January 2, 2008 / 7:32 PM / 11 years ago

Hugo Chavez softens tone for 2008

CARACAS (Reuters) - If 2007 was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s year to drive forward a grandiose vision of revolutionary socialism, 2008 could be the year for getting trash off the streets and putting milk on store shelves.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez reacts as he welcomes relatives of hostages at Miraflores Palace in Caracas December 31, 2007. . REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Chavez appears to be softening his combative rhetoric and focusing on supporters’ concrete problems after a referendum vote in December defeated his push to create a socialist state and run indefinitely for reelection.

The former paratrooper now vows to tackle problems such as crime, corruption and food shortages and on New Year’s Eve he offered an amnesty to political adversaries linked to a failed 2002 coup against his rule.

Although Chavez, 53, may quickly change tack and go on the offensive again, he has started the year with a more humble tone, in stark contrast to a hard-hitting wave of nationalizations and reforms last January.

“There are practical problems that do not belong to any ideology and they have to be resolved,” he told state television at the weekend. He also promised to fight corruption and “correct and boost our economy.”

His comments follow the referendum defeat of his planned constitutional overhaul and growing complaints that he has not done enough to deal with Caracas’ trash-littered streets or the highest inflation rate in the Western Hemisphere.

Offering amnesty to coup members and dissidents that authorities had doggedly pursued for five years signals Chavez may try to build bridges with an opposition fresh off its first victory since he was elected in 1998.

“This is a positive gesture,” said Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer with the opposition group Penal Forum, which has accused Chavez of persecuting political rivals.

But Himiob also said the law was discriminatory because it does not cover all those accused of involvement in the 2002 putsch, in contrast to an amnesty provided to participants of a failed coup that Chavez led in 1992.

He said a group of police officers would be excluded from the new amnesty.

TRASH, CRIME, MILK

A close ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chavez has built political support through open confrontation with Washington and oil-financed social programs that benefit the poor.

He opened last year with surprise nationalizations of the largest private telecommunications and electricity companies, and pushed energy giants ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips out of multi-billion dollar oil projects.

But he fell out of step with supporters in May by taking the country’s most popular television station off the air for its role in the 2002 coup, removing soap operas and game shows beloved by many working class Venezuelans.

And even the most stalwart of Chavez backers have grown frustrated with hours of waiting in long supermarket lines due to shortages of goods like milk, eggs and beef sparked by strict price controls.

The government in December lifted controls on certain types of milk, vastly improving its availability, and signaled it could do the same for other controlled products.

Chavez is also promising to tackle nitty-gritty problems like corruption and growing crime, an issue he has largely avoided until now.

Analysts say his constitutional overhaul proposal, which included far-fetched ideas like creating cities in the middle of the Caribbean, did little to address those problems.

Editing by Kieran Murray

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