Pointing Fingers In Venezuela

Criticism is heating up against President Hugo Chavez for his handling of the burgeoning emergency in the hours before massive landslides killed thousands of people along Venezuela's northern coast.

His critics say Chavez put politics above safety on Dec. 15 when he asked Venezuelans to go out in heavy rains and vote. They say he should have ordered an evacuation. After all, the ominous weather conditions were laid out in a report issued that afternoon by his own government.

"I think he has handled this with criminal irresponsibility and negligence," said opposition leader Jorge Olavarria.

But Chavez's supporters say it's 20/20 hindsight. There was no way of predicting, they say, that the mountain that separates the capital Caracas from the Caribbean sea would collapse on itself, burying entire communities and sending as many as 30,000 to their deaths.

Experts agree that mudslides are difficult to predict.

"For every one that you might do it, you're going to end up screaming wolf maybe 10 times," said Stacy Stewart, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Chavez said: "They should shoot me if I have any personal responsibility in this."

The day the disaster began, Venezuelans voted on a new constitution promoted by Chavez. But after two weeks of rainfall nine times the normal level, Mount Avila came crashing down in a violent slide of water, mud and boulders.

Critics insist that even if no one could have predicted the magnitude of the landslides, there were enough reasons to suspend voting in the most dangerous areas.

The Civil Defense report spoke of 10 deaths and 2,517 people rendered homeless by flooding in the four days before the disaster just in Vargas state, the worst hit area.

While the report stopped short of calling for an evacuation, it did urge the government to "declare a state of emergency" and establish an "Executive Command Center" to deal with the weather.

While most Venezuelans adore Chavez, some survivors expressed outrage at his focus on electoral politics even as torrential rains began loosening the earth. Graffiti written on walls of the devastated coastal town of Caraballeda read: "Thanks to Chavez the world has ended."

Civil Defense Director Angel Rangel said authorities did evacuate thousands of people in two states where dams broke, and called much of the criticism politically motivated.

"It's a desire to turn a painful natural event into a political one. This is not what the country deserves," he said.

Chavez, a former army paratrooper who staged a failed coup attempt in 1992, had good reason to be concerned about politics. The new constitution approved by voters on the day of the disaster vastly increases his power as president.

A quiet revolution has taken place since the landslides hit. The Supreme Court has been replacd and Congress has been eliminated, with elections for a new one indefinitely postponed because of the mudslides.

Chavez has taken personal command of much of the relief effort, and his government's response has been widely praised. In Vargas alone, helicopters and Navy ships evacuated more than 100,000 stranded survivors in less than four days.

Venezuelan officials say corrupt governments of the past are largely to blame for allowing poor squatters to build shacks in unsafe areas along the mountainside.