Share the (oil) wealth, says Venezuela's big winner

As president-elect, former coup leader now demands constitutional reform by peaceful means.

As Venezuela's president-elect Hugo Chvez made his victory speech on Sunday night, he reminisced about his previous shot at the presidential palace - only last time the shot was from a gun. In front of a crowd of thousands of supporters he recalled a night seven years ago when he led a small group of renegade soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government of then President Carlos Andrs Prez.

"What is happening today in Venezuela is the continuation of the fourth of February, 1992," said Mr. Chvez, referring to the date of his failed coup and the reforms he purportedly was seeking. Several dozen soldiers died in the mutiny.

Next February Chvez will take over a land that was named "Little Venice" (Venezuela) because its inhabitants lived in houses on stilts when it was Columbus's first stop in South America - and recently nicknamed "Saudi Venezuela" because of oil riches that made it the No. 1 exporter to the United States.

Venezuela had military rulers for more than half of this century, with democratically elected governments beginning four decades ago. It became known not only for mass poverty in the midst of export wealth but for beauty queens, including former Miss Universe Irene Saz, whose early political popularity did not keep her from finally losing out as a presidential candidate.

Chvez spent two years in jail for the coup attempt but was then pardoned by current president Rafael Caldera. He studied politics and philosophy in prison and wasted no time starting a grass-roots campaign for the presidency.

His platform includes more social spending, a crackdown on government corruption, and a call to throw out the Venezuelan Constitution and write up a new one.

"There will be a new social contract in Venezuela within five years," said Chvez.

While his opponents dismissed the idea as a gimmick to appeal to voters - which it appears to have done - Chvez has called for a constituent assembly in February to begin the process.

"The political parties, unions, the military, the church, and the bankers all got together in the early sixties and created a democratic system where basically everybody had a piece of the pie," says Eric Ekvall, an American political analyst who has been in Venezuela for 16 years.

"The Constitution was written to include the privileges of the political parties and to make the system as impervious to change as possible - it could not evolve," he says.

While the US Constitution has been amended over two centuries, in young Latin American democracies the tendency is to start from scratch.

Colombia ratified a new Constitution in 1991, and leftist guerrillas there are demanding yet another constituent assembly before they'll stop fighting.

Guatemala and Brazil have also written new constitutions in the recent past.

"[Venezuela has] a 35-year-old Constitution which really no longer reflects the political, social, and economic realities of either Venezuela or the world," says Mr. Ekvall.

A Western diplomatic source, who has witnessed several constitutional makeovers, says that the process usually comes at a time when the state needs to relegitimize itself in the face of changing political realities - as Guatemala did after its guerrilla war ended or South Africa did in the wake of apartheid.

VENEZUELA'S legitimacy problem, according to Chvez, comes from the corruption that has squandered the country's oil wealth. Some 80 percent of Venezuelans are poor.

Economists are concerned that, though parts of the Constitution need reform, constituent assemblies can go on and on.

They believe that Venezuela has more urgent problems, such as an economy based on sinking oil prices and a looming deficit. But, with the landslide Chvez victory, popular support for the new constitution may be irrresistible.

"The powers that be cannot hope to block it," says the diplomatic source.

Ironically, in the wake of Chvez's coup attempt and another failed overthrow in 1992, some projects to reform the Constitution were proposed, but they ran out of steam.

If efforts for constitutional reform had passed in the early 1990s, Chvez might not have been able to tap such widespread discontent.

"He considered it clear that the system couldn't reform itself," says the same source.

In the new Constitution, says Chvez, elected representatives will be obliged to reside in the areas they represent - which is not currently the law. He is also likely to revise the limitations placed on the military from becoming involved with politics.

Opponents have said that Chvez is going to redesign the Constitution to concentrate power in his own hands. His pledge to rewrite the Constitution was one of many ideas that have caused Chvez some image problems.

Early in the race he mentioned shutting down free-market reforms and refusing to pay Venezuela's foreign debt.

The Caracas stock exchange crashed as a result of his popularity, and investors are still waiting and watching what he will do. His opponents also drew attention to the fact that Chvez was denied a US visa because of his role in the coup.

In the last weeks of campaigning he moderated his line, and in the wake of his victory he said that Venezuela would pay the debt and encouraged foreign investment.

"I repeat the words of Simon Bolvar," he said. "I am but a blade of grass blowing in a great hurricane of revolution. I am this, nothing more. I am a grain of sand. I am a drop of water in a running river."

The White House has congratulated Chvez on his victory and stated that he would be granted a US visa if he applied.

Voter turnout was high and fears of violence proved unfounded.

International observers declared that the elections had passed without major irregularities.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, who led a delegation of observers, called it "one of the most beautiful demonstrations of democracy I have ever seen."

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