Chavez passes buck as Venezuela woes worsen

CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Hugo  Chavez shot to fame when he took responsibility live on TV for  bungling a 1992 coup, but after 11 years in office it’s more  common to see him blaming enemies for the OPEC nation’s  problems.

With parliamentary elections set for Sept. 26 and the  country in recession, Chavez is delaying his customary campaign  spending spree in favor of invective against food companies,  Catholic prelates, TV stations, brokerage firms and banks.

Following a day of violence in his Feb. 4, 1992, putsch  attempt, Chavez, then a paratroop officer, realized his  soldiers had failed to seize power and surrendered, asking only  that he be given a few minutes television time.

The resulting broadcast was an instant hit, with the young  lieutenant colonel in a red beret striking a chord in a country  sick of corrupt officials who never admitted to failures.

“Sadly, for now, the objectives we set out were not met in  the capital,” Chavez said to his troops in other parts of the  country. “Before the country and before you, I take  responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement.”

Such frankness stands in stark contrast to the Chavez of  today, who is preparing for the September elections with an  unprecedented level of finger-pointing in an apparent attempt  to shift attention from a shrinking economy and other woes.

Chavez remains popular and his socialist party is likely to  emerge holding a reduced parliamentary majority, although some  in the opposition are hopeful they can take most seats.

“There is a radicalization in the campaign that was not  typical before,” said Luis Vicente Leon of respected pollster  Datanalisis. “They are putting names and surnames to the  people they blame.”

Chavez accused Lorenzo Mendoza, the billionaire owner of  the country’s top brewer Polar of stockpiling corn flour. He  excoriated Roman Catholic Cardinal Jorge Urosa for opposing his  socialist project.

Stubbornly high inflation? The fault of unscrupulous  private businessmen hoarding food. A weak currency? That’s  because of a “parasitic bourgeoisie”. A deep recession? It’s  the “death throes of capitalism” in the OPEC nation.

Problems at oil installations? Blame the private companies  who owned them before they were nationalized.

PASSING THE BUCK

Chavez has fulfilled many of his coup-era plans, including  nationalizing industries privatized in the 1990s.

But with the exception of the telecommunications sector,  the results have been less than stellar, and this year he has  struggled with power shortages and collapsing industry output.

In the first years after Chavez took office in 1999, he  could credibly blame others for some of Venezuela’s problems.  He had inherited an almost bankrupt country and faced constant  pressure from the opposition: street protests, a coup bid and  an oil industry shutdown that obstructed his government.

But by the time he was re-elected in 2006 with 63 percent  of the vote, Chavez had consolidated his power. He now controls  many media outlets and his allies dominate parliament and  courts — making it hard to credibly shift responsibility.

In a June study, polling company Hinterlaces, respected but  seen as pro-opposition, said that 39 percent of respondents now  blame Chavez for not resolving the country’s principal  problems, with another 29 percent blaming his collaborators.

Chavez officials have even tried to shift some of the  fallout from arguably the biggest scandal to hit his  administration — the case of tens of thousands of tonnes of  food left to rot by a government importer.

While the government accepts errors were made in food  imports and has arrested some officials, Oil Minister Rafael  Ramirez, who headed the importer at the heart of the scandal,  said recently that private dockside warehouse owners were part  of the problem, even though ports are now run by the state.

CHURCH, MEDIA
UNDER PRESSURE

Chavez, whose popularity has slid in the last couple of  years but is still above 40 percent, has in the past moderated  his attacks against the private sector and increased spending  before elections. The tactic has generally been successful.

But this time, he is lashing out at enemies and keeping the  purse strings tight in a contracting economy — and possibly to  save up for the bigger battle of 2012 presidential elections.

“Now the social enemy is not the opposition but the  bourgeoisie, which official propaganda has turned into an  exploiter, a speculator, a hoarder and against the people,”  said Hinterlaces in its June survey.

Chavez has launched a noisy offensive against the local  Catholic Church leadership, which he accuses of bias against  his socialist policies.

Dozens of financial institutions have been shut on fraud  charges, with several executives jailed, including those of the  country’s largest brokerage, Econoinvest, which was once  favored by the government for financial operations.

Two owners of the nation’s most important remaining  opposition TV station have had a large part of their business  empires dismantled in recent weeks, with the government  confiscating yachts and houses it says will be used to pay  customers of one of the businessmen’s failed bank, Banco  Federal.

The TV station remains open, but Chavez says the government  will place a representative on the board.

Analysts question whether Chavez’s offensive will succeed.  “It can work in the short term, but if you do not resolve the  country’s problems, you disinflate and everything can come down  on top of you,” Leon said.

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