Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who once described himself as “very Maoist all my life”, came a giant step closer last Sunday to realizing his stated goals of emulating Fidel Castro as South America’s longest ruling revolutionary leader and turning his country into a Cuban-styled, socialist state.
The fifty-four year old South American politician, who once said he wanted to rule until 2049, won a referendum that ended the two-term limit for Venezuelan presidents. Fifty-four per cent of Venezuelans voted for the constitutional amendment, which will now allow Chavez to run for president again in 2012 when his current six-year term ends. Chavez first came to power in 1999 and can now stay in office as long as he keeps winning elections.
“This soldier is a pre-candidate for the presidency for 2013 and 2019,” Chavez told tens of thousands of his supporters who, waving red flags, had gathered outside the Miraflores Palace, the official seat of Venezuela’s president, in Caracas immediately after Sunday’s vote. Besides singing the national anthem with his followers, Chavez, wearing his trademark red shirt, also led them in the chant: “Heh-ho, Chavez won’t go.”
More ominously, Chavez declared the vote also served as a mandate to speed up his goal of turning Venezuela into a socialist state, which, he said, would take ten more years.
“Those who voted ‘yes’ today, voted for socialism and revolution,” he declared.
Chavez lost a similar referendum to end presidential term limits fourteen months ago. But this time, the former paratrooper colonel was taking no chances. In the recent referendum campaign, he personally led mass marches, had ‘yes’ posters hung everywhere, made speeches on television that networks were required to broadcast, and gave two million public workers time off work to attend his rallies. Which, some complained, they were obliged to attend.
Opposition parties also accused Chavez of other referendum abuses, such as using public funds and trucks from the state-owned oil company in his campaign, while the National Election Council refused to issue permits for several opposition marches. A leading Venezuelan newspaper even called the vote in an editorial headline “Another Sham.” Nevertheless, the opposition said it accepted the referendum result; but the intense campaign, observers say, had deepened the country’s polarization.
Last November, the opposition had scored some successes in regional elections against the populist strongman. While Chavez’s Socialist Party won most state elections, opposition parties were victorious in the heavily populated state metropolitan area around Caracas and gained the mayoralty of the capital itself.
It was believed Chavez lost in the major urban centers on the country’s north coast because he did not address the two major issues of concern to voters, namely, Venezuela’s 35 percent inflation rate, the highest in South America, and the nation’s crime problem. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, which Chavez promised to tackle during the referendum campaign.
But Venezuela’s 35 percent inflation rate poses a much more difficult problem for Chavez. Venezuela is the leading oil exporting nation in South America and one of the top ten in the world. An OPEC member, oil exports account for 93 percent of its hard currency earnings and half of the government’s budget. But like its anti-American ally, Iran, Venezuela is experiencing tough economic times due to plummeting oil prices.
The majority of Chavez’s supporters are Venezuela’s poor, who have benefited from the past decade’s oil bonanza in the form of education, free health care and subsidized food and fuel. Such largesse is expected to end this year, however, as oil prices are expected to remain $100 lower than last year at about $40 per barrel and Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves become depleted to maintain the social programs.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Venezuela has already ended some foreign aid programs and has stopped selling cheap oil to allies. Venezuela’s state-owned oil company is even “behind on payments to platform operators and other providers.” The WSJ goes on to say economists believe declining oil revenues will see tax increases and other unpopular measures implemented in Venezuela, which will hurt Chavez’s core supporters, the poor, the most. And any devaluation of the currency would only increase the inflation rate. It is suspected Venezuela’s coming economic crisis is why the referendum to lift constitutional restraints on term limits took place at this time.
The economic downturn is also expected to curtail Chavez’s influence in South and Central America. Like his mentor, Fidel Castro, the Venezuelan president would like to export revolution to these areas or at least create an anti-American, socialist bloc in Latin America with himself as leader. Chavez has been making large weapons purchases from Russia and using Venezuela’s oil wealth to achieve this end, wooing other leftist regimes and subverting pro-American ones.
But like with Castro, who was the first foreign leader to congratulate Chavez on his “victory of such magnitude it is impossible to measure”, a long-term, economic slow down will also shatter Chavez’s revolutionary dreams, no matter how many elections he wins. Even his main allies, Russia and Iran, will not be able to help him. Dropping oil prices are also causing them severe economic difficulties and created social disturbances in Russia.
While last Sunday’s referendum will now allow Chavez to run in more elections, how he would handle losing one is actually of more importance. Prolonged, economic distress in Venezuela would definitely see a stronger opposition appear in 2012. Because of the crime and inflation issues, some of his support was even seen to erode in the recent referendum, despite Chavez having played on people’s fears they would lose their social programs if he were not allowed to run again.
Some fear an election loss may see the Venezuelan leader declare himself president for life. Multiple election victories would possibly have the same outcome. And since like his hero, Castro, Chavez is inclined to megalomania, this may have been his goal all along. Either way, Venezuela will only wind up as Cuba-style human rights disaster and economic wasteland rather than the envisioned socialist paradise.