, there does not seem to be a perception that this is a legitimate and democratic process," said Chavez, 45, a cashiered army lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup seven years ago. "There is a lack of knowledge about the roots and phases of the process and the goals achieved and those to be achieved."
Consequently, he said, he is ordering Venezuela's embassies to increase their efforts to spread the government's viewpoint. He also has tapped a well-known Venezuelan reporter who specializes in international news to assist in handling the foreign media and instructed government ministers to make themselves more accessible to reporters.
Chavez said misconceptions about his reform program are "the result of a big farce that has been created here over many years. [The parties] had sold the world on the idea that there was a model of democracy at work, when in reality we had a degenerative process with a democratic mask."
He argued that the leaders of the traditional parties have been trying to "spread a dirty war" of misinformation "based on a Goebbels strategy"--a reference to Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. "They have repeated lies so many times that they believe it is the truth," he said.
For their part, the parties--most notably Democratic Action, the Social Christian Party and Project Venezuela, along with some independent politicians--have accused Chavez of imposing a leftist, authoritarian-style regime under the guise of a "peaceful revolution," a revolution that Chavez says is aimed at overhauling four decades of dishonesty and reckless governance by the established parties in this oil-rich but poverty-stricken nation of 23 million people.
Political acrimony peaked here recently when a newly installed constituent assembly, the centerpiece of Chavez's reform drive, gave itself broad powers to reorganize Venezuela's troubled judicial system and issued a decree that stripped virtually all authority from the opposition-controlled Congress. The 131-member assembly was elected in July with a mandate to write a new constitution, but Chavez has asserted that it has "supreme" powers.
Henrique Capriles, chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the assembly decree, but has accused the judges of dragging their feet on a decision and threatened to take his case to the Organization of American States.
"We cannot say yet that there is a dictatorship, [but] there could be an authoritarian leaning . . . or an orientation by the government toward a militant authoritarian culture," said Alberto Franceschi, one of a half-dozen opposition delegates in the assembly.
The United States--for which Venezuela is the largest source of imported oil--has expressed concerns on several occasions over recent developments here, imploring Chavez not to ignore legalities in his efforts to overhaul the political system.
Although Chavez took a cordial approach to discussing U.S. concerns, he seemed dismissive of them, saying "revolutions have to be viewed from close up to truly judge them." He also appeared to be adamant in his refusal to allow U.S. anti-drug aircraft to conduct missions in Venezuelan airspace.
Chavez remains highly popular in Venezuela, with public approval ratings greater than 70 percent, despite a severe recession and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs since he took office seven months ago. He called the assembly's decision to strip Congress of most of its powers "an obligation," adding that the assembly "is not killing anything; it is restructuring democracy." The assembly is dominated by Chavez's supporters, but he denied that he controls it, saying: "I have one influence. It is ethical, encouraging moral behavior. . . . I also try to orient the process."
While a national referendum on a new constitution is likely in November, Chavez said that the Congress and the assembly are close to reaching an agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church to coexist peacefully until new legislative elections are held early next year.
Amid deepening concerns here and abroad over Venezuela's economic future under Chavez, the president outlined a number of steps his administration has taken to strengthen the economy and implement fiscal discipline.
He said he has started to reduce Venezuela's bloated bureaucracy by cutting the number of ministries from 29 to 13 while also eliminating 500 governmental bodyguard positions, selling more than 400 government cars, as well as other state properties, and trimming the presidential military corps from 2,000 to 1,200 troops.
Chavez has also implemented a 15 percent value-added tax on goods, and customs collections have risen about five-fold. He noted that while the budget deficit equaled about 8 percent of the country's gross national product at the beginning of his administration, the figure has since shrunk to 3.5 percent.