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Hugo Chávez has a death wish

By Gustavo Coronel

19.01.06 | Does Hugo Chávez have a death wish? It sounds hard to believe. With a war chest overflowing with petroleum dollars to buy allies and favors; with apparent total control of all Venezuelan political institutions; with a Congress where his followers have 100% of the seats; with an Electoral Council that has it all programmed so he cannot possibly lose an election; with Harry Belafonte next to him on Venezuelan national television, shouting loudly in his favor and denouncing George Bush as the worst terrorist on earth, this man should be on top of the world. . . . But he is not. He looks and sounds vulnerable.

Some financial reasons

The oil money is flowing out of his control even faster than it flows in: money going to Cuba, to the Caribbean countries, to Argentina, to Paraguay, to Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Ollanta Humala in Peru. The immense amounts going for the acquisition of Russian and Spanish arms. The monies required by the Venezuelan military and by the domestic political allies of Chávez. The social programs. The lobbyists in Washington. The emergency expenses. . . . There is no longer control on national expenditures. As money comes in money comes out. In the almost eight years under Chávez rule, almost US$200 billion in oil income has been pilfered and the national debt has doubled. Economic problems, amazingly, now constitute one of the main weaknesses of the Chávez regime. He is starting to be alarmed at the rate at which the national treasury is dwindling. Chávez suffers of what could be called the Michael Jackson syndrome: he is going broke but has not yet fully realized it. The Venezuelan national budget for 2006 shows a deficit of about 4% of the GDP, one that has to be compensated with new national indebtedness. This is something totally illogical, given the size of the petroleum income. I would not be surprised if Venezuela experiences a major financial crisis in the short term, in spite of the high petroleum prices and the relatively high levels of foreign exchange reserves (already partially intervened by the Chávez regime). This crisis could occur because Chávez is entering into gigantic financial commitments due to his political campaign to become a world leader. He is promising the third world monies that he cannot deliver on a sustained basis. On the other hand, he is forced to keep delivering the monies if he does not want to lose credibility among these countries. He is now a prisoner of his ambitions.

Some domestic reasons

As he has been dedicated to build his international following, the Venezuelan domestic physical infrastructure has been collapsing: roads, hospitals, schools, basic services, are rotting away. The main bridge on the Caracas-La Guaira (airport) Highway, a 50-year-old architectural wonder, is now beyond repair. The road has been closed. As a result the country has suddenly been thrown back almost one hundred years. Half a million people are now isolated from their workplaces and visitors to Venezuela have to endure a 4-6 hour drive through narrow and winding roads to negotiate the 30-mile distance between the main international airport and the capital of the country. To make matters worse, this road is deeply infected with criminals who prey on the travelers. Venezuela is now, suddenly, at the level of Haiti or Zimbabwe. Even his followers are indignant at this exhibition of ineptitude.

What looked like a blessing to Chávez, a Congress without opposition, has had a much different result. In the first place, no one in the country seems to take the new Congress seriously, as representative of the citizens. It is perceived as a purely bureaucratic and politicized institution, a simple appendix of the executive power. Moreover, it is starting to show strong signs of infighting, as the different political sub-groups of the regime try to grab the political spoils.

In spite of very high levels of government expenditure that account for the economic growth the country currently shows, industrial and commercial activity is essentially paralyzed. About half of private industries have closed down during the last six years, due to the rigid exchange controls and other restrictive measures imposed by the political regime. Chávez has managed to harass most of the private sector entrepreneurs in the country, threatening them in his weekly Aló Presidente TV show with confiscation and state intervention.

Some international political reasons

Chávez is clearly over extending himself in the international scene. In his all out war against the U.S. he has engaged in bitter exchanges with Mexican President Vicente Fox, with Bolivian political circles which opposed Evo Morales and with Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo. He has attacked Jose Miguel Insulza, the new Secretary General of the Organization of American States, for the highly critical report the OAS observers wrote about the recent Venezuelan elections. He is abandoning the Andean Economic Community in favor of Mercosur, with very poor timing, since this group is now showing increasing signs of breakdown, due to tensions between Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Equally negative for him has been his endorsement of the new Iranian political leaders, who are building nuclear arms capability against the objections of most countries. Chávez is fast becoming a rogue leader in the eyes of the international community, in spite of the great volumes of money he is spending in propaganda.

The opposition is showing signs of regrouping

The 85%+ level of abstention in the December 4, 2005 Congressional elections gave the opposition a great boost. The fact that barely 15% of the electorate showed up and that Chávez looked incapable of attracting even his own followers to the voting sites has shown that his grasp on people has been weakening. The opposition is now following two main strategies: one, to refuse going to a December 2006 presidential election unless the current Electoral Council, controlled by Chávez, is removed and transparent rules of the game are put in place; and, two, to conduct internal primaries to identify a single candidate, to participate in the presidential election in case the rules of the game change to the their satisfaction. Still more interesting, there are also signs that ideas would be more important than a name or a face in this candidacy. A powerful campaign is being planned on the basis of a central proposition to Venezuelans that will provide the electorate with a good reason to leave Chávez's increasingly empty and ineffectual promises behind. As it is today, says political consultant Michael Rowan, the electorate in Venezuela is split into four sections: 25% are Chávez hard core followers; 25% are light Chávez followers, who can be persuaded by a better proposition; 25% are the so-called Ni-Nis, who claim to be both against Chávez and the old style opposition, and, 25% are hard anti-Chávez. It is clear that whoever captures the imagination of most of the 25% light Chávez followers and of the 25% Ni-Nis will win the next free and fair presidential election in Venezuela (if it takes place). The strategy that Rowan proposes and that he plans to make public shortly is essentially based on this premise.

I think Chávez has a (political) death wish

As time has gone by, almost eight years after he came into the presidency, the pretensions of Chávez to turn Venezuela into another Cuba and his dreams of becoming a new Tupac Amaru are becoming more and more difficult to accomplish. Much of his strength is based on oil money and the support of Castro. Both of these sources are becoming increasingly fragile. Chávez is starting to feel like a rock climber who suddenly realizes he cannot turn back and that the climb ahead is becoming extremely treacherous. He looks ahead and sees the increasing burden of inept leaders like Evo Morales and Ollanta Humala asking for money, in addition to the ones who are already doing so. He watches his closest collaborators with distrust, especially Vice President Rangel and General Raúl Baduel, who has a lot of firepower. He grows desperate about the inefficiency of his ministers and sees that the infrastructure of the country is collapsing around him, in spite of huge government expenditure. He cannot help noticing the mounting disapproval of the international community regarding his anti-Semitic and racial utterances, his bellicose stance against Latin American neighbors and the U.S., his sympathy for ELN and FARC, the Colombian narcoterrorists, and his embrace of fundamentalist and dictatorial regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea.

He is now secretly convinced that he will not make it. Therefore, he is already developing a plan B. This plan consists in blaming others for his failure: the CIA, the imperialistic countries, the Venezuelan oligarchy, the Jews, bankers, the Catholic Church or the landowners. The list of his enemies is becoming longer every day. Failing due to the attack of external and evil forces, he thinks, will hopefully assure his place in history.

It will not be so. Chávez is going to be eased out of power by his own people, fed up with the avalanche of empty words he produces every Sunday on national TV, humiliated by his policies of handouts, indignant about the pilfering of national financial resources, frustrated to see how their country is collapsing due to the ineptness of the regime. This process is already under way.



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