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.
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.