Things have gone well for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez since taking office in 1998:
• He launched his domestic “Socialism in the 21st Century” program, touting the line “democracy is impossible in a capitalist system” and making significant changes to implement it.
• He pushed in 1999 for constitutional changes, approved by 80% of voters in a national referendum.
• He was re-elected in 2000 and 2006 with increased majority votes in elections drawing increasingly higher voter turnouts.
• He successfully pushed yet another referendum in 2007—this one to eliminate term limits for political office.
• He was lauded for his Marxist revolution in an Oliver Stone film.
• He supported regional leftist presidential candidates in neighboring countries—several who won—as he sought to isolate U.S. influence in Latin America.
• He was noted by Time magazine in 2005 and 2006 as one of the top 100 most influential people.
But things changed on September 26.
Because opposition parties had withdrawn prior to the last parliamentary election in 2005, for the past five years Chavez has enjoyed a “supermajority” (two-thirds) in the legislature, giving him unrestrained rule over the country. But in the September 2010 parliamentary election, a newly unified opposition broke that supermajority—winning 61 of 165 seats.
In fact, the opposition may have taken the popular vote; however, their five year hiatus from parliament enabled pro-Chavez legislators to prevent a future majority popular opposition vote from claiming more seats by passing a 2009 re-districting law that increased the number of legislators elected from less-populated/more Chavez-friendly areas.
The once-popular populist president has seen his popularity nose-dive. Almost 66% of voters oppose the Socialist course set by Chavez. A majority believe he has enriched himself in office at the expense of the poor he vowed to help. He depletes the national treasury, using the country’s oil resources to prop up other Socialist leaders in the region.
As long as huge oil revenues kept coming in to Venezuela, Chavez could continue railing against capitalism. But when the economic tsunami of 2008 drastically reduced them, shrinking Venezuela’s economy and driving inflation above 30%, the people began to focus more on what Chavez was doing.
Venezuelans have finally started to understand, while banking their hopes on a president who promised change, that change has been in the wrong direction. As economic conditions worsened, so too did crime. While fewer than 6,000 murders occurred when Chavez first took office, more than 16,000 occurred in 2009—96% of victims coming from the poor and middle classes. When a news story claimed Venezuela was more dangerous today than Iraq, unbelievably Chavez—in office for 11 years—borrowing an excuse often used by President Obama, placed blame on the previous administration!
The people are starting to understand that Chavez has been stealing more than the country’s wealth—he has been stealing its democracy—albeit with the blind cooperation of the people. He has used government bonus payments prior to votes in important elections to curry favor. He has weaned voters to accept national referendums removing term limits for government offices, paving the way for him to be president for life. He has contained criticism by shutting down radio and television stations while hosting his own daily radio show.
While the recent election provides cause for hope of an “awakening” by the people to reclaim democracy and return to capitalism, it also gives cause for concern.
Chavez has enjoyed a smooth, 11-year ride at the helm of his ship-of-state avoiding, until now, rough seas. As the sea of growing opposition gets rougher and he seeks re-election in 2012, the question is whether he will do whatever is necessary to remain in office.
Chavez has been involved in presidential coups both as a perpetrator (in 1992) and victim (in 2002). Accordingly, he is distrustful of his own people. A telltale sign of this is evidenced by responsibility for his personal safety being given, not to fellow Venezuelans, but Cuban bodyguards. As his popularity continues tumbling, he will not trust his own people to re-elect him. Thus, he may take a cue from his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and simply steal the election from the people.
As his unpopularity grows, Chavez’s future will determine if the Hezbollah terrorists he invited into Venezuela in 2006 at Ahmadinejad’s request will remain. Hezbollah has been positioning itself since its arrival to penetrate U.S. borders, so its future is of concern to Iran which has financially supported the organization since its birth. Accordingly, we may well see Hezbollah become active in helping Chavez put down domestic opposition.
Only time will tell if the 2010 election represents “the light before the dawn” or the “calm before the storm.”