Caracas, Venezuela — In a two-hour televised speech to the nation recently, President Hugo Chavez asked Venezuelans to help him be nicer.
"I call on everyone to help me sheath my sword," he appealed. "Let's put it in the memory trunk and forget it."
Many Venezuelans would say the paratrooper-turned-president is right he desperately needs to soften his combative image. But Chavez's quandary goes far deeper than mere rhetoric or behavior. Three years after assuming office and having things his way for virtually the entire time, Chavez's popularity has never been lower.
On Monday, Rear Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo, a U.S.-trained electronics warfare expert, became the highest ranking officer to demand that Chavez resign the third time this month that a military officer has expressed open disdain for the president.
"He hasn't just lost the trust of the people, he gained their hate," said Anibal Romero, a political analyst who has pushed for Chavez's ouster.
Chavez became president in February 1999 with a mandate to boot out the old-style elite political parties and create a more open style of government. He vowed to alleviate poverty in the oil-rich country.
At first, it looked as if he might do it, thanks to a dizzying increase that saw the price of a barrel of Venezuelan crude oil go from $9.45 to more than $20 within a few months, rising to $23.42 one year after he took office, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.
Because Venezuela is one of the world's leading oil producers, this meant Chavez had more than enough money to throw at social programs designed to help the disadvantaged. He continued an expanded school calendar and swore he would give land to the poor. Throughout it all, his popularity remained high and his treasury full.
But during the past year, oil prices have fallen to $17.68 a barrel, and Chavez's ability to use money to resolve his country's social ills has diminished sharply. He announced recently that the drop in oil prices has created a 22 percent budget gap.
Growth last year was a modest 3 percent and unemployment has risen to about 12 percent. The economic downturn provided ammunition to the president's many critics. Although Chavez announced economic measures that experts agree are sound floating his currency against the dollar instead of trying to maintain a fixed rate they have diminished his treasury even more. The currency lost nearly 10 percent of its value against the dollar last week.
For the moment, Chavez has been left with only a portion of the poor and his Fifth Republic Movement party, or MVR, allies on his side, and there is no clear sign that he can improve his standing with a public that looks increasingly fed up.
According to a Datanalisis poll, Chavez has a 35 percent approval rating, a 20 point drop in five months. Experts note that his popularity was bound to sink: He took office with an 80 percent approval rating that was impossible to maintain. But polls show even the poor have begun to lose faith.
Most critics were particularly incensed when Chavez decreed sweeping changes in the law affecting the private sector, including a measure that expropriates land deemed to be under-used. He regularly insults his enemies, and recently took on the Catholic Church, calling one bishop a "devil." His fiery diatribes against the press led to the bombing of a local newspaper.
This month, two previously unknown military officials publicly called for Chavez's ouster, saying they enjoyed the support of three-quarters of the rank and file. When military police tried to arrest one a dissident colonel thousands of Venezuelans rushed to a plaza in protest.