Not finding much love at home, Chavez courts autocratic allies

CARACAS, Venezuela — Stymied in trying to advance his anti-U.S. agenda in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is tightening the screws at home — and touring friendly autocratic regimes abroad.

Opponents are organizing a massive march for Saturday in Caracas, disregarding warnings by Venezuela's top federal prosecutor that protesters could face prison sentences of up to 24 years for disturbing the peace.

"We dare the government to put into prison not only the leaders of the 25 groups heading up the march but the hundreds and hundreds of people who will call for a democratic end to this government," Henry Ramos, head of the Accion Democratica political party told a crowd of supporters on Wednesday.

Chavez won't be in Venezuela to hear these calls, however. He is in the midst of visiting friendly autocracies in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Chavez began this trip after failing to convince other South American presidents at a regional summit last week to condemn the expanded U.S. military presence planned for neighboring Colombia.

Not winning their backing marked the latest in a string of defeats for Chavez in Latin America, including the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a key ally in Central America.

Analysts don't expect Chavez to retreat despite the setbacks.

"Chavez is most dangerous not when he's strong but when he's weak," said Matias Spektor, a foreign policy specialist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. "He needs to show the grand gesture and crack down at home."

Chavez thought he could capitalize on the leaked word that Colombia was planning to allow U.S. troops to have access to seven of its military bases throughout the country. U.S. allies such as Brazil and Chile, reflecting age-old regional resentments against Uncle Sam, voiced concern about the agreement.

Chavez warned repeatedly that it "loosed the winds of war" and would lead to a U.S. invasion of Venezuela. To dramatize his concern, Chavez threatened to cut off trade with Colombia — a major source of food, machinery and cars for Venezuela — as well as diplomatic relations.

At Friday's meeting in the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe vigorously defended the agreement. He said the U.S. would never have more than 1,400 troops in Colombia at any time and they would be there only to assist the government fight drug traffickers and the FARC guerrillas.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia challenged Chavez's talk of an "invasion threat," by reminding everyone who's buying his oil.

"Why are they going to dominate the petroleum if you already sell it all to the United States?'' Garcia playfully asked Chavez.

The room erupted in laughter — that is, everybody but Chavez.

The summit's final declaration didn't condemn the U.S.-Colombian deal, as Chavez sought. Instead, it called for strengthening the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking — Uribe's main goals — while saying that foreign powers couldn't threaten other nations.

"Bariloche was a defeat for Chavez," said Maria Teresa Romero, a foreign policy specialist at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas. "Uribe emerged in a more advantageous position."

Rafael Nieto, a political columnist for Colombia's main newspaper, El Tiempo, said Chavez had already lost ground in Latin America when Honduras' military forced Zelaya into exile at gunpoint on June 28, the same day that Argentine voters handed a stinging election defeat to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, another of his allies.

On top of that, Nieto added, Paraguay's Senate recently blocked Chavez's move to join the Mercosur trade bloc, and El Salvador's new leftist president, Mauricio Funes, declared Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to be his model, not Chavez.

"Chavez's authoritarian measures in Venezuela scare people in other countries," Nieto said.

That doesn't seem to be the case in the countries he's visiting during his 11-day trip. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi awarded him a medal, and Algeria's president discussed strengthening oil ties.

Still to come: Syria, Iran, Belarus and Russia.

Back home, Chavez remains a formidable figure. He continually outwits the opposition.

His unmatched political charisma and continued ability to hand out money generated by oil profits have kept him popular among slightly more than half of all Venezuelans, pollster Luis Vicente Leon said.

Chavez needs to remain popular to deepen his so-called "revolution," which amounts to a government takeover of more of the economy, Leon said.

To that end, Leon said, Chavez has had the government take over private radio stations and has threatened to close Globovision, the lone remaining TV station that regularly airs critical coverage of him.

"He wants to control the message," Leon said. "If you ask people if they are in favor of the government taking over private companies, they overwhelmingly say no. If you ask them instead if they want to make sure that companies fairly distribute goods and services to prevent shortages, they favor that."

Middle-class opponents of Chavez have heightened their resistance since a compliant Congress approved a Chavez measure three weeks ago that opponents say would force teachers to indoctrinate students with communist ideas.

Two recent marches that led to street clashes have resulted in the arrest of over 40 people, including the deputy mayor of Caracas, and the police are seeking one march organizer, who's in hiding.

Chavez has denied that his jails are holding "political prisoners," as opponents claim.

"What the government wants is for us to surrender, Antonio Ledezma, Caracas' mayor, told supporters Wednesday. "We will continue to fight."


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