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Venezuela's Chavez faces political gulfs

Policy toward US, opposition not set

CARACAS -- Fresh from victory and emboldened by a decisive mandate, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has the opportunity to extend an olive branch to a seething opposition and a suspicious US administration, but the rifts may have grown too deep to be mended.

With the price of oil sky-high, observers say the leader of the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporter could also choose to fund like-minded populist or leftist movements across Latin America as he has on occasion. And his resounding win on Sunday could inspire other leaders in the region to imitate his populist social programs in a region marked by some of the worst inequities between rich and poor in the world.

Chavez, a charismatic ex-paratroop commander who has styled himself as a champion for the masses against a corrupt, elite oligarchy, is expected to maintain his close friendship with President Fidel Castro but has vowed not to copy Cuba's socialist model. In more than five years in office, Chavez neither nationalized private property nor shut down private media outlets.

His relationship with the United States, which gets 13 percent of its oil imports from Venezuela, remains a question mark, however. Two years ago, the Bush administration recognized a short-lived coup as a legitimate government, before Chavez was restored to power through a popular uprising. During the recent recall campaign, Chavez painted President Bush as a ''devil" behind a coalition of old-time, US-puppet opposition politicians.

Since he won, he has muted his rhetoric toward a country that historically was among Venezuela's closest allies.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli signaled that the United States viewed the political crisis as over, declaring, ''The people of Venezuela have spoken."

The largest immediate challenge for Chavez is to build a national consensus to address a long list of societal ills. That means reconciling with a wide spectrum of detractors who have demonized him as a dictatorial, incompetent would-be socialist. In Sunday's referendum, he won support from 58 percent of the people, but the 42 percent who voted to recall him include many vocal and influential business leaders and technocrats, whose help Chavez will need to spur an economic recovery.

Chavez invited his critics to the table in his victory remarks early Monday morning and later repeated the invitation during a four-hour, nationally televised press conference. ''We are not going to be blinded by our victory, because we recognize the existence of others, of 40 percent who expressed an opinion that is respectable," he said of the opposition.

Yet the opposition is still refusing to accept Chavez's win, despite assurances by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States that voting, counting, and a post-electoral audit of selected polling stations have been free from fraud. Carter and the OAS announced last night that to put opposition suspicions to rest, the electoral council has agreed to hand count paper ballots against electronic results in 150 random-chosen voting stations, in the presence of foreign observers.

''The opposition to Chavez is these people's lives for the last three years," so it's not hard to understand why they would take the loss so badly, former President Jimmy Carter said in an interview. Yesterday, as Carter stepped out of his vehicle to have lunch on the wealthy east side of the capital, a long line of passing cars honked their angry indignation at him, with one woman screaming out her window, ''Fraud! Lies!"

Three major industrial and business chambers that opposed Chavez seemed to open the door for reconciliation yesterday, declaring in a joint statement that ''Venezuela cannot remain divided," and that it was the government's obligation to ''create a favorable environment for business to develop projects to help rebuild the economy."

But many of Chavez's political adversaries say cooperation is impossible. They complain that he has diminished checks and balances by stacking the Supreme Court and electoral council with loyalists, and say his longwinded, garrulous persona so dominates political space that there's no room for opposing voices.

Chavez said Monday that the victory gives the government ''catalyzing energy" to carry out initiatives, including ''completing the transformation of the judicial branch," fueling opposition fears that he will further centralize power in the executive.

One obstacle is the complete lack of psychological common ground between a Western-educated, wealthy elite and a humbly born, man-of-the-people leader who some analysts compare to Juan Peron, the longtime populist leader of Argentina. Having won more votes last Sunday than in his last election in 2000, Chavez has vowed to run again in 2006, and the opposition will have to figure out how to work with him, while they reinvent themselves as a force that can get elected, analysts say.

Diplomats and election observers have criticized the opposition campaign for not making efforts to cultivate support, or even poll opinion, in the poorest areas.

''The opposition needs to understand that they have to reach out to Chavez supporters whose expectations have been awakened," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. ''This is a country that's deteriorated a lot over the last two decades," amid falling oil prices and inefficient rule by traditional political parties, ''and Chavez understood that."

Edgardo Lander, a professor of social sciences at Central University of Venezuela, said ''any reconciliation must take into account that the majority of this country is poor, not middle class. . . . Those popular sectors are mobilized and won't stop."

Indira Lakshmanan can be reached at

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