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2000 - President Hugo Chavez

On July 30, Venezuelan voters gave their support to President Hugo Chavez's "peaceful revolution" by re-electing him with an impressive 59.5 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Francisco Arias Cardenas came in second with 37.6 percent. The general elections, mandated by the December 1999 constitution, were welcomed by Chavez, who was eager to submit the presidency to a new vote, which he said would "relegitimize" his authority. The elections were originally scheduled for May 28, but were postponed for technical reasons. In addition to the presidency, Chavez' party won a majority of the other 700 plus contested posts - from state governors to mayors, regional lawmakers to Caracas city councilors and Venezuelan representatives to the Latin American and Andean parliaments.

According to NotiSur (8/3/00), both the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Atlanta-based Carter Center had observers in Venezuela before and during the elections. Another 250 foreign observers were in the country, along with the national observers. The international observers said the process was transparent, and, although some technical flaws remained, they found no evidence of a government effort to steal votes, despite protests and demonstrations to the contrary in several states.

The strength of Chavez' victory is impressive, given Venezuela's ongoing problems of crime, unemployment, poverty, and an economy almost entirely dependent on oil. The poor majority overwhelmingly supports Chavez, whom they consider the leader most likely to improve their lives after well over a decade of increasingly desperate poverty and stunning corruption.

"Chavez and his administration now face enormous challenges in the oil-rich nation where 80 percent of the people are poor, and where the GDP plunged 7.2 percent last year.... The president says his economic plan will eliminate poverty in 10 years. Economists, however, say GDP would have to grow by seven percent annually for the next 30 years to eradicate poverty, while two to three percent growth is projected for this year."

In early August, Chavez announced a US$500 million job-creation plan and said his government was open to policy proposals from all sectors. He will create five presidential commissions - social security, citizen security, employment, economic issues, and food assistance - to study the causes of the problems and recommend immediate solutions.

Chavez has drawn criticism from some private economists for his policies of increased public spending and his defense of the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, but a recent drop in inflation and his commitment to create a mixed pensions system to replace the current bankrupt state-run organization has evoked a generally positive response.

Immediately after his inauguration, Chavez made a 10-day trip to visit leaders of oil-exporting countries to discuss production quotas and prices. His visit to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein brought scathing criticism from the U.S. government and heightened Washington's anxiety about the direction in which this popular president will take Venezuela. Chavez's visit to Saddam Hussein was the first by a foreign head of government since the UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait 10 years ago. According to NotiSur (8/10/00), State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it was "particularly galling" that the first visit was made by a democratically elected leader.

Chavez says strengthening OPEC is in Venezuela's economic interests. He sought to persuade fellow OPEC heads of state not to give in to U.S.-led pressure to lower prices, which are at a 10-year high of nearly US$30 a barrel. A significant drop in the price of oil would be "a death sentence" for countries like Venezuela, Chavez said. The second OPEC summit will be held in Caracas September 26-28. In 1960, Venezuela was one of the founders of OPEC and played a key role in recent years in setting production quotas.

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2000 - President Hugo Chavez
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela

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