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.
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.