Thursday, April 24, 2003

The New York Times
February 7, 2003
How Venezuelan Outlasted His Foes

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 6 - When Venezuela's opposition movement started a national strike on Dec. 2, the objective seemed easily within reach. Its leaders portrayed President Hugo Chávez as rash and weak and predicted he would soon resign or call early elections under the pressure of a punishing walkout.
But through the two-month strike that strangled oil exports and generated the deepest recession in years, Mr. Chávez never wavered.

The military stayed by his side, ignoring calls to revolt. The state oil company, though nearly shuttered by thousands of striking workers, made enough of a comeback to keep the country afloat. Mr. Chávez insisted, even in his darkest hours, that the only settlement would be a referendum on his rule later this year, a proposal his adversaries rejected.

Now, the strike is over, the opposition is splintered, and Mr. Chávez is savoring victory over enemies whose tactics to unseat him have failed.
The president is not in a forgiving mood. He has opened investigations into the actions of the country's antigovernment television stations.

Today, his government imposed foreign-exchange controls intended to stabilize the currency, the bolívar, which has lost 30 percent of its value since the strike. But Mr. Chávez warned that the controls could be wielded as a weapon to cut access to dollars for opposition businessmen. "Not one dollar for coup-mongers," he said in a televised speech.

Earlier this week in a speech to supporters he signaled more retribution for his political enemies, telling them:
"The coup-mongering, fascist opposition had their turn with the bat and they have struck out three times. Now it's our turn to bat."
He called this the "year of the revolutionary offensive," and speaking in the third person, added: "Chávez is still here, tougher and stronger than ever."
Political analysts say the opposition's critical mistake was to underestimate Mr. Chávez, a pugnacious former army paratrooper, who through the years has often found a way to snatch victory from defeat.

Like a boxer using the rope-a-dope strategy, Mr. Chavez bounded and ducked, and though hit hard by a strike that paralyzed the country, continued standing as his opponents fell.

"The opposition pounded away, made little progress, and ultimately lost steam and became exhausted," said Michael Shifter, a Venezuela expert at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, who has spoken to opposition leaders about their tactics. "They had Chavez, but were so lacking in organization, strategy, an idea of what to do."

Opposition leaders spent time characterizing Mr. Chávez as an unbalanced dictator while playing down his support as marginal compared to the throngs of Venezuelans who attended anti-government demonstrations. Meanwhile, the anti-Chávez news media, which forms a radical wing of the opposition, presented commentator after commentator who predicted he would be forced out by the sheer magnitude of anti-government sentiment.

The government instead hunkered down and, with each passing week, the strike weakened while the opposition appeared increasingly wobbly.
"If only the strike had focused solely on an electoral solution," lamented Felipe Mujica, president of an opposition party, Movement Toward Socialism. "The opposition thought that it would lead to Chavez's resignation and that was a mistake."

Carlos Fernández, president of the country's most influential business association, said: "I did not think the president would be so callous. I thought he would be a democrat and sit down at the table to resolve the problem."
Mr. Chávez adopted a simple strategy, minimizing the effects of the strike while using the military to take over oil installations. That allowed the government to reactivate the industry that is Venezuela's economic lifeblood, leading to a war of attrition the opposition could not win.

"Chávez does not negotiate; he pretends to negotiate, which is different, but he is really trying to buy time," said Alberto Garrido, a critic of the opposition's tactics who has written several books about Mr. Chávez. "For Chávez, politics is a continuation of war, a form of war."

Rafael Simon Jimenez, vice president of the National Assembly, called Mr. Chavez's strategy one of confrontation, where he did not give an inch and thus threw the opposition off kilter while reassuring supporters.
"The opposition made a terrible error by fighting Mr. Chavez on the turf where he rules," Mr. Jimenez said. "They have to get it out of their heads that they will take Chavez out from one day to the next."

The opposition is still trying to apply pressure, as its leaders push for a constitutional amendment to shorten Mr. Chávez's term. The government, though, has rejected the proposal, and political analysts say it is becoming more likely that the president's foes will end up settling for the referendum in August that Mr. Chávez had offered weeks ago.

Still, he is not out of danger, since polls suggest that 70 percent of the population opposes him. Those polls show that while he would win the highest number of votes against a field of candidates, he could easily lose, too, because opposition voters could coalesce around one candidate, as has happened in previous elections.

Although support for Mr. Chávez remains strong in the poor neighborhoods where most Venezuelans live, analysts and community leaders say residents in those districts could grow restless if he fails to deliver on his pledges. Already, the president will find it difficult to provide much assistance this year, since the economy is expected to shrink by 14 percent and oil earnings will plummet.
"We have not received what has been promised," said Juan Blanco, a pro-Chávez community leader. "The assistance we get is very small; we do not even feel it. I ask, what is the goal of the revolution - where are we headed?"