Can Hugo Chavez stay in power?
This week's Economist magazine takes a close look at the regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, asking whether he can continue to remain as president without destroying what is left of the country's democratic institutions. Until recently, Chavez enjoyed broad support among the middle and lower sectors of society, most of whom did not seem to mind that he was trampling on the rights of the propertied classes. In the editors' words, Venezuela
has come to embody a new, post-cold-war model of authoritarian rule which combines a democratic mandate, populist socialism and anti-Americanism, as well as resource nationalism and carefully calibrated repression.
This model of governance, which is also characteristic of Russia and Iran, among others, worked as long as crude oil prices were high enough so that the government could dole out plenty of goodies, but that is no longer the case. Over the past year, the Venezuelan people have been enduring severe hardships and shortages of basic necessities such as meat. Caracas and other cities are subject to regular electricity blackouts due to insufficient power generation, but that is partly because of recent droughts, which curtail output at hydroelectric plants. Another symptom is a shortage of hard currency: street vendors are demanding almost twice as much Venezuelan local currency in exchange for the U.S. dollar as the official exchange rate.
These circumstances point to a critical weakness in the regime: Chavez bases his legitimacy on popular support, and often brags about his past election victories: first in December 1998, then in July 2000 (a special election under the new constitution), and most recently in December 2006. Chavez suffered minor electoral setbacks in 2007 and 2008, but he triumphed once again in February 2009, when the people approved of a constitutional change that abolished term limits on the presidency. The next election is scheduled for December 2012, two and a half years hence. Will voters get a meaningful choice, and a chance to give Chavez the boot, if that is their desire? And if not, will his opponents find a way to get rid of him by irregular means, as happened in Honduras last June? Here is what I recently wrote on Facebook:
I can't seen any circumstance in which Chavez would give up power, and with his dictatorial regime well established, any plot to overthrow him would be exposed before it got very far. He is at least as brutal and domineering as Pinochet was in Chile, and it is shameful that so few leftists acknowledge this. Indeed, some of them made excuses when Obama exchanged friendly greetings with Chavez last year, a low point in American history.
As for free market policies, yes, they were deeply tainted by cronyism in Argentina, Peru, and elsewhere. It was a tragic lost opportunity to promote true freedom. It would take a book chapter just to shed light on the subtle ironies that lie behind the debate over neoliberal wave of the 1990s. Overselling free markets is part of what led to Chavez and his left-wing comrades in Bolivia, Ecuador, etc.
I once had a student who was born in Venezuela, and he was brimming with confidence that Chavez would be removed from power in the near future. That was almost ten years ago, and Chavez is more deeply entrenched than ever.