Venezuelans see justice in assembly's changes; Complaints of Congress, judges are met with disdain


CARACAS, Venezuela -- On the television screen in Jorge Navarro Diaz's small restaurant, a member of Venezuela's shuttered Congress was complaining that President Hugo Chavez had breached the rule of law and was leading the country into a dictatorship. But Navarro wasn't buying that argument.

"What those politicians need to do is shut their mouths, get the hell out of the way and let the constitutional assembly do its work," he snapped. "For 40 years, all they have done is rip off this country, and now that we finally have somebody trying to put things right, they are trying to block what needs to be done just to save their own skins."

Since its election on July 25, a constitutional assembly loyal to Chavez has not only stripped the opposition-controlled Congress of all its powers, but has also taken control of Venezuela's judicial system. Though those actions have generated much criticism abroad that democracy is being endangered here, Venezuela's 23 million people have largely hailed the moves.

"It was long overdue," said Freddy Velazquez, a regular customer. "I hope the assembly gets rid of all the corrupt bureaucrats, too, so that when the new constitution is finally ready, this country can start with a clean slate."

Popularity increasing

If anything, the popularity of Chavez, a 45-year-old former colonel who led a coup attempt in 1992, has risen as a result of his campaign to eradicate the established order. He was elected in December with 57 percent of the vote, but the most recent public opinion survey taken by Datanalisis, a leading polling and market research company, gave him a national approval rating of nearly 75 percent.

"Nobody doubts the legitimacy of Chavez or the constitutional assembly," Luis Vicente Leon, the company's director, said in an interview. "He enjoys the highest level of support of any president at this point in his term, and I have no doubt that if he called an election today to dissolve the Congress, he would win that vote hands down."

Spoils and discontent

Sentiment has been building for at least a decade against Congress and other state institutions seen as remote and unresponsive. In 1989 there was a violent popular uprising against a government economic austerity plan, and Chavez's elderly predecessor, Rafael Caldera, seized on that discontent to run against the traditional two-party system he had helped create.

The two parties, Accion Democratica, which has a center-left Social Democratic ideology, and Copei, a Social Christian group, had alternated in power since a military dictatorship was overthrown in 1958. They set up a spoils system that has led, as most Venezuelans see it, to the squandering of the country's vast oil wealth and a gradual estrangement from the populace.

"I voted many times for Accion Democratica and almost considered myself to be a member of the party," said Felix Emilio Contreras, 52, a truck driver for a supermarket chain. "But they turned out to be a mafia that ruled the country for their own benefit and cared more about themselves than about us, the people."

The judicial system has fallen into similar disrepute, and has little popular support. Cecilia Sosa Gomez, who was chief justice until her resignation last month, has framed the issue as one of principle, saying that the assembly's takeover of the courts was illegal and that her fellow judges were cowards not to stand up against political pressure and in defense of the rule of law.

"The court simply committed suicide to avoid being assassinated," she said after her fellow justices narrowly voted to approve the constitutional assembly's seizure of judicial functions.

The tribunal, she said, was "the last control on constitutionality and legality that existed in Venezuela."

But many Venezuelans have a more cynical interpretation of her actions. They recall the central role she played in recent years in quashing two highly politicized corruption cases and wonder about the reasons for what they regard as a belated display of conscience.

"I think she resigned because there is a lot of dirt on her, and this judicial investigative commission the assembly has set up is going to make it all public," said Araceli Cruz Vivas, a nurse. "This way she gets to play the martyr and say they are out to get her."

One of their own

Chavez's appeal clearly goes beyond the program of radical change that he is offering.

Compared with predecessors such as Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez, the president he sought to overthrow in 1992, he is more like the average Venezuelan: darker skinned and plain-spoken in a folksy way.

"For the first time, I feel that we have a president who says things that I have always thought but have been unable to put into words," said William Mendoza Davila, a street vendor. "I trust him, and I will support him to the hilt, no matter what the consequences."

An important part of what Chavez is articulating is class hostility and revenge, political analysts said. Even though Venezuela has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, nearly 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, defined as an income of $400 a month for a family of five.

"Resentments have accumulated over many decades, and that deep-seated anger is finally being expressed," Michael Shifter, program director for the Washington-based research group Inter-American Dialogue, said in an interview.

"There's a widespread feeling that 'now it's our turn' and that all remnants of the old regime should be swept away."

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