Can Chavez Be Stopped?
Consolidating a dictatorship.
11:00 PM, Feb 17, 2009 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
Regardless of Chávez's bluster, Venezuela has not been immune to the global economic slowdown. On January 16, Chávez said the government was seizing $12 billion (or 28 percent) of the central bank's international reserves in order to weather the downturn. Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in Latin America. The central bank reports that annual inflation reached nearly 31 percent in 2008, and some analysts think the real number is much higher. The country is suffering from severe shortages of basic food products. Corruption is pervasive. Violent crime has surged. Caracas is now considered the murder capital of the world.
Though Chávez has been bolstered by his referendum victory, these problems aren't going away. Venezuela's economic situation will only get worse in 2009, which means the government will have less money to spend on Russian arms and less money to shower on leftist governments in Latin America. If Venezuela experiences a full-blown economic meltdown, Chávez may suffer a political meltdown, regardless of the February 15 referendum.
How should the United States respond to the rollback of Venezuelan democracy? While Washington has limited influence over Venezuela's internal political affairs, the Obama administration should work with Latin American democracies and launch a multilateral diplomatic campaign to pressure the Chávez regime on human rights. It would be a mistake for the U.S. government to lash out at Chávez by itself--that would only play into his hands and encourage his propaganda efforts. Instead, Washington should enlist countries south of the border. Latin American democracies must show solidarity with the beleaguered democrats in Venezuela. Governments and NGOs should also champion the cause of Venezuela's independent journalists. Without real press freedom, the opposition will find it hard to sway domestic opinion.
Unfortunately, the Venezuelan opposition remains fragmented. Indeed, ten years after Chávez first took office, his opponents have yet to congeal into a unified, broad-based movement. The emergence of such a movement may be critical to saving Venezuelan democracy. After Sunday's vote, time is quickly running out.
Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica's former ambassador to the United States, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.