Heir of Ch__vez a poor copy


The start of the season for two premier teams in this baseball-loving nation was thrown into doubt after thieve...


The start of the season for two premier teams in this baseball-loving nation was thrown into doubt after thieves stripped vast amounts of copper wire from the lights in this city_s main stadium. Basic items are often so hard to find that when a truck driver slumped dead at the wheel after a highway accident last week, motorcycle-riding looters swarmed in to grab the cargo: tons of red meat.

Prices are soaring, the country is plagued by electrical blackouts, some neighborhoods go days without water, and protests tangle the already stifling traffic. To top it all off, the cheap beer that helps people let off steam at many a weekend party has suddenly become scarce, too.

Nearly seven months after the death of Hugo Ch__vez, the country_s longtime leftist president and father figure, there is a growing sense that things are falling apart.

The new president, Nicol__s Maduro, has revived a longtime scapegoat for the country_s woes, accusing Washington of conspiring with other enemies of the government in waging an _economic war_ that has subjected the populace to blackouts, chronic shortages and other ills. Borrowing from Mr. Ch__vez_s script, Mr. Maduro on Monday expelled the top American diplomat here and two other embassy officials, contending that they were plotting to destabilize the country.

But while Mr. Ch__vez skillfully portrayed the United States as an imperialist bully and cast himself in the role of underdog hero, many Ch__vez supporters are finding Mr. Maduro_s attempts to imitate his mentor unconvincing.

_This is the biggest mistake Ch__vez ever made,_ said Axel Ortiz, 20, a student, referring to Mr. Ch__vez_s choice of Mr. Maduro as his successor. Mr. Ortiz still defines himself as a Chavista _ a loyal Ch__vez supporter _ but he questioned Mr. Maduro_s ability to solve the nation_s problems. _Ch__vez was the only one who was qualified, the only one who could keep things here under control._

The country_s economic problems have become acute. Inflation in the first eight months of this year was more than triple the rate in the same period last year. When measured over the 12 months that ended in August, it exceeded 45 percent. A government indicator that measures the scarcity of basic goods is close to its highest level in more than five years.

Many stores allow customers to buy only a limited number of scarce items like corn flour and cooking oil. People complain of having to stand in line for hours, often in vain, and many are losing patience with the government_s explanation that unsavory conspirators are to blame for the nation_s problems.

_The government is resorting to more and more outrageous and extravagant actions and statements to control the agenda,_ said Andr__s Ca__izalez, a communications professor at Andr__s Bello Catholic University.

All of this would be a lot to handle for any neophyte president, but the gaffe-prone Mr. Maduro has come under withering criticism for regularly tripping over his words, eliciting cringes from supporters and jeers from opponents. When he fell off his bicycle on live television recently, the event threatened to become a metaphor for a struggling presidency.

_People laugh at him,_ said Mar__a L__pez, 32, a mother of two on a recent morning in the Terrazas del Alba slum in the center of Caracas. She voted for Mr. Maduro, and said she still supported him. But she fought back a smirk when asked about Mr. Maduro_s bicycle accident, which occurred during a ride to promote his party_s youth movement. _We don_t want a president who_s a joke,_ she said.

The blunders have piled up, much like the entourage of politicians and bodyguards who screeched to a halt in a tangle behind the president_s fallen bicycle.

In one of his most infamous verbal flubs, in August, Mr. Maduro sought to make a reference to the biblical story of Jesus_ multiplying the loaves and fishes _ only to have it come out of his mouth as _the multiplication of the penises._ Mr. Maduro apparently conflated _peces_ (fish) and _panes_ (loaves) to produce _penes_ (penises). He quickly apologized and corrected himself, but the damage was done.

_A person who doesn_t know how to speak will never know how to run a country,_ said Jorge Flores, 30, a messenger at a government-run hospital, who voted for Mr. Maduro but now bitterly regrets doing so.

_This is the worst government I_ve ever seen,_ Mr. Flores said. _The best government we_ve ever had here was with Ch__vez._

Mr. Maduro calls his critics elitists and once said he had misspoken on purpose to bait his detractors.

Mr. Ch__vez, a fiery socialist, had a connection with ordinary Venezuelans that was so strong they often refused to blame him for many of the same problems that continue to bedevil the country. Mr. Maduro does not have the same charisma, and at least some of Mr. Ch__vez_s followers seem to be tuning him out.

_The government does these things to distract us from our real problems,_ said Cristian Nivela, 24, a Ch__vez loyalist who voted for Mr. Maduro, referring to the expulsion of the American diplomats.

On Tuesday, Mr. Maduro used a special national television broadcast to present what he said was evidence that the diplomats had been conspiring with the extreme right in Venezuela to destabilize the country.

He showed a video, accompanied by ominous music, contending that the top diplomat at the United States Embassy, Kelly Keiderling, and the other two expelled diplomats had met in recent weeks with elected officials _ including a state governor and a mayor _ who belong to the Venezuelan opposition. The video also showed them leaving a meeting at the office of a pro-democracy group.

_These officials are meeting, well, in a shameless manner, and talking about strikes, sabotage, talking about the internal affairs of Venezuela, offering money,_ Mr. Maduro said.

Such accusations resonate here because of the United States_ history of intervention in Latin America, including its tacit support of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Mr. Ch__vez.

But a State Department official called the accusations absurd.

_Our diplomats were doing what they do all over the world,_ said the official, Roberta S. Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. _They were visiting parts of the country and talking to all kinds of different people. They were doing nothing covert or out of the ordinary for diplomats._

She said that in response, the United States was expelling the top Venezuelan diplomat in Washington and two other Venezuelan Embassy officials. The United States and Venezuela do not maintain an ambassador in each other_s capital.

On Tuesday night the State Department identified the Venenezuelan diplomats, who were given 48 hours to leave the country, as the charge d'affaires, Calixto Ortega Rios, and Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales, both of whom are assigned to the country's embassy in Washington, and Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida, the consul in Houston,

_It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. the State Department said in a statement. _It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries._

With the diplomatic tussle in the background, officials said the burglarized stadium _ home to the Caracas Lions and the La Guaira Sharks, roughly equivalent to the Yankees and Mets in Venezuelan baseball _ would be ready for the start of the season on Oct. 10.

They said workers had finally finished repairs to the lighting system after thieves stripped out much of the wiring, in a very public example of the crime, corruption and disarray in this country.

But the looting of the meat truck on Friday was shocking even to many who have become inured to the high levels of violence here. The truck became stuck under a barrier meant to block oversize vehicles. Part of the cargo crushed the top of the cab.

Denny Medina, 44, the owner of a fleet of trucks, said that he had tried to rescue the driver, but that he could not open the door. Instead of helping, he said, looters clambered over the vehicle.

_What made me feel powerless was to see the people carrying off the boxes of meat, and no one was showing any concern for the driver right below them,_ Mr. Medina said. _It was terrible. I hope that we don_t get used to this._

New York times | By WILLIAM NEUMAN

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