Monday, November 12, 2007

More Trouble for Chávez

November 12, 2007 - WSJ

In December 1957 Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez held a plebiscite on his presidency. By going through the exercise of a national vote, he thought he would legitimize his rule, which a military junta had handed him five years earlier.

In the event, his government said he won, but Venezuelans weren't convinced. Within a month, a popular uprising drove him from the presidential palace and out of the country.

Next month will mark the golden jubilee of Pérez Jiménez's fateful December "triumph," which provoked his demise and opened a space for democracy to emerge in 1958. Coincidentally the anniversary falls in the same month as a referendum -- called by President Hugo Chávez -- on 69 constitutional reforms that will, among other things, allow him to rule for life.

Like the last dictator, Mr. Chávez believes that if he can show that a majority of voters back his power grab, his government will have won the imprimatur of democracy. But now, as then, Venezuelans are putting up a fight.

Mr. Chávez has already consolidated his power by getting control of Venezuela's political institutions. But now he wants to close any remaining loopholes by writing his absolute rule into the 1999 constitution. The trouble is that, according to the document, a major rewrite of the text can be carried out only by an elected constitutional assembly. This process is designed to preserve some measure of democratic pluralism and by trying to skip it, the president has provoked a firestorm of criticism.

Mr. Chávez has been working to remove any counterbalances to his power for almost nine years now. Over that time he has met strong resistance from property owners, businesses, labor leaders, the Catholic Church and the media. But since the spring, when university students of varying backgrounds began to lead an opposition movement against his crackdown on civil liberties, many have wondered whether chavismo has begun to lose the support of the population more broadly.

In opposition to the Dec. 2 referendum, university students have redoubled their efforts in the streets and a number of the president's heretofore backers have joined the chorus -- all of which has led to increased speculation that Mr. Chávez's days are numbered.

It's easy to see what Mr. Chávez is after. Besides lifting presidential term limits, the referendum proposes to allow the media to be censored and civil liberties suspended under a state of emergency, to permit the government seizure of private property, to mandate a six-hour work day, to increase presidential power over state authorities and to end central bank autonomy.

Up to now the fiery orator has had a rather easy time of rolling over his opponents. To counter their claims that he is taking Venezuela down the Cuban path, he has simply sounded the battle cry of class warfare and pointed to the corruption of former governments. The opposition has been fragmented and easily thwarted by a demagogue who promises to spread the oil wealth more equally.

But this year something has gone terribly wrong with the formula, as evidenced by the dissent coming from previously supportive quarters. Mr. Chávez's decision to strip prominent media critic, RCTV, of its broadcasting license earlier this year may mark the tipping point. Assaults on private property and the jailing of opponents over the year hadn't produced much of a response from university students. But the clampdown on free speech set them off. They poured into the streets, amid tear gas and rubber bullets yet, notably, never called for Mr. Chávez to leave office. Instead they chanted for "liberty." While they lost their bid to save RCTV, they gained respect with the public as a credible voice against one-man rule.

Now the students are back in the streets putting up a fight against the referendum. In the past three weeks tens of thousands have marched to the Congress, the Electoral Council and most recently to the Supreme Court. They are a problem for the president, not the least because their leaders are from middle and low-middle income backgrounds and cannot be dismissed as "elites." Moreover, their defense of civil liberties seems to resonate with an increasing number of Venezuelans. They say that they are opponents, not of Mr. Chávez per se, but of the destruction of the country's institutions that guarantee freedoms.

Last week Mr. Chávez suffered another political setback, this time from his former minister of defense, Gen. Raúl Baduel, who said that if the president gets his amendments it will amount to a "coup" against the democracy. That's a serious charge from any member of the armed forces, but coming from Gen. Baduel it is devastating. He was a key player in restoring Mr. Chávez to power when others in the military had removed the president briefly in April 2002. His criticism raises questions about whether Mr. Chávez is losing support within the barracks.

Yet another high-profile defector from the Chávez camp is Hermann Escarrá, a constitutional-law scholar and one of the architects of the 1999 constitution, which Mr. Chávez has so often cited as sacred. Mr. Escarrá opposes the referendum, has joined the students in their protests and has vowed that he will not retreat. Most university rectors also back the students.

If public support for Mr. Chávez is waning, it may not be due entirely to his politics. Inflation could finish the year above 20% and milk and sugar are extremely hard to come by. Still, analysts believe that the opposition is too weak to derail him at this time and that the referendum will be carried out regardless of its popularity.

Nevertheless, just as Pérez Jiménez found, holding the vote can't reverse Mr. Chávez's political fortunes if he has fallen from grace. Surely he knows this and it is why he has been preparing for a showdown. His supporters are armed, as we saw on Wednesday when students returning to the university from a protest march were ambushed by gun-toting pro-Chávez goons. One student was shot. Tragically, if Venezuelans decide Mr. Chávez should go it is not likely to happen without more such violence.

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