Venezuelan voters will decide in five days if President Hugo Chavez and all other currently elected public officials should be allowed to seek re-election indefinitely.
Originally, Chavez only wanted perpetual re-election for himself, alone. But he offered the option to everyone else in an elected public job, which encouraged the entire elected Bolivarian “chorocracia” to embrace Chavez’s president-for-life agenda while minimizing dissent within the revolution.
The referendum’s outcome is unpredictable. Some polls report that President Chavez (the SI option) will prevail, and others that Chavez will lose (the NO option). Everyone’s attention is focused on 15 February.
But what happens starting on 16 February?
If Chavez wins, expect more repression by state entities and armed civilian gangs. However, if Chavez loses, expect even worse repression than if he wins.
Chavez’s campaign rhetoric has moderated considerably since 7 February. Chavez said yesterday that if he loses the referendum he will respect the people’s will.
But remember that only a week ago Chavez told CNN’s Patricia Janiot that if he loses the referendum he will continue pursuing his agenda through other means including a new constitutional assembly.
Chavez is determined to do whatever it takes to remain in power for the rest of his natural life. He didn’t respect the majority will of Venezuelan voters who rejected his proposed constitutional reforms in December 2007, and he won’t respect the outcome of the 15 February 2009 referendum if he loses again.
Chavez has a democratic mandate as president of Venezuela until February 2013. The country is in ruins, notwithstanding the strong quarterly GDP growth registered since 2003. But no one can force Chavez to leave the presidency before February 2013.
But Chavez also confronts a very critical near-term outlook. The economy is going to crash in 2009. GDP probably will contract at least five percent, and inflation will top 50% – and perhaps go even higher when (not if) the government devalues the currency this year.
Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez Araque said last week that the government will cut imports by 15% in 2009, but expect significantly greater import reductions across the board because Venezuela won’t have the cash reserves to fully cover even basic import needs like food and medicines.
As the economy’s crisis worsens, unemployment in the formal and informal economies will increase. As a result, social tensions and violent crime also will increase during the year.
The Chavez government also is at risk of widespread labor conflict this year with the public sector unions.
Petroleos de Venezuela is essentially broke – it has no cash to pay creditors or workers – and is right at the brink of twin conflicts with the unions and oil services companies which could cause a drop in crude oil producton estimated at 250,000 b/d to 500,000 b/d by end-2009.
If a labor conflict erupts in Pdvsa, it could spread quickly to other public sector entities including the CVG’s basic industries.
The government will respond to increased social tensions and conflicts with oil and other public sector unions with more repression.
With the price of oil likely to be at $100/bl again by 2012, if not sooner, Chavez likely has figured out that all must do is survive the next 12-18 months, and then higher revenues will put his Bolivarian revolution back on a fast track.
The coming year in Venezuela promises to be very interesting, perhaps explosively so.