Argument

3 Myths About Venezuela

Why the oil crash won’t keep Chavez up at night.

Is Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez the latest casualty of the global financial crisis? Is the Venezuelan opposition a corrupt, coup-plotting lot that represents the interests of the old regime? Is Venezuela a democracy?

The answers to these questions are as important to the future of Venezuela as the results of the Feb. 15 referendum, in which 54 percent of Venezuelan voters approved a constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits for the president.

Myth 1: If oil prices fall, Chvez falls
No. The conventional wisdom holds that Chvezs fortunes rise and fall with the price of oil. Yes, its true that Chvezs political support derives largely from the immense resources that high oil prices have afforded him. Thus, his adversaries hope that the fall in petroleum prices will unleash a severe economic crisis that will diminish his popular appeal and lead to his eventual replacement. These hopes are fueled by the fact that Venezuela already has the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere and that the countrys 2009 budget assumes a $60 average price for the Venezuelan barrel when, in reality, the price has fallen to below $40.

But popular support is not the only source of power. Plenty of unpopular leaders remain in control by force — Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example. In this sense, Chvezs fraternal ties with Cubas and Irans leaders could be very handy in procuring the necessary technical assistance. These regimes have a long experience repressing their opponents and will be more than happy to transfer that political technology to their Venezuelan ally.

Myth 2: The Venezuelan opposition is corrupt, plots coups, and represents the old oligarchy
Wrong. Its most influential leaders are young university students who were either children or teenagers when Chvez came to power. They hail from all classes of Venezuelan society and have exhibited admirably peaceful tactics and impeccably solid democratic credentials. The bedrock of the Chvez myth is that he is the president of the poor while his squalid opposition is rich, corrupt, and undemocratic. Yet, for years, polls have consistently shown that about one third of Venezuelans always supports Chvez, another third always opposes him, and the last third can swing either way depending on the issue.

In Feb. 15’s referendum, 46 percent of the electorate turned against Chvez — more than 5 million people out of the 11 million who voted that day. But, in Venezuela, the rich and the middle class do not add up to more than a third, let alone half the population. This means that Chvezs opponents also include millions of the very poor people whom Chvez customarily claims as his own and in whose name he takes all kinds of measures that in effect concentrate more power in his hands. And when it comes to corruption, one need only heed the words of Deep Throat and follow the money. In Venezuela, the money is controlled by the government.

Myth 3: Venezuela is a democracy
Yes, if by democracy you mean elections in which the government makes massive, indiscriminate, and abusive use of public resources to influence the results. Or, if by democracy you mean a system in which, following the defeat 15 months ago of a referendum to allow the indefinite reelection of the president, Chvez announced that he would repeat it as many times as necessary. Or a system in which the president has direct control over the legislature, the supreme court, the national electoral authority, the armed forces, the central bank, and the industry that is the countrys principal source of revenue.

Chvezs referendum victory does not change the fact that, in the years ahead, he will have to govern a very different country in a very different world. He will have less money to address rising expectations and pressing social needs. The Chvez model, especially his social welfare programs, depends heavily on a public sector, whose abysmal performance and corruption is acknowledged even by el presidente himself. This inefficiency will only increase with the scarcity of resources. Chvez will also find that the warm smiles and adulation of his international allies and fair-weather friends will diminish in direct proportion to the decrease in his subsidies and largesse. And, as if all this were not enough, the occupant of the White House is now Barack Obama, not George W. Bush. The Chvez of the next few years will do a lot more screaming and a lot less singing.

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