A man with many troubles, Venezuela's president is being conciliatory. That is out of character and may not last
HE CAN stay in power. Or he can seek to further his revolutionary aims. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's populist president, cannot have it both ways--at least, that is how most of his critics see things after the bungled coup attempt of April 11th-13th, which came close to destroying his three-year-old "Bolivarian revolution".
As he licks his wounds and seeks to regroup his shell-shocked supporters, Mr Chavez faces a gloomy outlook on the political, military and economic fronts. Then there are relations with the United States, Venezuela's main trading partner, which may or may not have been involved in the coup, but either way would dearly love to see the back of him. Perhaps the only bright spot for Mr Chavez is the backing he received from elsewhere in Latin America, though that could soon shrivel if he fails to restore calm at home.
In politics, the president has been reaching out to his opponents. For example, he has met opposition media and church figures, who had not darkened the door of the official residence since the early days of his government. A presidential "dialogue commission" has been sworn in. Moves are afoot to amend 17 of his most unpopular decree laws.
Mr Chavez has also promised a cabinet shake-up. He has started by replacing Diosdado Cabello, the controversial vice-president, with Jose Vicente Rangel, previously the defence (and earlier foreign) minister. Mr Cabello organised the "Bolivarian circles". Opponents see these pro-Chavez groups as an embryonic militia, and accuse them of firing on unarmed demonstrators on the day of the coup.
Mr Rangel, a master of realpolitik, is the government's main link with opposition politicians and business leaders. The coup has strengthened his position against the TALIBANES, as the unquestioning, pro-Chavez radicals like Mr Cabello are dubbed. But ultra-radicals, some in the army, who regard Mr Chavez as a pseudo-revolutionary, but who helped to restore him to power, also feel invigorated. The fact that Mr Chavez at first went quietly, despite his pledge to defend the "revolution" with his life, and reports of the tears he shed after surrendering to the army in the early hours of April 12th, have cost him points in a macho culture.
Though Mr Chavez's "revolution" has often verged on farce, and is dogged by incompetence and corruption, it has radical pretensions. These are not confined to Venezuela, but are regional in scope. That is a cause of friction with the United States, which looks askance at Mr Chavez's coolness towards the proposed Free-Trade Area of the Americas and American military aid to Colombia.
But if it fails to improve the lives of the poor, the "revolution" is doomed. And Mr Chavez is running out of cash. His revolutionary rhetoric and high-handedness have scared away investment. "The country's industrial zones are cemeteries," says Manuel Felipe Sierra, a political commentator. The economy is set to contract by 2% or so this year.
The government itself is close to bankruptcy. The coup attempt has stalled Mr Chavez's bid to take direct control of the management of the state oil company, the main source of government revenue. Austerity measures announced in February have not been implemented in full, according to Francisco Rodriguez, the economic adviser to the National Assembly and a former ally of the president. Opposition economists forecast a fiscal deficit of up to 9% of GDP this year, and say the government will not be able to finance more than five points of that. Mr Rodriguez suggested that the government enter into an agreement with that bogeyman of revolutionaries, the IMF. Any big change in economic policy would start with the sacking of Jorge Giordani, the planning minister. Despite being a favourite of Mr Chavez, he seems set to go.
Then there are the armed forces. About 100 of the top brass came out against Mr Chavez during the two days he was held prisoner. They have been embarrassed by the failure of the coup. But the president's claims that the army was a pillar of the "revolution" were exposed as hollow.
For all that, Mr Chavez remains the democratically elected president of Venezuela. The constitution contemplates a referendum on replacing the president, but only when he is half-way through his term, in January 2004. That looks a long way off. Mr Chavez's room for manouevre has narrowed. But barring his unlikely conversion to consensus politics, he is likely to remain an unpredictable irritant to Venezuela's opposition and to the United States alike.