Chavez puts brakes on socialist drive

Other News Materials 7 January 2008 07:01 (UTC +04:00)

(AP) - President Hugo Chavez vowed Sunday to tackle everyday problems from soaring crime to trash-strewn streets, adopting a more pragmatic approach to governance and toning down his revolutionary rhetoric a month after a stinging electoral defeat.

Voters in December rejected a radical overhaul of Venezuela's constitution that would have greatly expanded Chavez's powers and enshrined socialism. Chavez acknowledged his government would have to review its priorities.

"I'm forced to reduce the speed of the march," Chavez said, urging new members of his Cabinet to "accept reality" and "put their feet on the ground."

"This will be the year of the three R's: Revision, rectification and relaunching," he said.

A close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chavez spent much of 2007 promoting his idyllic vision of a new Venezuela transformed through "21st-century socialism," and he began by nationalizing the country's electricity, telecommunications, natural gas and oil industries.

But Venezuelans tugged on the reins in December, narrowly voting down his far-reaching constitutional changes - and forcing the former paratroop commander to rethink his strategy for remaking this oil-rich, yet poverty-stricken South American nation.

"The problem is not an abstract ideology, it's putting it to work," said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East. "The ideologues have to demonstrate the ideology can work."

Ellner expects Chavez to shelve "ambitious schemes that may be criticized as impractical," such as building offshore cities similar in design to oil platforms in the Caribbean Sea.

Instead the government is turning its attention to entrenched problems such as high crime and rampant corruption - which some say Chavez has failed to correct nine years after he was first elected.

Polls show that rising crime rates - among the highest in the Western Hemisphere - are a leading concern for Venezuelans. The Justice Ministry reported 9,402 homicides in the country of 23 million in 2005 but has yet to reveal complete figures for 2006 or 2007.

"Insecurity and corruption, they are inherited evils that we must stop cold and not allow to continue expanding. If we don't stop them, they become the biggest enemy of our revolution," Chavez said Sunday during his weekly radio and TV show. "I call for us to fight more successfully against these scourges."

Venezuela also faces challenges such as a 22.5 percent annual inflation rate last year - the steepest in Latin America - and shortages of staples like milk, eggs, sugar and beef that have prompted consumers to question the government's economic policies, including price controls.

Others complain of bumper-to-bumper traffic that clogs the streets of Venezuela's increasingly chaotic capital, as well as ineffectual garbage collection in Caracas and other major cities.

"In a socialist country the streets cannot be filled with trash," Chavez said.