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Hugo Chávez: This Year’s Challenges and Opportunities

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All 167 seats of the Venezuelan National Assembly will be in play this coming September, and the current 141-seat controlling stake of ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) appears to be at risk. Amid growing internal economic upheaval and violent street protests, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s embattled president, is facing a sharp decline in his personal popularity and the possibility of a significant gain by the opposition in the upcoming legislative elections. Chávez has continued to use his soapbox to concoct fiery speeches, earning him additional enemies and alienating his friends due to his pugnacious style of rule and confrontational habits.

Leadership: Consolidation and Corruption

Shuffling his cabinet in recent weeks, Chávez has tightened his circle of advisers to an unprecedented degree in a very short span of time. As his strategy to restore public faith in his government’s qualifications and to continue to serve his fellow Venezuelans oscillates, his recent call to further consolidate power among his supporters in the country has prompted concern among those in the international community who refused to acknowledge any claims to his worthiness. Some are troubled by what they see as a trend towards burgeoning autocracy in the country. Following a local banking scandal in early December, in which his brother Arne was implicated as a major player, Science and Technology Minister Jesse Chacon resigned from his post. He had been a close confidant of Chávez for years. The president reacted on national television by saying, “Jesse asked me if it would be best if he resigned, and I told him I thought it would.” Chávez’s reaction was part of a campaign meant to reassure Venezuelans that he is taking a principled stand regarding the scandal which involves other high-level officials of his administration.

A number of days ago, Chávez’s Vice President-and-Defense Minister-in-one, Ramon Carrizalez, also resigned, though he was careful to explain the move as a personal choice rather than one resulting from some disagreement with Chávez’s modus operandi. The subsequent resignation of Carrizalez’s wife, Environment Minister Yubiri Ortega, has prompted more suspicion, depending on whether one is a Chavista or one of those waiting for the opportunity to criticize Chávez’s style of governance. Carlos Machado, an agricultural expert at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración in Caracas explains, “one gets the impression that [Chávez] is working with a very small group of advisers, several of whom are now holding two or more positions at once.” For example, the country’s newly-appointed Vice President, Elias Jaua, will continue to hold his position of Agriculture Minister while assuming his new post. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jaua is known throughout Venezuela as one of Chávez’s most radically leftist protégés.

Rather than responding to fears of an increase in the centralization of power, President Chávez has done nothing to disabuse interpretations that the reshuffling of his cabinet is a bold move by what many see as an increasingly stressed leader. The losers in this act of game theory will have the greater incentive to make trouble for Chávez during the approaching September elections, because their instincts tell them that the old behemoth is ready to be slaughtered.

Possibly to influence September’s turnout, Chávez announced a redistricting effort in 7 of the country’s 23 states, including the major cities of Caracas and Maracaibo. There has been a vociferous backlash to this decision among his foes, who accused Chávez’s National Electoral Council of gerrymandering in the states of Amazonas, Lara, Barinas, Carabobo, Miranda, Táchira, and Zulia. Council President Tibisay Lucena denied this, claiming that the boundary lines were redrawn to reflect population changes. However, it is suspicious that the states affected by the redistricting were those in which opposition leaders had been able to make gains in 2008’s gubernatorial and mayoral elections. While Chávez has asserted, “We have an obligation to win this battle, and that means we must work very hard,” these recent actions make it appear as though he also ascribes to the expression “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Crackdown on Media Freedom: Is It For Real?

Chávez has long been a fan of the media spotlight, appearing on the government channel’s own broadcast, Aló Presidente, for a few hours every week. In-your-face and unapologetic, he has used his television program to lodge official threats, the most recent of which was a call for the mobilization of troops along the Venezuelan-Colombian border. The seemingly capricious and public nature of his decision-making process forces an impromptu follow-through that can often be rushed, muddled, and lacking in specifics.

Convinced he is going to be assassinated, or at least heaved out of office, Chávez, as a preemptive move, is cracking down on opposition media outlets as September’s National Assembly elections approach. In January, he ordered the temporary closure of RCTV International, a private media outlet that is openly critical of his policies. Amid claims that its corporate property, RCTV, was illegally denied a renewal of its free, over-the-air broadcast license in 2007 based on its participation in the 2002 attempted coup against the Chávez government, the network was forced to move to satellite and cable broadcasts, rebranding itself as RCTV International. The fact that RCTV’s international cable distribution headquarters is located in Miami is seen by some as an attempt by the network to avoid Chávez’s increasingly tough-minded broadcasting laws. However, Venezuelan authorities have ruled that since most of the station’s programs are domestic in nature, the facility still falls under the jurisdiction of Caracas’ agencies.

