Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Venezuela's Lame-Duck Dictator

Venezuela's Lame-Duck Dictator
Posted Monday, December 03, 2007 4:20 PM PT Latin America:
Could Hugo Chavez's stinging defeat in Venezuela's power-grab referendum Sunday be the beginning of the end for the dictator?
Yes, but in sliding downward, Chavez is unlikely to go willingly.Like other Venezuelan votes, the outcome of this referendum didn't have much resemblance to the projected outcome.
News agencies and Chavista media had it as a slam dunk for Chavez, saying he'd won by a margin of five to 14 points. But by mid-evening, Chavista victory celebrations were being called off. A stream of leaks from the CNE electoral board overnight suggested a stunning defeat.
Chavez at his press conference Monday: Downcast for good reason.Chavez dropped his usual presidential balcony announcement, and instead slunk in, stunned, to a palace conference room near midnight and admitted the defeat.
That followed a four-hour session with advisers, including the military. The generals were important, because they let Chavez know that they wouldn't shoot protesters if it became obvious he was lying about the results.
The military's position was reflected Saturday in a New York Times op-ed in which the ousted defense minister, Gen. Raul Baduel, opposed the referendum as "contrary to human nature.
"Too many people knew the truth, and unlike other suspect Venezuelan elections, any lie couldn't be hidden.
The official count shows Chavez losing 49 to 51, but the empty poll stations around the slums of Caracas suggest a wider spread. Abstention in Chavez strongholds was as high as 44%, and an estimated 500,000 followers stayed away while the opposition, led by Venezuela's courageous students, defeated the 69-point proposal.
Small wonder.
The constitutional "reforms" that Chavez wanted would have extended his presidency indefinitely, letting him handpick local overlords, exact revenge on media critics and confiscate private property at his whim.Even the dimmest of Chavista voters could see that a successful referendum would likely mean the last time they would ever vote.
Shantytown dwellers who form Chavez's political base had repeatedly expressed fear that their hovels could be taken away.Already they could see ample evidence of tyranny. Last May, Chavez shut down their favorite TV station, RCTV, depriving them of the only entertainment they could afford and triggering the student protests that have covered the streets all year.
Meanwhile, stores are empty of basic staples and lines are long. Chavista price controls and abuse of businesses have emptied shelves of rice, pasta, chicken, salt, milk, eggs and even toilet paper.
Chavez's incompetence was one sign of weakness. Overseas, there were even more. After the king of Spain told the dictator to "shut up" last month, the world hasn't stopped laughing while global entrepreneurs rack up $100 million in ring tone and T-shirt sales. Meanwhile, the discovery of vast offshore oil reserves in Brazil ended the perception that Chavez has an energy monopoly and that oil prices will always be high.
Chavez also looked weak after a spat with another neighbor, Colombia. Chavez vowed to cut off trade after exchanging harsh words with Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, but couldn't. This reminded voters that Venezuela needs Colombia for goods.
Weakness repels voters, and now Chavez — deprived of Castro-like powers — faces new problems. For one, his economic model is unsustainable. After he crashes the economy, he will face questions about his massive state spending, his takeover of private industries, his demonizing of foreign investment and his over-dependence on oil exports.
With crude prices easing, some forecasters expect Venezuela's economy to crash by mid-2008.
Expect a witch hunt to pin blame for the referendum loss. With Chavez seen a loser, he's unlikely to attract lieutenants and his government may degenerate into backbiting. He could even lose his empire. His de facto colony, Bolivia, is engulfed in civil unrest over similar constitutional changes, and its government could be overthrown.
Ecuador, another ally, could move into a more independent orbit. Meanwhile, the opposition will have room to strengthen. It's been down for a long time, but it no longer faces a brick wall. As Daniel Duquenal, who writes the excellent Venezuela News & Views blog, summed it up for IBD: "Chavez still holds enormous state power, but now he no longer controls people."

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