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In abrupt shift, Chavez seeks to attract Venezuelan middle class, small business
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made an abrupt political shift Friday, urging his socialist movement to reach out to the middle class and small business owners.
Chavez, whose signature red shirts have long been a symbol of his radicalism, also suggested his allies ought to be more moderate in their wardrobes.
"Why do we have to go around all the time wearing a red shirt?" Chavez asked in a telephone call broadcast on state television.
The president, who in the past has scolded some aides for not wearing the red often associated with leftist movements, chose a yellow shirt when he addressed supporters at his 57th birthday party Thursday.
Chavez, who is undergoing cancer treatment, appeared to be taking a more moderate stance to try to expand his support ahead of the presidential election in late 2012.
He said his party should seek to recapture middle class support. Such support has waned over the years amid the government's expropriations of businesses, farmland and residential buildings, as well as expanding price controls viewed by many as a threat to the economy.
"We can't give away the middle class to the bourgeoisie," Chavez said, referring to the opposition.
The president also said his government has no plans to expropriate small businesses, adding: "We have to open ourselves up to those sectors, the private productive sector."
Chavez has had tense relations with the country's business leaders during his more than 12 years in office. He has accused business leaders of defending capitalism, identifying them as obstacles to his socialist movement.
Meanwhile, he has nationalized or expropriated big businesses in industries ranging from telecommunications to construction.
"We have to reflect ... and introduce changes in our stances and in our actions," Chavez said.
He urged supporters to eradicate what he called political evils, "for example, sectarianism, dogmatism."
When he addressed supporters Thursday night, Chavez offered a similar message.
"We have to keep advancing toward other sectors, of the middle class," he said. "The undecided, let them come with us."
A poll released last week said Chavez's public approval rating remains at 50 percent and hasn't significantly varied since his cancer diagnosis.
Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor. He hasn't said what type of cancer he has been diagnosed with or specified where exactly it was located, saying only that it was in his pelvic region.
He underwent his first phase of chemotherapy in Cuba last week and said the treatment aims to ensure that no malignant cells reappear.
Chavez is pivoting to try to shore up support, said Angel Alvarez, director of the Institute of Political Studies at the Central University of Venezuela.
"In this electoral context, the government needs to become more moderate because all the polls show the government no longer has the middle class," Alvarez told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Chavez's support declined as the economy contracted during the past two years and has remained significantly lower than the 63 percent of the votes he got in his re-election in 2006. The economy has begun growing again, expanding at an annual rate of 4.5 percent in the first quarter.
Alvarez said he doubts Chavez's moderation will last because it goes against his "most important political asset, which is his fiery speech."
"That's his drama as a candidate," Alvarez said. "It's like an internal struggle between becoming more moderate and more radical."
Chavez said his movement should "examine ourselves, starting with the leadership ... I myself, and the leadership of the party."
Chavez denied that being more open toward small businesses would represent giving in to the wealthy elite. He cited the example of Cuba and the economic changes begun by President Raul Castro's government.
"If Cuba after 60 years of revolution is making those revisions ... I doubt it's betraying socialism," he said.
He urged his allies to read the Cuban state newspaper Granma every day to see how Fidel Castro and other leaders are engaged in self-criticism.
"Fidel isn't there frozen, no," Chavez said.
His call for change extended to one of his main political slogans.
It used to be "Socialist fatherland or death," and was repeated by soldiers in the military under Chavez. But on Thursday night, he proposed to do away with "death" and instead say: "Socialist fatherland and victory."
On Friday, he made another revision and suggested: "Independence and socialist fatherland."