PHIL GUNSON AND STEVEN DUDLEY
June 1st. 2007
In the past few weeks, President Hugo Chávez has hit some speed bumps in his rapid transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state, with polls showing a drop in support.
Recent street protests, polls and delays in government projects have put the normally aggressive Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on the defensive as he tries to rapidly implement ''21st Century Socialism'' in Venezuela.
''This is part of the transitions, transitions that are sometimes tumultuous,'' Chávez said this week as university students led protests in a half-dozen Venezuelan cities over the government's decision not to renew the broadcast license of a popular television station. ``There's no revolution that isn't tumultuous.''
Calling his landslide Dec. 2 reelection the beginning of an era, Chávez -- a former army lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup in 1992 before he was elected president in 1998 -- charged into his agenda with great success.
After obtaining power to rule by decree for 18 months from a legislature that has no opposition members -- the opposition boycotted the last election -- Chávez took over the country's main telecommunications company, the electric utility in Caracas and the heavy oil production facilities formerly run by multinational corporations.
But unexpected obstacles in the last few weeks appear to have slowed the once steady march toward what Chávez has called Bolivarian Socialism -- an expansion of the state's role in the economy and significant increases in funding for social welfare programs paid from oil revenues that have made Chávez wildly popular here.
NO CHECKS ON POWER
He has won three presidential elections, but opponents say he has undermined democracy and put the nation under virtual authoritarian rule by stacking the courts and once-independent government institutions with allies.
The private TV network RCTV had been stridently critical of his government, once even showing cartoons and cooking shows while pro-Chávez street protests were helping to restore him to power following a brief coup in 2002.
However, the angry reaction against Chávez's decision not to renew the channel's license seemed to catch the government off guard. It sent troops to the streets on the first day of the protests, then reeled them in. The government said 182 people were arrested during the protests, which included sporadic clashes with police.
''There's a before and after [the closure of RCTV],'' said Luis Vicente León, director of the Caracas-based Datanálisis polling firm. ``There's a different mood, and almost more shock in chavismo [pro-Chávez] circles.''
León said the company's pre-closure polls showed 65 percent were against the government's decision, but that 64 percent continue to support Chávez. Still, he warned, ``Each radical move [by Chávez] could have higher costs.''
CRITICISM FROM EU
These costs already are evident abroad, with the European Union and several nongovernmental groups joining usual critics like U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., in condemning the RCTV decision. Even the Washington Office on Latin America, which normally defends the Chávez administration, attacked ``the arbitrariness and violation of the right to due process that marked its [RCTV] decision.''
WORRIES OVER MEDIA
On Thursday, the Carter Center in Atlanta called for ''dialogue,'' and the French-based Reporters Without Borders said it feared that any media ``that criticize the government will be snuffed out one by one until only the pro-government media are left.''
On the political front at home, Chávez has met unexpected resistance as well. A radical reform of the 1999 constitution -- which among other things would have removed presidential term limits -- was to be put to a referendum as early as August. Now, Chávez says there's ''no hurry,'' and it may be delayed until 2008.
''Discontent has been growing since the president announced his radical agenda [in January],'' said Oscar Schemel, president of the polling company Hinterlaces. According to Schemel's polls, the first three months of 2007 saw an eight-point drop in support for Chávez.
Chávez supporters say the drop is insignificant.
''For better or for worse, things are going a little bit fast, and there are some people a little uncomfortable with that,'' said Rigoberto Lanz, a sociologist who is also a consultant for the government. ``But things are going well.''
Yet Chávez is facing other problems. His proposal to forge a single ruling party suffered a blow when three important parties allied with the president declined to dissolve themselves and merge with his new socialist party.
On the labor front, sectors of the National Union of Workers, a pro-government umbrella labor group, have rejected the idea that they should place solidarity with the government above their own members' wage and benefits demands.
''Defending autonomy is not counterrevolutionary,'' Orlando Chirinos, the leader of a branch, said at an April forum where pro-government and pro-opposition labor leaders debated the need for union independence.
COUNCILS UNDER FIRE
The president's idea for grass-roots democracy through so-called ''community councils'' also has run into trouble.
Resources that normally go to local government bodies are being diverted to these organizations to ''empower'' ordinary Venezuelans.
But there are complaints of widespread corruption, and some community councils have split into rival factions, with angry disputes over how the money is spent.
Intellectuals sympathetic to the regime also have criticized the councils as an idea imposed from above and whose practical application is doubtful.
Social historian Margarita López Maya wrote recently that the councils' ''potential autonomy'' from the government is weak, adding that the authorities failed to submit the proposal to an adequate popular debate.
Meanwhile, issues such as violent crime, unemployment, inflation and food shortages have begun to erode the public's confidence in the authorities and possibly in the president.
''People feel that he is prioritizing his ideological agenda over and above their practical concerns,'' Schemel said.
Despite the pockets of doubt, though, León believes that Chávez's base remains firm.
''There isn't a rupture [within chavismo],'' he said. ``But there's a sense that this isn't good.''
Miami Herald correspondent Steven Dudley reported from Bogotá, and special correspondent Phil Gunson contributed from Caracas.