June 10, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Hugo Chavez has held on to power for a decade in part because he knows when he's gone too far. Chavez angered many Venezuelans by openly supporting Colombia's leftist rebels, and then frightened many citizens by decreeing a tough new intelligence law.
Another leader with Chavez's considerable control over his nation's institutions might have dug in his heels.
Instead, Chavez pivoted.
Facing a chorus of outrage with only months to go before crucial state and local elections, he now says the guerrillas should give up their fight, and insists he never wanted to force people to spy on their neighbors.
Chavez had decreed that anyone refusing to work as informants for intelligence agencies would face four-year prison terms. Protesters denounced it as an attempt to impose a police state and held up signs depicting toads _ Venezuelan vernacular for people who snitch on their neighbors. Human rights groups and the Roman Catholic Church also criticized the decree.
But sidestepping liabilities is one of Chavez's greatest skills, and the Venezuelan president acted deftly to neutralize the threats. Tossing out his intelligence decree on Tuesday, he said the National Assembly would draft new legislation from scratch.
"This is a government that rectifies," Chavez said during a televised address. "Some say Chavez is backtracking. Well, whoever wants to see it that way can see it that way. No, I move on."
The self-described revolutionary made an even bigger turnaround on Sunday, urging Colombia's leftist rebels to lay down their weapons and unilaterally release their hostages. Only five months after urging world leaders to back their armed struggle, he said that armed guerrilla movements are "history."
"Chavez may have decided that for the time being the best strategy is to lie low," said Ray Walser, a Latin America expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
First elected in 1998, Chavez is still trying to recover from the December defeat of a constitutional referendum that would have enabled him to run for re-election indefinitely and extend his power in other ways.
Now his party is facing elections in November, and Chavez is seeking support for a 2010 referendum to end term limits on his presidency.
"Chavez cannot be oblivious to the public reaction" as the elections near, said Teodoro Petkoff, a political opponent who now edits the daily newspaper Tal Cual. "He doesn't want too many polemical issues circling around."
Chavez also backtracked on a school textbook overhaul this year after teachers and parents accused him of trying to indoctrinate their children with socialist ideas.
But the flip-flop on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is the biggest policy switch yet for Chavez. He has long campaigned to build sympathy for the rebels' cause _ justifying his interest by referring to Gran Colombia, the short-lived republic led by independence hero Simon Bolivar that encompassed Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama.
Chavez found little echo to his call to remove the FARC from the world's lists of terror groups, and he's been in damage-control mode ever since Colombia said documents on rebel laptops suggest he sought to send money and arms to the guerrillas.
Chavez calls the documents bogus and denies aiding the rebels, despite ample evidence that they have used Venezuelan territory to resupply their insurgency.
But Venezuelan officials "probably got an earful of strong concerns" from Latin American and European leaders at recent summits, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
U.S. politics also may be a factor _ some Republican lawmakers cited the laptop documents as reason to add Venezuela to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror.
There's little support in Congress for the terror listing, which could oblige the United States to impose sanctions against the important U.S. oil supplier. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Monday let Chavez know Washington is watching closely.
"We'll see whether or not these words from President Chavez are just that: words. We'll see if those words are followed up by concrete action," he said.
Chavez has said he hopes for better relations with U.S. President George W. Bush's successor, and pointedly told the FARC on Sunday: "You have become an excuse for the empire to threaten all of us."
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, while willing to meet with Chavez if elected, vowed last month to "shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments." Any government aiding the FARC should be condemned internationally and, if necessary, face "strong sanctions," Obama said.
Chavez's turnarounds also may reflect how his popularity has declined at home, according to Luis Vicente Leon of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. Chavez's performance approval dropped 20 percentage points from a year ago to 56 percent in April, and more than 70 percent of Venezuelans now have a negative image of the FARC, Leon said.
The survey of 1,300 adults, supported by a group of more than 300 businesses, had an error margin of 2.7 percentage points.