Chávez looks ahead as he faces serious challenges

Posted in Latin America | 17-Feb-09 | Author: Simon Romero| Source: International Herald Tribune

Chavistas, or supporters of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, gathered Sunday at Miraflores Palace after a proposal to lift term limits won approval.

CARACAS, Venezuela: When voters abolished term limits for President Hugo Chávez over the weekend, they handed him a long-sought victory, one that could easily embolden him to step up his socialist-inspired visions for his country.

And yet, major obstacles to that revolutionary dream lie ahead, in the form of sagging prices for the country's oil and a sizable opposition whose strength is not eroding. Chávez, a consummate political survivor, even reflected this in his victory speech, focusing on more mundane tasks like improving government efficiency and combating violent crime, as if acknowledging the criticism leveled at him during the campaign and the limitations likely to be imposed on any grand plans for the time being.

"This is a victory even for those who voted 'No,' " Chávez said Sunday night, in a nod to the country's opposition.

"He was in effect saying that in the immediate future, the government will not push further radicalization," said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela's Oriente University. "Lower oil prices undoubtedly influence Chávez's decision to follow a more cautious approach."

Time will tell if Chávez will moderate his platform and reach out to the opposition he has so often derided. But his capacity to evolve while in power is undisputed, speaking to the political longevity and instincts that were mulled over with a mix of admiration, bewilderment and fear by Venezuelans on the streets of this capital city on Monday.

"A Venezuelan has not been born with the character that Chávez brings to the presidency," said Ángel Torres, 34, the manager of a shoe store here. The global oil boom during much of this decade substantially bolstered his popularity and his agenda, which revolves in theory, and often in fact, around alleviating poverty. Since 2003, when Chávez asserted control over the rebellious national oil company, the economy grew by an astonishing inflation-adjusted 94.7 percent, or 13.5 percent a year, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington.

But the criticism of his consolidation of power ? in the judiciary, the National Assembly, the federal bureaucracy ? has been loud and persistent. Indeed, it was scrawled across the covers of independent newspapers here on Monday, which reprinted an old warning by Venezuela's founding father, Simón Bolívar: "Nothing is as dangerous as allowing the same citizen to remain in power for a long time."

Chávez also channels Bolívar, reportedly setting aside a chair for him at political strategy meetings and naming his revolution after him. But voters cannot forget that it is Chávez, not Bolívar, who is at the helm.

"We are living in a sentimental democracy in which Chávez seeks the electorate's affection, and, to the dismay of many us, finds his overtures requited," said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, author of an acclaimed biography of the president. "He's reimagined the country as a type of reality show," he said. "Guess who's the star?"

In Venezuelan politics, of course, no one comes close to matching Chávez's capacity for combining realpolitik with the ribald. Also in his victory speech on Sunday night, he entranced followers with references ranging from Bertolt Brecht to the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. "Today begins the week of love," Chávez also exclaimed to the crowd, humoring voters who had complained that the referendum interfered with their Valentine's Day plans.

Chávez had ample reason not to focus his remarks on oil prices, even if it is this commodity that determines the nation's fortunes. As Arturo Uslar Pietri, a towering 20th-century intellectual figure here, once put it, "Venezuela is not a country ? it's a country glued to an industry."

But Chávez has shifted that relationship. He made the oil industry front and center of his revolution, all at a time of soaring oil prices this decade.

The boom's evidence crowds the streets of Caracas. Imported Hummers guzzle some of the world's cheapest gasoline, less than 10 cents a gallon. "Boliburgueses" ? the new Bolivarian bourgeoisie ? shops at supermarkets where a box of Cheerios (yes, Cheerios) costs $43 at the official exchange rate.

But while inequality no doubt persists here, Chávez has also delivered to the poor, cutting the poverty rate to 26 percent at the end of 2008 from 54 percent in 2003, official figures show. In return, he is recognized as the indisputable leader of a political movement here that has been unable to develop viable leadership outside of Chávez himself.

"Everyone knows this would be a supremely messy process, and one which puts at risk the process as a whole," George Ciccariello-Maher, a Venezuela specialist who is writing a book on Chávez, said of the challenge of grooming his successors.

The question of how much longer Chávez needs to transform Venezuela torments his critics. Five million voters, more than 45 percent of Sunday's electorate, voted against his measure. Left unclear is how he will deal with these voters after a campaign marked by violence and intimidation.

But for now, Chávez's victory is a decisive one that could propel him beyond the end of his current six-year term in 2013. With an oil-price crisis looming, his loyal supporters among the poor are also pondering their future. "I'm celebrating the accomplishment of our leader," said Flor Hurtado, 51, a homemaker with five children. "But in my own life I'd like my own home, living the past 35 years as a tenant. I've written to Chávez asking him for a home, but I haven't gotten a reply.

"But soon I'll have my answer," Hurtado said. "Soon they will be calling me."