Chavez is not as weak as some critics wish

Some mainstream news media and parts of the Venezuelan blogosphere are hinting (forecasting?) this week that collapsing oil prices may weaken President Hugo Chavez and force unexpected political changes in Caracas before the end of 2009. [See the post on the IHT/NTY and AP oil stories posted early today, and visit Caracas Chronicles.]
But now comes Investor’s Business Daily with an editorial titled “Hugo Crawls Back.”
“Low oil prices and plunging output have seen Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez come groveling back to U.S. oil firms for new investment after abusing them earlier,” says IDB. “Confident that high oil prices would last forever, Chavez is now in the winter he thought would never come…CIA Director Michael Hayden said (15 January) that a $40-per-barrel oil price means Venezuela’s high-sulfur crude will fetch just $30 a barrel. ‘That’s real trouble for that (Chavez) regime — so you could see a lot of fracturing there,’ he said.”
Oil prices are down sharply and Venezuela likely will suffer a major economic and fiscal crisis in 2009. Lower oil prices and revenues also will weaken Chavez politically in 2009. But he’s not at serious risk of being ousted from power before his term ends in 2013.
Chavez only has to survive the next 12-18 months. A year from now, oil prices should be rising again and the Bolivarian regime may be able to stay afloat. Meanwhile, he continues to consolidate and centralize all power. During first quarter 2009 Chavez will burn the government’s (Central Bank, Fonden) FX reserves in the campaign leading up to the referendum on amending the constitution to allow his perpetual re-election. Chavez insists Venezuela needs him to remain in power at least until 2021.
The economy is already tanking, but this may not be widely felt by most Venezuelans until May – assuming Chavez can spend enough from January-April to convince the public that the country is not in the trouble it’s in. Former President Jaime Lusinchi spent wildly in 1988 and Venezuelan voters bought the official fiction that Venezuela was sound, but the country crashed in February 1989 after Lusinchi left the presidency and his successor, President Carlos Andres Perez, foolishly (albeit necessarily) increased domestic gasoline prices without accurately taking into account the likely reaction of poor Venezuelans.
Chavez and his gang have been in power a decade. He firmly controls the National Assembly, Supreme Court, Attorney General, the judiciary, the electoral authorities, the armed forces and most civilian police agencies. His regime has crowded out almost all independent news media in the country. Thousands of Cuban operatives reinforce the Chavez government’s national security and intelligence apparatus. His hard support base is about 30% of the electorate, and his popularity remains above 50%.
Save for a very few exceptions, the political opposition is pathetic, disorganized, divided and devoid of a coherent message that a majority of Venezuelans, especially the poor, can identify with. Over the past ten years, the president’s political opponents unwittingly also have been his greatest allies thanks to their own missteps and stumbles. There’s no reason to believe that, as Venezuela’s economic woes soar this year, the political opposition will see the light and get its act together.
Meanwhile, Chavez is pulling out all the stops to assure its approval. Led by Chavez, all branches of the government are placing their full weight behind the push to secure the reform Chavez needs to remain president-for-life. The regime has launched a new propaganda campaign to portray some opposition figures, including Globovision’s Alberto Federico Ravell, as coup plotters meeting clandestine with US diplomats in Puerto Rico. The government-controlled media are flooding the country with pro-referendum propaganda. The National Assembly has approved a referendum question which is incomprehensible even to educated readers. The National Electoral Council has rejected requests to open the Electoral registry so young voters (ie university students opposed to re-election) who are legally qualified to vote may register and participate in the referendum.
Chavez is also beating the war drums again, threatening the country with violence and bloodshed if he doesn’t win the referendum. Around the country, incidents involving armed individuals firing weapons randomly at people standing at bus stops, walking down the street, at parties, etc has increased since the start of 2009. The government, supported in the streets by groups of chavista thugs, also is doing everything it can to sabotage the new state and municipal governments of opposition figures elected in last November’s regional elections.
If Chavez wins the referendum and the economic crisis hits hard, causing social discontent and political turmoil later this year, he will increase repressive state measures against the populace to maintain public order. The National Guard, armed forces and irregular armed civilian groups will be used to keep the people in line. If Chavez loses the referendum, the surge in state repression will come faster, and more intensely.
Chavez and his gang will not allow a situation in which they are deposed from power by any means, including democratic elections. The president is prepared and willing to kill innocents if that’s what it takes to stay in power. And there are thousands of armed individuals, inside and outside the armed forces, willing to support Chavez in putting down any popular revolts or democracy people power initiatives to oust the president from power.
The president on 15 January called on his PSUV party to deal the opposition a “knockout” blow in the referendum. The last time Chavez called on his people to “knock out” the opposition was in fourth quarter 2001 and first quarter 2002, as he prepared to execute a scheme called “Operation Knockout” which was designed to crush his political opponents lethally and manufacture bogus “legal justifications” to impose martial law.
The collapse in oil prices will pass quickly enough. All Chavez must do is wait out the worst of the crisis, which should be over by mid-2010. He has enough guns and backers to hold on.

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About Caracas Gringo

Representing less than 0.00000000001515152% of the world population as of 31 December 2011.
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