An RCTV International spokesman responded on January 23 to the most recent shut-down, saying “[The measure] is meant to silence the voice of protest of the Venezuelan people in the face of the failure of the government’s administration.”

Distracting from Domestic Problems

The outrage over charges that the government is restricting media freedoms is distracting some Venezuelans and outside observers from the bigger issue at hand: the content of the prohibited programming. The TV channels which have been forced to halt broadcasting, while primarily a source for nationally-revered soap operas and baseball games, were also feral in their criticism of the Chávez administration and his alleged ineffectual responses to the nation’s economic upheaval.

COHA recently covered the Venezuelan currency devaluation – the latest manifestation of Caracas’ questionable ability to respond to a growing problem of economic instability. Rather than deal with the mounting pile of financial problems and attempt to recover the fumbles lost on a string of initiatives on key issues, Chávez is reduced to unevenly distributing the burden of electricity and water rationing throughout the country in order to concentrate power (both electrical and political) in Caracas.

The rolling brownouts and electricity rationing have drawn anger from his supporters in the nation’s capital, and in a purely political, last-ditch effort to appease them, Chávez called temporary freezing of the rationing, but only in Caracas. Other regions of the country stand to lose access to vital resources as Chávez’s concessions are now being doled out to a diminishing base of support without a consequential political dividend. The electricity problems, to a major degree, stem from water shortages across the country. Venezuela today is facing the worst natural drought in nearly a century, made even more serious by the fact that the country relies on hydroelectricity for 70% of its power needs. It is difficult for observers, both within and outside Venezuela, to face up to the fact that one of the leading oil-producing countries in the world does not have an adequate infrastructure in place to manage the supply of domestic power in its own cities.

Also meant to be an indication of his great concern for the Venezuelan people, Chávez has been prepared to punish companies for disobeying the new devaluation laws that prevent suppliers from raising consumer prices. His Institute for the Defense of People’s Access to Goods and Services already has sanctioned 73% of the businesses for pricing violations since inspections began on January 11, 2010. Terming the practice of easing-up of retail prices, “speculation,” he is trying to mobilize the public against businesses who disregard his devaluation measures. Chávez has publicly lashed out at these businesses, stating the aforementioned demand that, “I want the national guard in the streets, with the people, to fight speculation.” Making enemies of business owners, those most likely to help spur economic recovery, will only increase opposition to the president in the long run from a prominent sector of society.

The Venezuelan president’s recent musings over his affinity for Karl Marx and Jesus Christ have also done little in the way of attracting new support for overdue economic reforms. In an attempt to guilt Catholics into approval of new fiscal policy, he stated, “Let’s put the brakes on this consumerist, capitalist insanity, that leads us to lose our spiritual values.” By forging a connection between his socialist policy and recent doctrines of the Church, Chávez is attempting to boost his popularity by emulating the pastoral findings of several recent Popes who have described capitalism as a “vulgar” desecration of the human condition.

Opportunities for Reconciliation

Hugo Chávez has less than 7 months left before next September’s legislative elections to find his stride and regain the momentum of his earlier meteoric rise as a popular leader. After a catastrophic January, Chávez needs to have something besides a prolongation of 2009’s mistakes on his agenda to maintain the PSUV’s dominance in the National Assembly, which could turn out to be a very spirited fight. For example, viewers were stunned when, during coverage of a baseball game, the bearers of a sign that read “Three strikes – crime, water, and lights, Mr. President, you struck out!” were arrested on live television. The image of Chávez as a repressive leader is beginning to encroach on that of the head of a great revolution, a jokester, and a stand-up comedian rather than a Pinochet-type dictator. On the contrary, Chávez has been a barker rather than a biter, and his human rights record has never been sullied. So, what do we have here? In order to inspire the Venezuelan people to return to his fold, he must return to the principles of democracy, not only in appearance but in reality, as well. That may mean that he would do well to break bread with the ideologues at RCTV, if only to steal their thunder.

The ominous atmosphere surrounding Venezuela’s current political environment is pushing the Chávez government to a precipice. Further restrictions on civil liberties and the demonization of business sector leaders and perceived antagonists to be found in neighboring countries only momentarily distracts the public from issues pertaining to the nagging trouble spots in the country’s domestic infrastructure that are eroding Chávez’s legitimacy from the inside. Contradictions resulting from Chávez’s policies will hurt him in restoring the faith of his people.

The president must make a sincere and public effort to dialogue with local leaders on resolving economic and infrastructure impasses. Grassroots support for the Bolivarian revolution remains its most powerful ally, and Chávez’s ability to reconnect with his natural political base through progressive, rather than imprudent and misguided public policy, is the ideal route for the revival of his public image and strengthening the relevance of his social and political projects.