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Hugo Chavez hits one into the rough

By Tony Allen-Mills

The Sunday Times, November 19, 2006 | Caracas | AMONG the millions of Venezuelans anxiously awaiting the results of President Hugo Chavez’s bid for re-election next month, the golfers of the Caracas Country Club have arguably the most to lose. If the populist incumbent wins, they may end up without their golf course.

The thought of rich capitalists strolling down lush fairways while ordinary Venezuelans are confined to choked barrio slums has proved too much for pro-Chavez ideologues in the Caracas town hall.

The “chavista” mayor, Juan Barreto, has sparked a new round of class warfare by proposing to confiscate the city’s two most exclusive golf courses in order to build low-cost housing.

Although the mayor appears to have acted without Chavez’s prior approval, the club is taking no chances and has taken Barreto to court.

While the threat to millionaire country club members may not be the country’s most pressing controversy, the golfing row epitomises the sinister undertones of political confrontation and economic division that Chavez has created in Venezuela on his way to becoming Latin America’s leading baiter of George W Bush and Tony Blair.

The man who has called Bush a “devil” and Blair “Hitler’s ally” was between six and 20 points ahead in different opinion polls last week, but he is having a tougher campaign than expected. A surprisingly vigorous performance by his only serious challenger — Manuel Rosales, an unheralded regional governor from Maracaibo — has exposed damning domestic flaws in the so-called Chavez revolution.

A series of diplomatic setbacks abroad has also raised intriguing questions about the future political impact of a charismatic Venezuelan maverick who has made a career out of taunting the West by befriending international pariahs such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

In the El Observatorio slum on a mountainside high above Caracas, Argenis Morales and his girlfriend Doris Cermeno used to consider themselves typical Chavez supporters. They applauded his efforts to spend Venezuela’s oil wealth on projects helping the poor. They were promised loans to improve their home, precariously built on the edge of a cliff.

The government helped them instal a new roof, but then the money began to dry up. There were accusations of corruption in the local housing office. Repair work came to a halt.

Last week Morales picked up a passenger on the motorbike he drives as a mini-taxi. “He was a young guy at 11 o’clock in the morning,” Morales said. “I didn’t feel any danger.”

The passenger asked to be dropped off at a building site where a group of young men were standing around. Morales was about to drive off when his passenger leapt at him, pulling him to the ground. The group of men attacked him and stripped him of his valuables at gunpoint.

As more and more oil money pours into the barrios, tales of violence and corruption have become frighteningly commonplace. Elena Uzcategui, a veteran community activist, described how her husband was murdered in front of her by a gang that spotted his gold chain. “Is Chavez good for the poor?” she asked. “He is good for nobody. He is only good for the thieves.”

Uzcategui was far from alone in expressing disillusion last week with a populist president whose unprecedented spending on welfare programmes has not been accompanied by serious structural reforms. A corrupt and brutal police force has been accused in many areas of exacerbating criminal violence.

Capitalising on widespread complaints of crime and corruption, Rosales, 53, united Venezuela’s splintered opposition behind him. He has promised to purge the police of corrupt elements, and to recruit 150,000 new officers and hundreds of independent judges.

He also struck a chord by accusing Chavez of lavishing Venezuela’s oil wealth on foreign countries that did not need it. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, was an intended beneficiary of Chavez’s largesse. But the issue became so sensitive for Chavez that a proposed visit to Caracas by Livingstone was embarrassingly scrapped.

Yet for all Rosales’s efforts to present himself as a more polished democratic alternative to Chavez, he has been badly outgunned by an incumbent whose daily promises of new roads, bridges, railway lines and other populist projects were backed up by a bombardment of ideological invective depicting the challenger as an agent of the hated American empire.

With his photogenic wife, Eveling, and their 10 children — several of them adopted — Rosales presented himself as a decent family man in marked contrast to the rakish president, whose colourful love life has included divorce and a number of mistresses.

Yet Chavez had reason to be in optimistic mood when he appeared last week at a youth rally in Caracas. Earlier in the campaign he had toned down his revolutionary zeal, in apparent response to Rosales’s criticisms, and had even abandoned his trademark red beret in favour of a “softer” blue suit.

But on Thursday night he was back in a red shirt worn casually over a T-shirt and waving a copy of a book by Che Guevara.

These conflicting signals have not made it any easier for international observers to gauge whether a more accommodating Chavez might emerge from the elections next month.

Did he learn a lesson when his foul-mouthed attacks on Bush at the United Nations general assembly in September alienated potential allies and cost Venezuela a seat on the UN security council? Or will an election victory merely make him more aggressive? Officials in Washington said last week they were ready to negotiate with Chavez if he is re-elected, but there have been few signs from Caracas that he is interested. Venezuela routinely ignores US requests for information on terrorist suspects.

Washington is particularly concerned that a recent influx of Iranian diplomats and other officials may provide a Latin American foothold for a militant Islamic group such as Hezbollah. The US embassy in Caracas was recently attacked with two small pipe bombs that were reportedly placed by a man who was carrying Hezbollah literature.

A bigger incident might trigger serious friction between Washington and Caracas.

Original Source The Sunday Times

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