Chavez grabs reins of power; Reform: Venezuela's new president is wildly popular at home, but his moves to reshape democracy have caused the U.S. and others to take pause.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ON A STREET corner in the sleepy provincial capital of Guanare, a man tries to explain Venezuela by using a fresh pastry. From the outside, "it looks big and filled with promise," he says, before biting off a corner. "But look inside. It's less than half-filled." He pokes at the creamy cheese filling. "We expect more."

The man whom Venezuelans expect to supply the missing cheese and everything else a country could want is President Hugo Chavez. Since he took office after running as an independent in December's elections, Chavez has promised to break the stranglehold of Venezuela's corrupt two-party system. His promises and the constitutional crisis that he has sparked have made his popularity soar. In the latest polls, 75 percent of the country supports the president.

When President Clinton sits down with Chavez this week in the U.S., nothing less than the future of democracy in South America and U.S. strategic interests in the region will be at stake.

Venezuela plays an important economic role for the United States. Because it is the largest supplier of imported oil to the U.S. Venezuela also holds a strategic position on the northern shelf of South America, flanking Colombia, where the U.S. is bankrolling not only an important front in the so-called "war on drugs" but also efforts to stop the hemisphere's oldest guerrilla war.

Finally, since Simon Bolivar used the area as a base to liberate large sections of the continent from Spanish rule in the 19th century, Venez-uela has played a role in influencing the paths of governments throughout the region. Since 1958, the country has been a stalwart supporter of democratic rule.

All these reasons have combined to give the U.S. State Department pause when the subject is Chavez, the man who has shaken Venezuela's democracy to its core. A former rebellious colonel who served time for carrying out an unsuccessful coup in 1992, Chavez called for a plebiscite to elect an assembly to write a new constitution after his election. The new constitutional assembly was elected with 90 percent of its members backing Chavez's positions. After it was in place, the assembly moved to dissolve Venezuela's Congress, which was dominated by the old parties. The constitutional assembly also forced the ouster of the chief justice of the country's Supreme Court. With Chavez's backing, special commissions are investigating rampant corruption among the nation's top judicial officials.

What worries Washington is that all power in Venezuela rests with Chavez and an assembly that could fashion a government in any way he sees fit.

The Clinton administration isn't the only concerned party.

Manuel Serrano, the corporate marketing director of WAMU-FM in Washington, is familiar with Chavez and his violent side from the 1992 coup attempt. Serrano's family owns Radio Rumbos, perhaps Venezuela's most respected news and information source. It is remembered as an opposition voice that helped keep democracy alive during the 1950s, when Venezuela was ruled by a dictator. Since that time, Radio Rumbos has maintained an image as the station with the most credibility. As the general manager at his family's station during the coup, Serrano saw people die in the streets.

"Those visions I can never erase," he said. "I know what Chavez is capable of doing. I've seen it. However, you sort of have to trust him. There's no alternative."

Serrano is not a fan of the entrenched political forces that have drained the country of much of its oil wealth and left at least 80 percent of the population below the poverty line. "There's too much corruption. Drastic changes are needed," Serrano said.

Venezuelan industrialist Fabricio Marcotuli says Chavez is not the answer. He called Chavez's moves with the constitutional assembly a type of democratic coup. Beyond the new president's efforts at fighting corruption, Marcotuli said, the government's changes have caused economic instability. "No one wants to invest in a country that seems unstable," he noted.

So far, the country's employment and economic problems are considered part of the corrupt past. The unemployed have funneled their frustrations into enthusiasm for Chavez's changes.

Not only has Chavez shown initiative and a willingness to keep his promises, but the new president has ordered the country's military to tackle special tasks. This summer, the military ran a vaccination campaign for children. Venezuela's soldiers also are working in poor neighborhoods on public works projects, something lacking under past administrations.

In addition, Chavez is looking at cutting presidential and administrative perks to save money. He recently announced he would sell a fleet of planes owned by the government to finance housing for the poor.

Patricia Riveira, who sells advertising in the province of Portuguesa, blames the country's media for the current state of affairs. "They just repeated the false information from the government. They never checked facts," she said.

Indeed, broadcasters such as the Cisneros Organization and Radio Caracas Television have long been criticized for papering over the corruption in the Venezuelan system. With the support of past administrations, both broadcast companies grew in power by eliminating competition, becoming two of the more powerful broadcasting operations in Latin America. Both have major television production and syndication operations based in Miami. During the Chavez era, though, the broadcasters and other media groups seem to be holding their breath, waiting for the next political bombshell to drop.

The media, the intelligentsia and much of the nation's upper class still seem stunned by Chavez's victory and his subsequent political actions. Many sectors of Venezuela's upper class have failed to realize that the nation's economic straits, in the face of its potential wealth from its large petroleum reserves, have sparked the populist support of Chavez.

Some in Venezuela fear that, amid the turmoil of this transitional period, Chavez is quietly consolidating central power, following the model of President Alberto Fujimori of Peru. After his election, Fujimori also found a way to dissolve his country's Congress before making other constitutional changes that have cemented his authoritarian grip on power. Fujimori is the classic South American strongman dressed up in democratic clothes.

Other observers, such as industrialist Marcotuli, compare Chavez to Cuba's Fidel Castro. Chavez is on speaking terms with Castro, though the Venezuelan president downplays the cordial relationship. Some wonder if this relationship was the reason Chavez offered to broker peace talks between the guerrillas and the government in neighboring Colombia.

In the past, Venezuela's democracy has leaned on strong central figures in the president's office. Indeed, the country's Congress voted away some of its powers to check the executive branch two decades ago during the administration of President Carlos Andres Perez. Perez used those powers to nationalize Venezuela's petroleum, iron and steel industries.

An alternative exists to the notion of Chavez as a repeat of Fujimori or Castro. Most Venezuelans want the world to believe that Chavez is a new breed: a populist with strong leadership abilities who can open the door to reform while keeping democracy alive.

As his nation's constitution takes shape, only Chavez's actions to re-create countervailing institutions, such as a strong judiciary, will tell us if this populist image is real.

And for the sake of those with doubts, Chavez and those helping him reshape Venezuela must remember that trust -- like democracy -- takes time to build.

Rick Rockwell teaches broadcasting and ethics at American University. Celina Barrios-Ponce is an undergraduate at the university's School of International Service. Both recently returned from trips to Venezuela.

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