Summary on Venezuela 17

Por Venezuela Real - 1 de Febrero, 2008, 10:19, Categoría: Política Nacional

Enrique ter Horst
February 01, 2008

2007 was not a good year for President Chavez, all because he thought that the votes reelecting him to the Presidency could be transferred to support his proposed 3reform2 of the Constitution, as he himself publicly confessed. This miscalculation also led him to believe he could impose the new PSUV, his Unified Socialist Party, on his smaller coalition partners (unsuccessfully) ; that he would only pay a small price for cancelling the RCTV frequency; that he could threaten the Universities with the loss of their academic and budgetary autonomy without provoking large student demonstrations, and that he could misuse with impunity his role as a mediator in the Colombian humanitarian exchange for his own purposes. His proposed 3reform2 and its defeat is much more than a temporary setback: it has, politically, cut him down to size. Having lost his aura of invincibility and his carefully created epic image, he suddenly has little to show on his record as a government, except scarcity, high prices, mismanagement and corruption. Suddenly he is nothing more than another ill performing head of state of a developing country. Prisoner of his radical and dogmatic discourse, he appears incapable of a fundamental change of course that would allow him to conclude his mandate honorably.

This week he appointed a Presidential Commission to investigate the death of Simon Bolivar, and last week he said that the present wave of dengue fever (25 cases in the Caracas coastal area in the last two weeks, 70 deaths in the last year) had originated in a laboratory in the United States. Then, at the ALBA summit he proposed a military alliance of its member countries against attacks from the empire, a proposal that was only supported by Daniel Ortega but was later dismissed by a spokesman of the sandinista movement as 3rhetorical2. The reader will recall that in early January President Chávez had also gravely miscalculated when on the day after the liberation of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez by the FARC he thought he had acquired sufficiently of a peacemaker aura to call on President Uribe to recognize the FARC and the ELN as belligerent parties. The nearly unanimous rejection completely surprised him, and it very prominently included the two freed ladies themselves, who both stated that such a decision could only be considered once all the hostages had been set free. The silence out of Cuba, Bolivia and Argentina was deafening, Ecuador went as far as stating that it was not a good idea, and the Brazilian and Paraguayan parliaments have indicated that as a result the process of joining Mercosur has again been put in doubt. Only Nicaragua openly supported Chavez. According to General Baduel, the proposal caused displeasure and concern in the Armed Forces of Venezuela.

The increasingly offensive language Chavez is using against Uribe, clearly a provocative maneuver to distract attention from his diminished political position and a rapidly deteriorating economy, is starting to cause some concern. An escalation is unlikely, as the government of Colombia is not replying in kind, but two days ago in his address to the ALBA summit Chavez stated 3I alert the world that the North American empire is creating the conditions to generate an armed conflict between Colombia and Venezuela2. At this time the smokescreen is too obvious to fool anyone, and a military confrontation would be difficult to engage as it certainly would not have the support of the people of Venezuela, nor of its Armed Forces, and – more importantly – because Chavez would seriously risk losing power if he tried to push the country into a war. The seriousness of the situation was underscored by the successive visits to Bogota in the last two weeks of US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mullen, US Drugs Czar John Walters (who accused Chavez of facilitating the drug traffic through Venezuela), and US Secretary Rice. The message has not been lost on Chavez nor on his Minister of Foreign Affairs, both portraying these visits in urgent terms as a form of intimidation.

It is clear that Chavez1 relationship with Uribe is not only damaged beyond repair but that he is now pursuing a strategy of more open support of the FARC and the ELN, both considered Bolivarian liberation movements, in order to provide his political philosophy with international legitimacy and to stitch-up his own damaged position in Venezuela. The appointment as Minister of the Interior of Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, Chavez1 point man in his relations with the two guerrilla movements a, can only be interpreted that this has now become state policy. However, bilateral trade was estimated to have reached $ 7.5 billion in December 07, with a $ 6 billion surplus for Colombia that includes a sizable portion of the food Venezuelans eat every day. Chavez understands these figures very well, and most analysts are of the view that he will shy away from open confrontation, even if support for the two movements will increase through the backdoor.

Chavez1 diminished internal position has not escaped Evo Morales, who has markedly changed his tone and entered into negotiations with his opposition on his own crisis of governance, nor President Correa of Ecuador, who has taken a step back in his close relationship with Venezuela. The professional Cubans, who play a mediation role with the ELN that is appreciated by Uribe, have retreated into embarrassed silence. Only Ortega of Nicaragua, who until recently has been receiving extraordinary amounts of money from Chavez, continues to behave like a poodle.

