Floods Boost Venezuela Strongman's Popularity

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Floods and earthquakes usually spell political trouble for Latin American strongmen, but Venezuela's killer flood may affirm the popularity of President Hugo Chavez. The former paratrooper, who once served jail time for a failed coup attempt, personally took command of 1,000 elite paratroopers over the weekend and supervised the delivery of disaster relief. By deploying the military throughout the country to help Venezuela cope with the devastation that has killed at least 10,000 people, Chavez appears to be delivering on his populist commitment to share the oil-rich country's resources more equitably. And to underscore the point, his wife on Sunday opened the doors of the presidential palace and took in 35 children orphaned by the disaster.

Although he has alarmed the country's traditional elites as well as foreign investors with his left-leaning policies and his overt admiration for Cuba's President Fidel Castro, Chavez last week received a ringing endorsement from his electorate when 72 percent of voters supported his new constitution in a referendum. The constitution entrenches the president's power and allows him to potentially remain in office until 2012. It also affirms state ownership of Venezuela's oil industry, which Chavez hopes will fuel his "new economy" that redistributes wealth among the poor. While the flood is a win-win scenario for Chavez — he's rushed resources to the aid of those most in need, and any recriminations over the building practices that allowed for such a heavy death toll will be directed at his predecessors — it contains an element of danger, too. The devastation will fuel demands for the president to accelerate efforts to redistribute wealth, which could scare off investors Venezuela still badly needs.