January 8, 2007
One short phrase has been uttered like a mantra by some of the 12 new cabinet appointees whom President Hugo Chávez on Monday swore in to office: “21st century socialism”.
Ideological rigidity looks set to be the hallmark both of Mr Chávez’s third term, which begins on Wednesday, and of the future for Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution”.
Mr Chávez, who was re-elected in a landslide last month, has pledged to radicalise his administration during his new six-year term, which runs until 2013, and fully convert Venezuela into a socialist state.
He has wasted no time. Last night he announced that the main telecoms company, Compañía Anónima Nacional Teléfonos de Venezuela, or Cantv, in which US-based Verizon Communications and Spain’s Telefónica hold stakes, will be nationalised. Caracas’ power company may also be nationalised, Mr Chávez added.
The bold decision is far more radical than Rodrigo Cabezas, his incoming finance minister, hinted at barely two days earlier. “Regulation of earnings will be a priority for us,” Mr Cabezas said. “We ask for understanding from financial and economic sectors, but if there’s no understanding . . . we’ll make the necessary reforms.”
Stiffer regulation of the private sector – or its nationalisation – would be grafted on to a range of government controls over the economy, such as those in the area of foreign exchange, price controls and interest rates.
Mr Chávez said projects in the Orinoco River Belt, in which companies such as ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips, Total and Statoil have invested $17bn over the past decade, “should become state property”.
Negotiations to increase the state’s equity stake in the projects from minority to majority have been under way for some time.
Analysts say that the signals and moves add up to a further concentration of power in the hands of the former army officer.
Mr Chávez, who once said “I am the state”, is preparing to fuse the chaotic coalition of parties who support him into a single party called the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, or the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Already floated is the possibility of a constitutional amendment that would allow Mr Chávez to be re-elected indefinitely.
The most important cabinet change sees the departure of Vice-president José Vicente Rangel, a veteran politician, and his replacement by Jorge Rodríguez, an ardent leftist and former head of the electoral agency.
Mr Rangel, a master in some of the darker arts of politics, had acted not only as a shrewd adviser to Mr Chávez, but also as a bridge with opposition groups. Mr Rodríguez is a radical with little appetite for dissenters.
Carlos Raúl Hernández, a political analyst, maintains that Mr Chávez’s third term will see a drift further towards autocracy. “The government has announced a radicalisation of the revolution but the only element that one can clearly understand from that is an almost totalitarian hunger for power,” Mr Hernández said. “That greater control over the country will mean closing off available spaces for civil society, such as the media.”
Those moves have already begun. During a speech to military officers last month, Mr Chávez said the government would not renew the broadcast licence of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the country’s most widely viewed terrestrial channel.
Mr Chávez accused RCTV of having backed the fumbled military-civilian coup that briefly deposed him in April 2002.
However, RCTV, whose news commentary is often critical of the Chávez government, claims its concession will be valid until 2019.
The prospect of a high profile battle with elements of the domestic media – as well as with international business interests – has attracted attention abroad, including at the Organisation of American States.
On Friday, José Miguel Insulza, the OAS’s secretary-general, said that the challenge against RCTV was tantamount to “censorship” to a degree not seen in Latin America since military dictatorships were prevalent in the 1970s.
“The closing of a mass communications outlet is a rare step in the history of our hemisphere and has no precedent in the recent decades of democracy,” Mr Insulza said.
Yet, as with other occasions during Mr Chávez’s first eight years in power, the government appears on a collision course with the international community.
Mr Chávez on Monday lashed out at Mr Insulza, suggesting he should resign and, using less diplomatic language, branding him “quite an idiot”.