SUNS  4367 Thursday 4 February 1999

Venezuela: Chavez promises to defuse time bomb

Caracas, Feb 2 (IPS/Estrella Gutierrez) -- Venezuela's new president, Hugo Chavez, said at his inauguration Tuesday that he was being handed a fast-ticking time bomb that he would defuse through a peaceful revolution that would get a grip on Venezuela's severe internal crises
and revive the country.

In a lengthy, forceful, improvised speech, Chavez, a retired lieutenant-colonel, became at age 44 Venezuela's youngest president, two days before the seventh anniversary of an aborted coup attempt that he himself led.

Before more than 15 heads of state and government from Latin America and the Caribbean, Chavez swore in as Venezuela's 51st president on "the moribund constitution" of 1961 - which he aims to overhaul through a constituent assembly with broad powers to be set up by a referendum
that Chavez convoked on his very first day in office.

His improvised oath "before God, the fatherland and my people that on this moribund constitution I will promote the democratic transformations necessary," represented the start of a new era in
Venezuelan politics, whose model dominated by the traditional parties has been exhausted in the midst of a global crisis.

The stern impatience of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori after a speech that stretched out for more than two hours, Cuban President Fidel Castro's long-winded comments and Colombian President Andres Pastrana's moved response to the applause of solidarity for the tragic
earthquake that struck his country on Jan. 25 were other incidents that set the tone of the ceremony.

Chavez left off his red beret - the symbol of the paratroopers he once led - to don a tie of the same colour upon taking office as the ninth constitutional president of Venezuela's two-chamber Congress.

An at times overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowd of followers wearing red berets applauded him throughout the speech from outside Congress, in downtown Caracas, later accompanying his vehicle five blocks to the presidential Palacio de Miraflores.

Chavez was swept to power with 56 percent of the votes - and close to 80% support according to an opinion poll conducted last week - backed by an alliance of nearly all of Venezuela's leftist forces and former coup leaders that pushed aside the traditional parties on which popular resentment has been focused. Described as populist, nationalist or leftist by international observers, while local analysts and opponents detect unpredictable right-wing authoritarian streaks, Chavez defines himself as a "Bolivarian" (for Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar) who follows the "Third Way" of social humanism, removed from both neo-liberalism and communism.

His new cabinet, a cocktail of leftist leaders, retired military officers and independent figures, includes three women - Finance Minister Maritza Izaguirre, Information Minister Carmen Ramia, and Environment Minister Apala Uriana, of the Wuayuu indigenous community. With the exception of Izaguirre, who will remain in the post she occupied under outgoing president Rafael Caldera, the new cabinet is almost totally lacking in experience in governing.

Weaving in quotes from 16 historic military or literary figures, especially Simon Bolivar, Chavez' speech sought in Venezuela's past and recent history the roots of its current "catastrophe" and the strength to "pull itself out of the tomb" toward an egalitarian and just society.

The new president said his aim was to "peacefully channel the revolution unleashed" in a population mobilised against the country's traditional politicians, corruption, the skyrocketing of poverty, the
lack of safety and the collapse of public services.

If that objective is not urgently met, "the revolution will pass over all of us" and overflow like a raging river, said Chavez, because the country is a time-bomb that is ticking faster and faster by the minute.

The new president lashed out against the blemishes of a "false democracy," in which 80% of the population lives in poverty, 12 to 20% of economically active Venezuelans are unemployed, infant mortality stands at 27 per 1,000 live births and 15 percent of children die of malnutrition.

He promised that when he steps down "in five or 10 years, or one if that's what the people want," there will be not one single child living  on Venezuela's streets or lacking access to an education.

The possibility of presidents running for a second term and for the people to hold a referendum that would remove a president from office are two elements he aims to incorporate into the new constitution.

Chavez decreed a "social emergency" in Venezuela, which rather than removing constitutional safeguards and rights would return a few of the many that he said had been lost due to the incapacity and corruption of the leaders who preceded him in office. He assigned the military an
important role in resolving the social crisis.

He asked parliament to quickly approve a bill granting the president the right to legislate by decree, in order to "tackle the tragic situation" in which he is receiving the economy, with a nearly nine
billion dollar deficit forecast for this year, equivalent to nine percent of the gross domestic product.

Chavez will seek to implement fiscal reforms in order to establish a value added tax, to replace the more limited sales tax currently in effect, as well as a temporary fee on bank operations - measures
designed to slash the deficit by 2.5% this year.

Chavez also called on Venezuelans with capital abroad - estimated at between 80 and $120 billion - to repatriate it in order to reactivate the country's declining productive apparatus.
He guaranteed that his government would be "very serious" about investment, and that its economic orientation would not fall into either statism or wild neo-liberalism. He used a phrase of Ecuadorean President Jamil Mahuad, promising to promote "the state as much as necessary, and the market as much as possible."

But he let fly his concrete announcements at full speed when his speech - strung together with quotes, personal reminiscences and a continuous interaction with his guests - was reaching the two-hour mark and threatened to degenerate into a rowdy climate, to the delight of those
outside and the resignation of those inside Congress.

The retired commander who seven years ago tried to seize, with tanks, the palace that became his office Tuesday vindicated that act during his inauguration as "a rebellion inevitable as the eruption of a volcano," while paying tribute to the soldiers who fell that day without making it over the fence.

In the most loudly applauded part of his speech, in a parliament in which his alliance commands 33% of the seats, similar to the number held by the two displaced traditional parties, Chavez called for reconciliation, to promote an innovative consensus to bring about change.