Is Chavez Facing the Final Curtain in Venezuela?

The mood that permeates Venezuela today is one that seems to signal impending doom for autocratic Hugo Chavez. The lyrics of Paul Anka’s “My Way” seem to float in the Caracas air: “And now, the end is near… ”.

Three moves by Chavez, all taken during the last month, comprise his attempt to maintain control over an increasingly frustrated country. The first one is the passing, on the very last day of the period of legislative power granted to him by the National Assembly, of 26 decree-laws that will give him most of the powers that he tried to get, unsuccessfully, through the December 2007 Constitutional referendum.

Defeated by the voters in the referendum, he is now using this blunt force to obtain what the popular vote denied him. No one in the country, except those who drew up the over 2000 articles of the new decrees, knew about them in advance or had a chance to discuss them. In another major move, Chavez used his General Comptroller and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice to ban 260 Venezuelans from running for office in the November regional elections. Not surprisingly, several of the best candidates of the opposition, favored to win by all polls, are included in the ban, which openly violates articles 42 and 65 of the current Venezuelan Constitution.

The third move has been his takeover of Banco de Venezuela, the third largest private bank in the country, owned by Spanish Bank of Santander. Chavez characteristically announced this move during one of his TV shows, without any notice made to the owners. Chavez had been in Spain only days before, trying to mend his relationship with the King, but did not disclose his intentions.

Although these moves would seem to indicate overwhelming power and complete political control of the country, a more careful reading suggests them to be attempts at asserting authority by a weakening leader facing increasing opposition from Venezuelan civil society. The ban on opposition leaders is being challenged in the streets, giving rise to popular protests in which the students are once more leading the way. A delegation of MERCOSUR, the free trade organization from the southern cone, has visited Caracas to investigate the ban and finds it undemocratic, which will prevent Chavez from joining the organization.

Public opinion in the U.S. and Europe is beginning to see Mr. Chavez’s tactics in the same category with Zimbabwe’s Mugabe. The reaction against the decree-laws is starting to unfold and could develop into open civil rebellion.

One of the new decrees would give Chavez the rank of four-star general, not currently existing, and the pompous title of “Generalissimo” in the same level with dictators like Tito, Franco, and Chiang Kai-Sheck. Another decree will convert the state-owned petroleum company, PDVSA, into an agricultural and industrial conglomerate, and still a third would create a new army, loyal to Chavez and not to the nation.

Leaders of the opposition, including industrialist Rafael Alfonzo and recent Milton Friedman award winner and student leader Jon Goicochea, are calling for a popular rebellion, including, if need be, a general strike against the Chavez regime, while members of his own political coalition are speaking in open disagreement with the measures. The takeover of Banco de Venezuela has pushed the country risk of Venezuela to record highs, now 679 points — highest in the hemisphere. The fear of private investors is turning into terror as some of the decrees, especially one on “food sovereignty,” could justify the takeover of important privately-owned food companies.

Once again, Hugo Chavez has brought Venezuela to the brink of open social conflict. He now seems determined to become an absolute ruler. He is forcing a showdown with the Venezuelan people that he has little chance of winning, given the mood of the country. This time he cannnot expect much solidarity from his allies in the hemisphere since Morales, Kirchner, Ortega, and the Castro dynasty are experiencing similar — if not even worse — problems. As the Venezuelan private sector, the Catholic church, the student movement, the opposition parties, civil society in general and many of the members of his own political coalition take the media and the streets against him, Chavez will be fighting for his political life, weighed down by the burden of ridicule and possibly facing the final curtain. He could probably claim he did it “his way,” but history will say that his way was not the people’s way.