Hugo Chvez thrives on conflict. Venezuela's flamboyant president - a onetime paratroop commander who burst onto the political scene with an attempted coup in 1992 - has taken his combative style to another level, ahead of the May 28 presidential elections.
Since his 1998 election, Mr. Chvez has virtually eliminated the traditional political parties, rewrote the Constitution, and assumed control of most key institutions. Now he has launched vitriolic verbal attacks on the church and the media.
Late Tuesday, the left-leaning Chvez compared his political reforms to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and warned bishops in a strongly worded 20-page letter not to derail his "revolution." He often denounces media owners as "manipulators." The Constitution he pushed through last year has a clause that requires news outlets to publish "truthful information," which critics say is a recipe for censorship.
"[Chvez] is a man who needs confrontation. He needs an adversary, and he's training his guns on us," says Msgr. Baltazar Porras, bishop of Merida and president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.
Yet, Chvez, who has been compared to Fidel Castro, remains a popular figure. Despite a sagging economy that shrank by more than 7 percent last year, and an unemployment rates above 18 percent, he has a 20-point lead over his nearest rival, Francisco Arias Crdenas.
Hugely popular among the poor, who represent more than 80 percent of the electorate, Chvez favors the language of street brawls over that of the debating chamber. He called his opponent a "Judas" who "betrayed the revolution." The bishops, he says, "blessed the theft" committed by the corrupt presidents of previous regimes.
Last year, in an earlier bout with the church hierarchy, he remarked that some of its members should seek exorcism. Warming to this particular theme, he has reiterated on recent occasions that "God is with the revolution," and "you cannot be in good standing with God and the devil."
In mid-April, the bishops criticized the government on a number of points. In particular, they questioned the legitimacy of the legislative council that currently acts as a parliament.
The members of the council - along with those of other institutions, including the Supreme Court - were handpicked by the assembly which drew up the Constitution. More than 90 percent of the members of that assembly were Chvez supporters.
"[Chvez's] aim is to cause the other components of society to disappear," Monsignor Porras said in an interview, "so that, with nothing between the government and the masses, there's no need for a dialogue. That's dangerous and damaging for any society."
Of immediate concern, observers say, is Chvez's handling of the media. Earlier this month, the TV channel Venevision abruptly cancelled the popular breakfast TV show "24 Horas" whose presenter, Napoleon Bravo, had been the subject of virulent criticism by Chvez only days before. The company's management said the decision was purely commercial, but it had no new show to present, and instead replaced Bravo's program with cartoons.
But, on Tuesday, Mr. Bravo alleged that he and his family had received death threats traceable to telephones belonging to state security. The decision to scrap the program, he claimed, was due to government threats to revoke Venevision's license if they failed to take him off the air.
Calling Chvez a "megalomaniac" and a "petty dictator," Bravo said he will hold the president, "responsible for anything that may happen to me or my family."
Government spokesmen have denied any attempt to censor the press, and claim that since Bravo's wife, Angela Zago, works for the Crdenas campaign, his statements may be politically motivated. But the evidence is mounting, say press-freedom watchdogs, that free speech is under threat.
Meanwhile, some observers believe the president's broader plan is to divide the church - as happened in Nicaragua in the 1980s - between an allegedly conservative hierarchy and a "popular church" representing the masses.
"But in Nicaragua, unlike Venezuela, there was an ideological revolution," says the Rev. Arturo Sosa. Although a number of priests are sympathetic to the regime, there is little evidence of a split, says Sosa. In fact, the president's attacks may have the reverse effect.
Chvez has also been accused of twisting facts to suit his political needs. There is little truth to allegations that the bishops never spoke up in the face of past corruption.
Moreover, Chvez's own Christian faith has been questioned. In 1995 he told an interviewer: "Am I a Christian? No, I am not familiar with Christian theory, nor do I practice it." Lately, however, he has taken to public displays of piety, including crossing himself before making speeches.
Commentators say Chvez pushes his "revolutionary" agenda aggressively, brooking no opposition. Responding to criticisms from the church, Chvez invoked the Bible, Pope Paul VI, and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his letter to bishops this week. saying, "Jesus' struggles against hypocrisy were always continual," and "if [Martin] Luther, if the authors of the French Revolution had observed the rules of courtesy, the (Protestant) Reform and the [French] Revolution would never have taken place."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society