CARACAS, Venezuela—Since he took office as president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has shown little interest in portraying himself as a lover of democracy.

Nevertheless, the Venezuelan bishops have given the president conditional support. A popular figure despite occasionally odd behavior, Chavez appears to many like the man who can bring badly need change.

Given his personal history on the subject of democracy, Chavez's attitudes surprised no one.

As a colonel in the army, he attempted to bring an end to the second longest-running democracy in Latin America with a failed military coup in 1992.

After submitting to the democratic process by running for president and winning the nation's highest office, Chavez created no allusions that his feelings had changed.

At his inauguration in May, the president-elect placed his hand over the Constitution and said, “I swear on the holy Gospel and over this dying Constitution,” thus signaling his plan to redraft the constitution by means of a “Constituency,” a new body that would also redefine the powers of the various branches.

The president has referred to the Supreme Court as “the Supreme house of corruption,” the Congress as a “club of time wasters” and political parties as “nests of rats.”

A man with sharp political instincts who has cultivated the image of a leader del pueblo (of the people), Chavez has a way of delivering just what the people want in a timely manner. These include largely symbolic gestures as well as steps in favor of significant change.

Chavez pleased his nation of baseball fans by awarding a national honor to the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, a home-run hitter from the Dominican Republic who is revered throughout Latin America.

On another occasion, he personally stopped the police from ousting a group of homeless people who took over private land, offering them free state-owned property in exchange. Within a day of the offer, Chavez led the owners onto their new land.

Even though the country has enjoyed uninterrupted democracy since the 1950s, its political system is regarded as one of the most corrupt in the region.

A power-sharing arrangement hammered out in 1958 between the Social Democrats and the Social Christians led to spiraling corruption as each side contented itself with a piece of the pie while failing to serve as a check on each other's excesses.

While the country — a major oil producer — enjoyed economic boon times in the 1970s due to high oil prices,Venezuela became known as a big spender, setting the country up for a major fall.

With oil prices falling by the mid-1980s, Venezuelan per capita wealth took a sharp fall and riots broke out for the first time in the democratic period. In 1989, 300 people were killed in a major riot in Caracas, the capital city.

In 1992, during the second government of President Carlos Andres Perez, loyal troops barely deterred then Col. Chavez from succeeding in his coup attempt. On his way to prison, Chavez was escorted by a large crowd that hailed him as a national hero.

Archbishop Ovidio Perez Morales, president of the bishops' conference at the time, said the episode should have been taken as “a warning message and a clear cry of the people for bold, dramatic changes both in the political and the economic” spheres.

But President Perez gave no sign that he was listening. He became the first president of Venezuela to go to jail for corruption. The subsequent election of Rafael Caldera, a veteran of Venezuelan politics who broke with his party and became the first independent candidate elected president, brought some economic stability but very little political reform.

As a candidate for election, Chavez promised to collide with the political establishment — a promise that he has kept.

He called new elections for the Constituency, which would have the power to launch reforms in almost any conceivable area, from the judiciary to education.

Giving Him a Chance

Despite the president's blunt and even vulgar style, the bishops believe that Chavez deserves the chance to make changes that the political establishment is resisting. And even if he has not been clear about what kind of economic program he will pursue, Chavez has shown an uncompromising will to push reform. He was rewarded in July with a large majority in the Constituency.

Chavez's Constituency has stripped major responsibilities not only from the Congress but also from the Supreme Court and the ministries.

“Everybody has the right to express concerns and air criticism, but the president deserves the opportunity to deliver the changes he has offered, and for which he was elected,” said Bishop Baltazar Porras, president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference.

Bishop Porras stepped in to avoid a conflict between the Congress — where the two larger parties still maintain a significant presence — and the Constituency, which has been stripping the Congress of almost all its powers on its way to becoming the nation's true legislative power.

Bishop Porras helped hammer out an agreement between the two bodies, and also criticized those with “an ambivalent position who are yet to show if they love Venezuela or not.”

The remark was widely interpreted as a swipe at a small group of businessmen who prospered under the old system and who have been reluctant to embrace change.

Warnings Sounded

Nevertheless, the bishops are not willing to sign a blank check to Chavez. They have not only criticized some of Chavez's verbal excesses — including a claim that Christ would vote for him — they have warned against a potentially dangerous concentration of power in one office.

Chavez has also been careful to cultivate power through nongovernmental means, especially the media. The president owns his own weekly newspaper whose 100,000 copies are distributed for free. He hosts a highly rated radio show and a TV program.

“The president has shown so far a respect for everybody's opinion, but as president, he should be above and out of the media debate,” Archbishop Ignacio Velasco of Caracas recently recommended.

It has been reported that the archbishop has also warned Chavez to go easy with his promises so as not to inflate expectations.

As Bishop Porras said, “There is one thing this people cannot bear anymore, it is frustration, and frustration comes when promises are not fulfilled, or when changes do not bring the expected results.”

So far, as they said in a July pastoral letter, the Venezuelan bishops will “accompany the process of changes from a nonpolitical, pastoral stand.”

They fear that if they don't keep a channel open to help Chavez correct possible mistakes, Venezuela's “del pueblo” dream may turn into a nightmare.

Alejandro Buermudez writes from Lima, Peru