Politics & Policy

Putting Chavez to a Vote?

A crumbling coalition.

On Sunday, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez could move closer to entrenching his absolute power by expanding his presidential authority under the guise of his so-called socialist “revolution.” And he is performing this political drama for the whole world in the name of democracy.

But his malfeasance has not gone unnoticed. Chavez’s coalition now shows serious signs of weakness, and the Venezuelan people have begun to speak out against this democratic travesty.

Venezuela will hold a referendum to make a series of key constitutional reforms. The president has proposed modifying only about 10 percent of the 350 constitutional provisions, but these will eliminate any lasting barricades to Chavez’s expanding presidential power and entrench the socialist dictatorship the Venezuelan president has promoted since his election back in 1998.

Chavez has made this personal, pronouncing on state-run television, “It’s black and white — a vote against the reform is a vote against Chavez.”

But several polls this week suggest that the tide may have turned against the president. While support for the referendum had been quite large, recent polls reveal that by now voter approval has fallen considerably.

Chavez’s power to suppress the opposition is already substantial, but fractures in his coalition may finally affect his popularity with the electorate at large. These hopeful developments at the elite and mass level should remind us to keep a watchful eye on Chavez as he tries to use “legal” measures to impose his crude, make-shift democracy on the Venezuelan people.

Most of the referendum is geared toward expanding presidential authority and deflating the power of the people. Perhaps the most glaring reform is Chavez’s plan to extend the presidential term from six to seven years and remove term limits. If passed, the referendum would also grant the president the right to declare an open-ended state of emergency, limit communication, and increase his control over the country’s international reserves.

Chavez has been careful to include a few more crowd-pleasing amendments — most notably curtailing the workday to six hours.

Thankfully, however, there are serious cracks appearing in Chavez’s coalition, which threaten to erode his power and undermine his regime. In the lead up to this referendum, key Chavez supporters — from the army, the student population, as well as the poor and underprivileged — have turned against the president.

Earlier this month, for instance, former Minister of Defense and General Commander of the Venezuelan army Raul Isaias Baduel called for the people to vote “no” on December 2. At a press conference Baduel held in November he called the referendum a “constitutional coup” and claimed it would “seize power away from the people.” This was a dramatic display of defiance from an emblematic military leader who in 2002 played a key role in defeating a military coup against Chavez.

Venezuela’s student population has emerged as the leading voice of opposition to Chavez. Students first began protesting Chavez over the summer when the president cracked down on a television network critical of his regime. And Sunday’s referendum, and the threat it poses to civil society in Venezuela, has prompted tens-of-thousands of students to take to the streets in demonstrations against his regime.

Not surprisingly, Chavez has tried to downplay the significance of this outcry by referring to the protests as a “fascist attack” and dismissing the students as privileged and elitist — an assertion that is far from representative of the economically and culturally diverse student body in Venezuela.

The poor, a previously dependable constituency for Chavez, is another group that has broken ranks. Despite the large social service programs the president has launched in poor neighborhoods, many impoverished Venezuelans have withdrawn their support for Chavez as the country has become increasingly corrupt, financially unstable, and dangerous.

Past political corruption in Venezuela resulted in the disappearance of the two governing parties and unfortunately facilitated Chavez’s rise to power. And today, spending on social programs for the poor has been curtailed because of reckless spending on weapons acquisitions and adventures abroad. The country faces rapidly rising annual inflation at 16 percent — the highest in Latin America — and price controls Chavez instituted have put many businesses at risk and generated shortages of basic foods like beef, chicken, and milk in detriment to the poor.

Venezuela’s reputation as increasingly dangerous is well-earned. Chavez has provided safe-haven to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, allowing them to establish support structures in Venezuela. In fact, the country is fast becoming known around the world as a place where international crime syndicates can conduct their business unmolested.

Furthermore, the United State’s Drug Czar John Walters has reported that the flow of illegal drugs from Venezuela has quintupled from 57 tons in 2004 to 250 tons this year, leading to a dramatic increase in gang crime and drug violence in the country.

Chavez believes that by holding a plebiscite, he can show the world that he is committed to democracy. Yet, in actuality, this referendum is a political charade and an affront to individual rights. Chavez may be trying to expand his powers through “legal” means — much in the same vein as Hitler did in the 1930s, and more recently Charles Taylor and Robert Mugabe have done in Liberia and Zimbabwe, respectively — however, it is not without serious risk to his political future.  

Chavez might get his way this weekend, but there are reasons to hold out hope for Venezuela. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that Chavez’s internal coalition is crumbling, and we must keep a spotlight on this dangerous regime and push for an honest advancement of democracy in Venezuela.

 – Jaime Daremblum is the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He was Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998-2004.

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