A Whole New Hugo Chávez?

A picture of contrition, Venezuela's reinstated President now promises to abandon his old, divisive ways. Not everyone is convinced

"Apr. 12, 2002. Prisoner again." So wrote Venezuela's temporarily deposed President, Hugo Chávez, in a diary during his recent 43-hour confinement on a Caribbean desert islet -- a decade after he was jailed for his own failed military putsch against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. An astonishing countercoup on Apr. 14 restored Chávez to power in a deeply fractured nation roiled by 3 days of looting, 52 deaths, and the wounding of more than 320 citizens.

The question is whether Chávez can sustain his rule. Support from the armed forces is tenuous, and Venezuelan society is highly polarized along class lines. The poor champion Chávez, while the elite remain skeptical. "Chávez came out of this very weak. He is going to have to start negotiating," says Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis, a Caracas opinion-research firm.


  By nature combative and tenacious, Chávez isn't known for his negotiation skills. His previous vows to mend rifts, pledged in the wake of several divisive referendums aimed at rewriting the constitution and holding labor-union elections, came to naught. That's one of the reasons business-backed right-wingers hatched the coup that briefly toppled his regime. "It's not easy to imagine the President changing course," says Felipe Mujica, president of the opposition faction, the Movement Toward Socialism Party. "Everything depends on his conduct."

Chávez, a 47-year-old former paratrooper, appears to realize that, however. Upon his return to Miraflores Presidential Palace, he immediately adopted a conciliatory tone, asking forgiveness from those he attacked with sometimes vicious rhetoric during his three years in office -- a list that included Catholic bishops, media owners, labor union leaders, top executives, and managers at state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). "I recognize this was a mistake," he said of his behavior at an Apr. 15 press conference. "I am ready to rectify."

He also announced that he would form roundtables to open dialogue with opponents, and he hinted that he may water down some of the leftist laws he adopted by decree last year. He even mentioned the most polemical of those, land reform, which he previously billed as a hallmark of his revolution for social justice.


  Such actions on Chávez' part would force the opposition to make concessions of its own. Most notably, it may have to give up the campaign of legal challenges aimed at ousting the President by contesting everything from his sanity to his use of the military in social programs.

Opponents remain wary. "He sounds like he's going in the right direction. Let's hope it lasts," says a prominent business leader, who didn't want to be named because of his ties to the ill-fated Pedro Carmona, the 60-year-old chemical company CEO who had proclaimed himself President on Apr. 11 after the military announced that Chávez had resigned. Carmona is now under house arrest on charges related to his decree that dissolved public powers.

Some are encouraged that Chávez quickly made one concrete concession: He announced that he would recompose PDVSA's board of directors. It was his February appointment of five junior managers to the panel that galvanized top execs into organizing anti-Chávez street demonstrations.


  These protests gave momentum to scattered opposition forces, who joined in a three-day general strike and a massive Apr. 9 march that ended in the killing of 23 people by Chávez supporters and security forces. "We recognize that this created an escalating situation," says Vice-President Diosdado Cabello. "We will correct that."

Whether the Chávez Administration ordered armed supporters to fire on opposition marchers will be at the heart of a government investigation into the street protests. Chávez has promised an impartial inquiry and says wrongdoers will be punished.

Key to keeping the military calm will be the punishment meted out to the 80 generals who publicly withdrew their support from Chávez in the wake of the killings. Much will also depend on his treatment of Carmona. "Chávez has to handle this carefully. He doesn't want to create martyrs," says Leon. The fact that Chávez released all of Carmona's interim Cabinet members from detention is a good sign, he says.


  Meanwhile, the opposition is lying low, chastened and embarrassed by having allowed victory to slip from its grasp. "This left everyone with a residual bitterness," says a source close to the interim government.

The Bush Administration also ended up red-faced after issuing statements that supported the transitional team and blamed Chávez for provoking his own downfall. But the new Chávez seems in a conciliatory mood, and analysts say he would do well to keep the peace with his largest oil company.

For now, Chávez has emerged with a second lease on power. "I had a lot of time to reflect. This should be a giant lesson for all of us," he told Venezuelans upon resuming the presidency. Now comes the hardest part of all: building the bridges to govern effectively.

By Christina Hoag in Caracas

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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