The latest opinion survey by Hinterlaces, released last Sunday by its Director Oscar Schemel (the first after Chavez1 2 December defeat), is revealing of the fundamentally changed situation the President faces after the stunning rejection of his constitutional 3reform2. Only 27% of those questioned replied that they were 3chavistas2 or supported the government, and only 33% thought the government was doing a good job. Fully 63% blame Chavez personally for the situation of insecurity; fully 65% do so for the food scarcity and high prices, and 57% blame him for the unemployment. Furthermore, 89% are against any type of conflict with a neighboring country, 88% oppose the President1s aggressive and vulgar discourse, and 87% are against the FARC. Chavez has mentioned that the regional and local elections to be held in November will be crucial to his own political survival, stating that if a sizable number of governorships and mayoralties are lost to the opposition 3they will come for me2 (vendrán por mi) and that 2009 Owill be war1 (será la guerra), but one no longer really knows what such a statement means. He has also mentioned twice his intention to call a referendum in 2010 on a constitutional amendment allowing for his immediate reelection, together with the possibility of cutting short his present mandate with a recall referendum, not a dumb move, as it gives the illusion of shortening his time in office from five to two years. It also makes it his initiative, as a sufficient number of voters could otherwise be counted on to request a recall referendum as of the constitutionally authorized time.

The defeat of Chavez1 proposal in December seems to have brought into the open a previously suppressed demand for government for the benefit of all, particularly for results on the public security and economic front. Chavista militants in the poor barrios are increasingly developing into militant citizens that organize neighborhood protests against government incompetence, and the government has been internally discussing scenarios of a popular upheaval in Caracas triggered by high food prices and scarcity. Oversight of the Caracas Metropolitan Police, still part of the Main Caracas Mayoralty, is to be transferred to the central government, a move that has also been widely interpreted as an acknowledgement that it will be voted out in the November elections.

Chavez1 often tries to fix mistakes by making even larger ones, particularly in the economic field. In spite of oil at over 80 dollars, a grossly overvalued exchange rate forces the government to allocate convertible currency more slowly and in smaller amounts, making it very difficult for importers to set prices and helping push up the black market rate to almost three times the official exchange rate of 2,15. Regulated prices for agricultural and agro industrial goods have been revised upwards but not enough to stop illegal sales into neighboring countries. Milk (fresh and powdered), vegetable oil, meat, poultry, sugar, rice and now also toilet paper are never to be found all at once in the same supermarket.

Food transports headed in the direction of Colombia, where they fetch higher prices, are subject to military checks long before customs posts, aggravating shortages in the border states. Food conglomerate Polar seems to have been singled-out for particularly harsh treatment in west and east Venezuela, accused of hoarding and punished by having large stocks impounded; its nationalization could be only a matter of time. Cars, on the other hand, if you have the patience to wait, can be bought at half the US list price if you bring in dollars at the black market rate. 450.000 vehicles were sold last year, up from 100.000 five years ago.

Chavez will have a very difficult time turning around his dismal government performance in the two years remaining for his intended referendum combining his recall/reelection. Chavez had calculated that by this time the economy would have been well on its way to becoming a centrally planned one, with banking and much of the food chain nationalized, and with the constitutional right to declare at will a variety of states of exception in his hand. It would have been a wonderful way of covering up his mismanagement of the economy, a mismanagement that some argue was done on purpose precisely to nationalize more quickly and at a lower price. Now saddled for the foreseeable future with a liberal capitalist economy and 26 million eager consumers, his position is not to be envied.

Private investment in a capitalist emerging economy only materializes when entrepreneurs trust and work in partnership with the government and the state, clearly not the case in Venezuela. Still, a weakened Chavez could lead to an increase in private investment as there is sufficient ground to act on the assumption that the post- Chavez era has already begun. Likewise, a considerable portion of the opposition continues to believe that as a consequence of his continuing mistakes Chavez and his regime will soon fall like a ripe plum, and that all it needs to do is concentrate on fielding unitary candidates for the November regional and local elections. Having said this, Chavez1 Marxist dogmatism remains as strong as ever, and he intends to double this year to $ 2.8 billion the amount of money that will be allocated to the Consejos Comunales. The reader will recall that the Consejos Comunales constitute the philosophical and political core of his defeated constitutional project. Not a surprise, really, as soon after his 3Victoria de mierda2 statement the country woke up one morning to huge white billboards with only the words 3Spor ahoraS2 in red, a defiant and threatening manner of restating his intention to turn Venezuela into a Marxist society.

Chavez has been pulled down from the Olympus from where he lectured the world, harangued the masses, blasted Bush and scolded his Ministers. He now must deliver security and food at affordable prices, but also health and housing, and stop his confrontational and vulgar discourse against all those who do not share his views. Dogmatic, arrogant, a terrible manager and unable to stop being himself, he is unlikely to function in this new setting, also as he cannot rely on competent collaborators for long, since they tend to have a mind of their own. The trial in Florida of those his government sent to blackmail and/or buy off Antonini Wilson, the man of the $ 800.000 suitcase for Mrs. Kirchner, will undoubtedly further hurt his standing. His chances of seeing through his recall/reelection referendum in the two years remaining until 2010 are not very bright.

Enrique ter Horst Enrique ter Horst es abogado y analista político venezolano. Es asistente del secretario general de la ONU. Dirigió las operaciones de mantenimiento de la paz en El Salvador y en Haití fue vicecomisario de la ONU para los Derechos Humanos.

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