El presidente as pop star in fatigues

Decked out in bright, candy-apple red shirts, shorts, and matching berets, two-dozen women calling themselves the "Girls in Red for Chvez" wait for Venezuela's president with all the composure of teenagers at a Ricky Martin concert.

On the tarmac of this central Venezuelan city's military airfield, President Hugo Chvez's fans have gathered to see the former paratrooper hold his weekly radio call-in show, "Hello President."

Wednesday's resounding 71 percent vote in favor of his sweeping constitutional changes is a clear indication of the growing popularity of President Chvez, who is increasingly compared to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

From his fatigues, charisma, biblical references, and his "appropriation" of a national hero (Simon Bolivar), Chvez has followed Mr. Castro's example for taking and holding power, says Valentn Arenas Amigo, a Cuban-born political scientist here.

"In the beginning [of the Cuban revolution] Fidel quoted the Bible a lot too, and he of course cultivated the people's patriotic sentiments with constant references to Jos Mart," Cuba's national hero, says Mr. Arenas.

Chvez and his new Constitution, which makes it possible for him to stay in power until 2012, equal a "democratic dictatorship" reflective of President Alberto Fujimori's Peru and other Latin American countries, says Caracas public-opinion analyst Alfredo Keller.

Many Venezuelans say there is no danger of their country accepting a dictatorial model because 40 years of democracy have made freedom too precious. But Mr. Keller says he's not so sure.

"Chvez has eliminated any effective opposition, and he is turning the armed forces into his political party, with their allegiance to him rather than to governing institutions," Keller says. "So he can be elected, he can be popular, but it's still a kind of dictatorship."

The new Constitution won not so much because Venezuelans embraced it as a superior document, various opinion surveys show, but because Chvez turned the referendum into a personal popularity contest, and, well, Venezuelans like their tough-talking, uniform-wearing president.

"I wanted to state my support for the president loud and clear," effuses Graciela Alvarez Rubes, wearing a very short, low-cut camouflage dress she had whipped up for the occasion. "I really admire military men."

But critics say the broad role Chvez was already giving the military in social work and job creation, plus new powers and autonomy afforded the military in the new Constitution, will make for a "democratic military regime."

But such talk doesn't bother most Venezuelans, who are looking to government for security, order, and discipline - in the face of mounting unemployment, fallen living standards, rising crime, and a sense of creeping chaos.

Chvez is successful because he knows how to connect with the people, admirers say. "Educated Venezuelans make fun of his speech but he's ... addressing the vast majority who just like him have felt left out," says historian Samuel Moncada. "He says his skin is the color of the Venezuelan earth, and to the poor majority that's saying, 'I'm like you.'"

Detractors counter that he's a street-smart demagogue simply telling a frustrated populace what they want to hear - and with the good fortune to have Venezuela's oil wealth to be able to dole out at least some of the goods that Venezuelans believe the state should provide. Either way, observers who see Venezuela as part of a nostalgia for more government, less competition, and more order, say the "Chvez phenomenon" is set to be a factor in Latin America for awhile.

Chvez's appearance in industrial-agricultural Valencia offered copious examples of the stuff that thrills his followers and chills his critics. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and his red beret, Chvez presided over a huge pro-constitution rally from a stage occupied equally by civilian officials and military officers. "The people and the soldiers, united, can never be defeated!" Chvez exclaimed to thunderous applause.

Despite the military overtones, the rally felt much like a religious revival. Chvez called on the Lord to forgive the new Constitution's detractors "for they know not what they do," and proceeded to hold out his arms like someone being crucified.

Most controversially in this Roman Catholic country, he answered critics of the new Constitution by proclaiming the need for an "exorcism" of the "devils that are under some religious vestments."

The day was also heavily accented with references to Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century Venezuelan general considered the "Liberator" of Venezuela from Spanish rule. and now namesake of this country. Chvez constantly refers to the honor, morality, and discipline of Bolivar.

But in Valencia there is only praise for the country's new name. "We need deep change in this country, and the name change is a symbol of how far we want to go with Bolivarian principles as our guide," says Marisol de Castellanos, one of the "Girls in Red for Chvez."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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