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Embattled Chávez makes a last stand

With its economy already weakened by falling oil prices, Venezuela’s suffering is being intensified by the actions of president Hugo Chávez, whose populism is rapidly losing all support. More conflict is likely.

Caracas is a noisy city, but the clamour there on December 10 was out of the ordinary. The bustle of commerce was drowned out by the roar of jet fighters, a show of strength from a beleaguered president. The middle classes responded by banging pots and pans in protest at their leader's policies. And the sound was heard as far away as New York, where Bear Stearns analyst Jose Cerritelli started becoming bullish on the grounds of the inevitability of what he calls "political changes". Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, prides himself on knowing the will of his people. The former coup leader eventually gained power democratically, on a platform of dismantling the corrupt elite and redistributing Venezuela's oil wealth to all its citizens. He succeeded in the first task but he has failed in the second. Now the population is baying for his blood.

No-one in the country can imagine Chávez staying on as president for the remainder of his presidential term, until 2006; and yet no-one can imagine any way in which he will voluntarily let go of the presidency. With oil prices falling and the president becoming increasingly irascible and autocratic, Venezuela is likely to become pretty ugly in 2002.

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