Thursday, March 11, 2004

From Chavez, Divisive Rhetoric
Embattled Venezuelan's Bluntness Is Fuel for Recall Effort
By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 2004; Page A23

CARACAS, Venezuela -- When he addresses the nation, President Hugo Chavez sometimes breaks into song. He sermonizes his supporters and taunts his foes. In January he called Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, "a real illiterate." And last month, he used a profanity to describe President Bush, alleging Bush supported a campaign by Venezuela's political opposition to remove him. Then he issued a challenge.

"We're going to make a bet to see who lasts longer, Mr. George Bush -- you in the White House or Hugo Chavez here in Miraflores," he said, referring to Venezuela's presidential residence. He added that he would make the bet in Venezuelan currency "or in dollars, as you wish."

Chavez's policies, Venezuela's faltering economy and allegations of creeping authoritarianism are ostensibly driving the violent street protests here and the growing efforts to oust the president.

But language also divides this country. Supporters and critics of Chavez have said that the president's salty, earthy and even profane speeches are anything but presidential. While Venezuela's poor, and its black and indigenous minorities, often find Chavez's use of blunt language appealing, wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans find it boorish and embarrassing.

"When Chavez talks, it is like he is one of us," said Pablo Rosales, 53, a black cab driver here. "He is the first president I've seen who talks to the poor and not just the high class. He includes us when he talks."

Said Adriana Ruggiero, 45, a dentist: "He uses such profanity. That is not how a world leader should present himself. He is like a cave man. He makes all Venezuelans look bad."

Class is the principal fault line in Venezuelans' fractured opinion of Chavez. Recent polls indicate that Venezuela's poor, who are nearly 80 percent of the country's 25 million people, are almost evenly split on Chavez. About 41 percent of Venezuelans support Chavez, the vast majority of them poor, said Luis Vicente Leon, executive director of the national polling firm Datanalisis.

But the 59 percent of Venezuelans who disapprove of Chavez include virtually all of the country's most prosperous residents, Leon said.

"There's no doubt that Chavez's strongest support comes from those sectors of Venezuelan society who have typically been the most excluded: blacks, indigenous people and the poor," Leon said.

The son of rural teachers, Chavez has said that he has more support than the polls reflect because researchers avoid the shantytowns and poor neighborhoods where the bulk of his supporters live.

His weekly broadcast program, "Hello President," has a preacher's cadence and is peppered with slang. When the actor Danny Glover visited last month and attended a ceremony to name an elementary school for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., televised news accounts showed Chavez pointing to his curly hair and broad nose and saying that he, like Glover, was of African heritage.

"He speaks the language of the excluded," said Maximilien Arvelaiz, a Chavez adviser. "He doesn't just speak about the poor. He speaks to the poor."

After returning from a state visit abroad, for example, Chavez has spoken on television using a map and pointer. "He will say this is where I was and it takes X number of hours to travel there by plane from Caracas," Arvelaiz said. "For the rich and the middle class, this is all quite boring because of course they know where Spain is on the map. They think it is stupid. But poor people love this. No one has ever taken the time to explain this to them."

Julio Borges, a spokesman for the campaign to recall Chavez, acknowledges that the president has considerable charisma. But Borges said there had not been any substantial improvements in the lives of the poor since Chavez took office five years ago. Inflation is rising, the economy has lost jobs and crime in urban centers has increased, he said. "He's a demagogue," Borges said.

Elections officials last week validated only 1.8 million of the more than 3 million signatures collected by Borges and other opposition leaders in support of a referendum to recall Chavez. Constitutional provisions require that 2.4 million signatures, representing 20 percent of eligible voters, be validated.

Monitors from the Organization of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Center said they did not see widespread fraud in the referendum process. But the National Electoral Council ruled that many of the forms were improperly completed and that signatures did not match identification numbers. Chavez said many names were of dead people.

On Wednesday, his opponents condemned the electoral council's action, saying that Chavez's allies on the panel were blocking the referendum with a complex and unfair review process, the Reuters news agency reported. The opponents, a coalition of political parties, labor leaders and civic groups, said their analysis showed that they have enough signatures to force a vote.