Of oil and death

Posted in Latin America | 29-Nov-07 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Workers install a banner at State Oil Company headquarters (PDVSA) reading "With Chavez, the time has come" in Caracas November 28, 2007.

CARACAS: It was a fascist general in 1930s Spain who coined the phrase "Viva la muerte!" - "Long live death!" Essentially meaningless, the words captured the blind cult of soil, blood and savagery that coursed through European fascism, in its Francoist and other forms.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela hates "fascists;" they are central to his repertoire of insults. But he has not hesitated to deploy the imagery of death to bolster his leftist brand of petro-authoritarianism, now operating under the ludicrous banner of "Fatherland, Socialism or Death!"

The slogan looks almost quaint in its anachronism. Chávez would no doubt claim Cuban revolutionary, rather than Spanish fascist, roots for it (Fidel Castro also invoked fatherland and finality). The bottom line is this: Latin America's oil-gilded caudillo is getting serious about ruling for life, just like Franco and Castro.

I might add Vladimir Putin to that list. Like the Russian leader, Chávez has already used gushing oil revenue, a pliant judiciary, subservient institutions and the galvanizing appeal of vitriolic anti-Americanism to concoct a 21st-century, gulag-free authoritarianism. But even Putin has not contemplated going as far as Chávez now intends to take his "Bolivarian revolution."

Venezuelans will vote Sunday in a referendum that would remove all limits on presidential re-election, grant Chávez direct control over foreign currency reserves, allow him to censor the media under "a state of emergency" declarable at his discretion, expand his powers to expropriate private property, and create the second formally "socialist" nation in the Western hemisphere alongside Fidel's.

"The measures amount to a constitutional coup," said Teodoro Petkoff, who edits an opposition newspaper. Certainly, they would prod Venezuela from an oppressive rule comparable to that of Mexico under its once impregnable Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) toward the dictatorial absolutism of Cuba.

Unlike other votes during Chávez's nine years in power, the referendum is not a foregone conclusion.

Overcoming inertia, opponents led by students have mounted a "No" campaign that has gained momentum. A general once close to Chávez has denounced a looming "coup d'état." Polls suggest the outcome hangs in the balance.

But awash in petrodollars - oil accounts for about 90 percent of Venezuelan exports - Chávez commands formidable resources. They are centered in the armed forces; a huge "nomenklatura" scattered across the federal bureaucracy and newly nationalized industries; the so-called "Boliburgesia" (Bolivarian bourgeoisie) of traders and bankers grown rich working the angles of a corrupt system; and the poor, whom Chávez has helped and manipulated.

Certainly, the oil money Chávez has plowed into poor neighborhoods (at the expense of an oil industry suffering chronic under-investment) has reduced poverty. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America said last year that the extreme poverty rate had fallen to 9.9 percent from 15.9 percent.

But more than spreading socialist ideals, Chávez has spread a form of regulated crony capitalism, dedicated to his greater glory, that makes much of the economy look like a house of cards.

Foreign investment has plunged, scared off by nationalizations. A huge disparity between the official and black-market exchange rates has encouraged all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes for favored "Chávistas" while erecting endless barriers to trade. Price controls on staples have made eggs unavailable. This week, you can't find chickens. Chávez's socialism delivers subsidized gasoline and glittering malls but no milk.

Latin America has been here before, with the disastrous import-substitution and highly regulated models of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the continent has moved on, but Chávez trumpets "growth from within," whatever that may be. According to the World Bank's recently released "Doing Business 2008," a ranking of the ease of conducting commerce, Venezuela ranks 172nd out of 178 countries.

Despite this, the country still does a huge amount of business with the United States, as its fourth-largest crude oil supplier and a big importer of cars and consumer goods. Chávez's "socialism," his depictions of President George W. Bush as "the devil," and his chumminess with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do not extend to cutting off the "imperialist empire" to the north. Chávez is too shrewd to sever his lifeline.

A possible conclusion from this would be that he's harmless - a wily barracks-bred buffoon whose leftist rhetoric is simply a veneer for a petrodollar power play. Perhaps that's why the United States - and Latin American nations - have been so muted, or silent, as Chávez tries for his "constitutional coup."

But Chávez's grab for socialist emperor status is grotesque and dangerous - as Fascism was - a terrible example for a continent that has moved on. King Juan Carlos of Spain got it right when he recently interrupted Chávez's trademark verbal diarrhea with a brusque: "Why don't you just shut up?"

Venezuelans should watch that regal routine on YouTube - it's even been set to music - and follow suit on Sunday.

Readers are invited to comment at my blog: www.iht.com/passages