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Venezuela's strongman faces widespread calls to step down

Thousands protest this week, as four military leaders call on Chávez to resign.

The man who won Venezuelan hearts three years ago as a strongman who could deliver a better life to the masses is now facing them in the streets.

More than 20,000 people turned out this week calling for the resignation of President Hugo Chávez, while some 2,000 supporters marched in a rival demonstration of support. The demonstrations come after months of building discontent with a president who has managed to alienate the labor class, the media, business groups, the church, political parties, and the military.

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Four military leaders have publicly called for his resignation.

In November, Chávez introduced 49 "revolutionary" decrees. The package of laws - affecting everything from land rights and fisheries to the oil industry - unified virtually the whole of organized society in a nationwide business and labor stoppage that paralyzed the country on Dec. 10.

The protests this week have a note of irony, because they started out as a commemoration called by President Chávez. In his eyes, Feb. 27 is a milestone of his so-called revolution - "the date on which the people awoke" in 1989. That is when thousands of rioters and looters took to the streets in protest of an IMF-backed austerity plan, in which the government hiked gas prices.

In what became known as the caracazo, or noisy protest, thousands of rioters and looters were met by Venezuelan military forces, and hundreds were killed. Three years later, Chávez and his military co-conspirators failed in an attempt to overthrow the government responsible for the massacre, that of President Carlos Andres Perez. Chávez was jailed for two years.

"But the elements that brought about the caracazo are still present in Venezuela," says lawyer Liliana Ortega, who for 13 years has led the fight for justice on behalf of the victims' relatives. "Poverty, corruption, impunity ... some of them are perhaps even more deeply ingrained than before."

Chávez's supporters consist of an inchoate mass of street traders, the unemployed, and those whom the old system had marginalized. This, to Chávez, is el pueblo - the people.

"But we are 'the people' too," protests teacher Luis Leonet. "We're not oligarchs like he says. The oligarchs are people like Chávez, people with power."

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On Wednesday, Leonet joined a march led by the main labor confederation, the CTV, to protest what unions say is a series of antilabor measures, including one of the 49 decrees dealing with public-sector workers.

Chávez won't talk to the CTV, whose leaders, he says, are corrupt and illegitimate. So he refuses to negotiate the annual renewal of collective contracts with the confederation, holding up deals on pay and conditions for hundreds of thousands of union members like Leonet.

Across town on Wednesday, a progovernment march sought to demonstrate that the president's popularity was as high as ever.

"For the popular classes, Chávez is an idol," says marcher Pedro Gutierrez.

Pollster Luis Vicente Leon, of the Datanalisis organization, warns that marches are no measure of relative popularity. "There is a lot of discontent among ... the really poor," Leon says, adding that so far the protests are mainly among the middle class.

But the middle class can be a dangerous enemy. It includes the bulk of the armed forces, and the management of the state oil company, PDVSA.

This month, four uniformed officers, ranging from a National Guard captain to a rear-admiral and an Air Force general, called on the president to resign, while repudiating the idea of a military coup of Chávez, himself a former Army lieutenant-colonel.

But senior "institutionalist" officers "are under severe pressure from lower ranks frustrated at the lack of impact" that these acts have had, a source close to military dissidents says. In other words, a coup cannot be ruled out, although the United States publicly denounces the idea.

Meanwhile, the president's imposition of a new board of directors on PDVSA this week sparked a virtual uprising by the company's senior management. In an unprecedented public statement, managers said the government was pushing the company "to the verge of operational and financial collapse" by imposing political, rather than commercial, criteria.

The political opposition remains relatively weak and divided. But in the view of many analysts, a president who offends both the military and the oil industry is asking for trouble. In the bars and restaurants of Caracas, the debate is no longer over whether Chávez will finish his term, which has nearly five years to run. It is when and how he will go - and what comes next.


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