The Blog

Can Chavez Be Stopped?

Consolidating a dictatorship.

11:00 PM, Feb 17, 2009 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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VENEZUELAN DEMOCRACY SUFFERED another major blow this past weekend with the abolition of term limits for elected officials. This will enable Venezuela's autocratic leader, Hugo Chávez, to run for president indefinitely. It will allow him to consolidate his budding dictatorship and further undermine the country's fragile democratic institutions. Chávez's current term ends in 2013, but he wants to serve as president for at least another decade, if not longer. "I am ready, and if I am healthy, God willing, I will be with you until 2019, until 2021," he said in November 2008. Chávez had previously expressed a desire to remain president through 2030.

In December 2007, Venezuelan voters narrowly defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated presidential term limits. This was a big embarrassment for Chávez. But on February 15, 2009, more than 54 percent of Venezuelan voters endorsed an amendment that scrapped term limits for all elected officials. Chávez touted the referendum as "a historic victory."

It is historic--but not in a good way. The amendment represents a naked power grab by Chávez, who is systematically dismantling the checks on his authority. Make no mistake: Venezuela is fast becoming a Cuba-style police state. In September, Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report on the Chávez presidency. It lamented that "the Chávez government has engaged in often discriminatory policies that have undercut journalists' freedom of expression, workers' freedom of association, and civil society's ability to promote human rights in Venezuela." On Saturday, February 14, one day before the vote, a Spanish lawmaker and referendum observer named Luis Herrero was expelled from Venezuela after calling Chávez "a dictator."

Chávez allies may point to the February 15 referendum as proof that Venezuelans support their "revolutionary" agenda. It's true that a majority of voters backed the elimination of term limits for elected officials. But we must remember the context. The February 15 vote took place in a climate of extreme intimidation and widespread fear. On February 12, the Washington Post editorialized that "Mr. Chávez's regime has mounted a propaganda and intimidation campaign of a ferocity rarely seen in Latin America since the region returned to democracy 25 years ago. Pro-Chávez rhetoric dominates the national airwaves, from which opposition voices have been almost entirely excluded. Pro-government thugs have targeted student demonstrations, the home of an opposition journalist, and the Vatican's embassy, which gave shelter to one student leader."

As the Post indicated, Venezuela no longer enjoys a genuine free press. That made it very difficult for opposition leaders and democracy activists to campaign against the amendment. Their voices were drowned by a tidal wave of government agitprop. Shortly before Venezuelans went to the polls, the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders said that the referendum campaign had "seen frequent assaults on the media." Meanwhile, Venezuelan police harassed and detained student demonstrators and others trying to foment opposition to the amendment. (On January 20, as the Associated Press reported, Venezuelan police "used tear gas, plastic bullets, and a water cannon" to disperse a student rally in Caracas.)

It was only 14 months ago that Venezuelans rejected Chávez's bid to ditch presidential term limits. Chávez announced the February 15 referendum shortly after Venezuela's regional elections in November 2008. Why was he in such a hurry to hold another referendum? Probably because he was nervous--nervous that Venezuela was on the verge of a painful economic crisis that would erode his popularity and weaken his grip on power.

Over the past several months, plummeting oil prices have created serious problems for Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company, which Chávez has horribly mismanaged. The fate of Venezuela's economy is closely tied to the fate of its oil industry. In mid-January, the New York Times reported that Venezuelan officials had "begun soliciting bids from some of the largest Western oil companies," including Chevron and Royal Dutch/Shell. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has said that the massive decline in oil prices could mean "real trouble" for Chávez. "His strategy has been to bet on high oil prices and that's not working anymore," economist José Guerra, a former Venezuelan central bank director, told Reuters this week.