Shadow Government

Hugo Chavez’s year of living dangerously

As he has been telling us for years, Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez’s aspiration is to build "21st-century socialism" for his benighted countrymen. He never has told anyone exactly what that meant, but a decade into his rule, it should surprise no one that his 21st-century socialism bears a strong resemblance to the garden-variety 20th century ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As he has been telling us for years, Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez’s aspiration is to build "21st-century socialism" for his benighted countrymen. He never has told anyone exactly what that meant, but a decade into his rule, it should surprise no one that his 21st-century socialism bears a strong resemblance to the garden-variety 20th century kind, replete with centralization of power, assaults on private property, and intolerance of dissent. The result should surprise no one either: economic decline and increasing domestic discontent.

It is the stuff of a Latin America novel: a country sitting atop some the world’s largest reserves of oil — earning an estimated $1 trillion over the past decade — plagued by rolling electrical blackouts, water and food shortages, collapsing public services, and a messianic head of state who is unwilling to take his foot off the accelerator.

Chavez is attempting to blunt the impact of lower oil prices and declining oil production, inadequate investment in critical infrastructure, and inept management by devaluating the currency, confiscating private property, and implementing price controls. It’s like putting an arsonist in charge of fire control.

Some Venezuelan economists are predicting inflation, now hovering around 30 percent (the highest in the region), could exceed a record 50 percent in 2010.

Predictably (as if anything in Venezuela is predictable), as the indices of economic dysfunction rise, Chavez’s popularity declines. A recent poll from the respected Venezuelan firm Hinterlaces found that 61 percent of the respondents said their country is on the "wrong track" and another 60 percent said they would vote for opposition or independent candidates in legislative elections scheduled for this September.

It’s not only inflation and failing public services that are buffeting the average Venezuelan, but layered onto that is an alarming spike in street crime, Chavez’s steady closure of media outlets, and levels of corruption that make previous administrations look like pikers.

Meanwhile, Chavez’s declining fortunes have breathed new life into student opposition movement, which bears close watching because it is the younger generation that will produce Venezuela’s next leaders, replacing both the Chavistas and those affiliated with the discredited traditional parties. Recent student protests have been met with harsh measures by Chavez’s Brown Shirts — leaving two dead and hundreds injured — and he is threatening even more violence, a clear indication the movement concerns him.

Looking ahead, the key political event for the country this year is the September 26th elections for the National Assembly, which today is virtually completely controlled by Chavez after the opposition boycotted elections in 2005.

As always, the challenge before the Venezuela opposition is whether they can translate rising popular discontent into gains at the ballot box — and to say it is a daunting one is an understatement. They not only need to transcend their own divisions and weaknesses but at the same time continue to rescue their image by fielding candidates who are not tainted by the corrupt politics of the pre-Chavez era and yet can present a coherent alternative to chavismo.

As if that weren’t enough, they also need to overcome Chavez’s propensity to steal elections. With control of the National Assembly, the electoral authority, and the government purse strings, Chavez is a master at slowly asphyxiating the opposition’s electoral prospects so that while the mechanics of election day appear to pass the test, the outcomes were rigged months ago.

This time will certainly be no different. The National Assembly has already passed a law giving the electoral authority the unconstitutional power to gerrymander districts at any time to benefit the ruling party. Plus, the devaluation has the benefit of adding more bolivars into Chavez’s pockets through oil sales, which will no doubt increase exponentially spending on social projects and government salaries. What else happens in the next seven months one can only imagine. A desperate Chavez is a dangerous Chavez.

What is the Obama administration to do? First off, it should push the Organization of American States and its feckless Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, to set up a special monitoring group for the upcoming election. Such a request may be a bit unusual for anything less than a presidential election, but in this case the stakes are so high if any semblance of democracy can be restored in a member country.

The Obama administration should not be above repeatedly calling foul either as Chavez continues to tilt the playing field in his favor.

The Bush administration learned the hard way that individual governments in the region are not going to call Chavez to account for his undemocratic behavior. Some have been bought off with promises of Venezuelan largesse, while others fear the trouble that Chavez can cause in their own countries by funding opposition forces. The administration says it wants multilateral solutions to regional problems. It can start by putting the OAS and Secretary Insulza to work.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola