June 13, 2008
OUR OPINION: CHANGE OF TACTICS DOES NOT SIGNAL CHANGE OF POLICY
It's as if President Hugo Chávez awoke one day and asked himself, ''What in the world are you doing?'' Call it damage control or a tactical retreat, the turnabout on two of the most controversial issues linked to his ''Bolivarian Revolution'' is certainly good politics, but no one should confuse this sudden reversal with the rebirth of democratic governance in Venezuela.
Mr. Chávez is a shrewd politician with an uncanny ability to sense the public mood. When the intelligence decree that he unveiled last week was met with a chorus of outrage, the Venezuelan leader must have seen that the moment did not augur well for another power grab. The decree created a network of neighborhood spies, obliging ordinary citizens to inform on friends and kin or face jail time for refusing to cooperate with intelligence agencies. The death knell came when critics labeled it ''getsapo tactics,'' a play on the word Gestapo (Nazi secret police) and ''sapo,'' local slang for informer.
Knowing that he was beaten, Mr. Chávez promptly withdrew the decree he sprang on the Venezuelan people without benefit of legislative sanction. He promised to replace it with something more acceptable. Whatever his motivation, it allows the president to assume a more moderate posture as crucial elections approach in November. It takes a controversial issue off the table.
This is certainly not enough to declare that Mr. Chávez is prepared to discard his autocratic political style, but it credits his instinct for political survival. Heading into elections in the fall and seeking support for a 2010 referendum to end term limits to his presidency, the last thing the president needs is a controversy that energizes political opponents.
The same instinct may be at play in Mr. Chávez's other head-snapping switch -- a call for the leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia to end 40 years of struggle and lay down their arms. It is hard to believe that this is the result of a genuine political conversion, given his often-expressed sympathies with the group known by the acronym FARC. More likely it has to do with the discovery of documents taken from laptop computers seized by the Colombian government showing links between Mr. Chávez and the guerrillas.
In the doghouse
Mr. Chávez denies accusations that his government provided arms and financing for the FARC, and leaders in Latin America have been reluctant to criticize him openly following the disclosure of the seized material. Clearly, though, Mr. Chávez knew he was in the doghouse.
Abandoning the FARC, particularly after they have suffered a series of military and political reversals, makes good political sense for Mr. Chávez. But it doesn't make him a born-again democrat.