President Hugo Chávez seems to be burning more bridges than he’s building for the Venezuelan people. Flying to reelection with 62.87 percent of the votes in what was considered a free and fair election, Chávez crushed his opposition and made the U.S. Republicans’ recent “whupping” look like slapstick comedy.
As a result, he has wasted no time in setting the example for what analysts have been calling an era of a “new socialism” in Latin America. However, any hopes that a new socialism a la Norway, perhaps, would mean less state control and more free-trade capitalism than the socialist systems of the past have been dashed recently, as the world watches Venezuela attempt to set a radical policy standard for the mutable region.
The complete nationalization of oil, electric, and telecom companies is on the horizon, and foreign-owned businesses are far from happy with this development. Just last week, Venezuelan authorities said they would buy the assets of CMS, a U.S.-owned power company, for $106 million, and they also struck a deal with Verizon, agreeing to pay $572 million in compensation. AES-Corp., a U.S.-based global power generation firm, was told it would be offered $750 million. Caracas may not be seizing companies without compensating them like Havana did after the Cuban Revolution, but word of these nationalizations, as well as the passage of an “enabling law” by a pro-Chávez Congress that gives the president the power to rule by decree, erased a fifth of the value of Caracas’s stock exchange on January 8th, which has since been dubbed “Red Monday”.
Along with Chávez’s new power to legislate from the executive office came announcements that the Venezuelan Constitution would be reformed to allow presidents to run for office an unlimited number of times. It is expected that the state will also exert more control over the educational system, not excluding the private schools in the country, and curtail city and state powers as well. Even freedom of the press is now at stake, as an opposition channel’s application for renewal of its broadcast license was recently denied. Chávez is striving for and quickly obtaining absolute power, sparking understandable fears of totalitarianism and antiquated, Soviet-style communism.
It can’t sound promising to even the most left-leaning of liberals. But Chávez enjoys the fervent and widespread popular support of the poor, who feel that they finally have a President working for their benefit, one who cannot be bought by los ricos or pressured by los imperialistas. Certainly, Chávez is capitalizing on the sad truth that the United States is widely perceived as the worst of villains on the world stage, chiefly as a result of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. He has ignited a one-way-street war of rhetoric against the United States and has forged some unlikely and provocative alliances, Iran being the most troubling and extreme. Armed not with bullets and bombs but oil-rich friends and slick-as-oil insults, Chávez has called Bush a “devil”, a “donkey”, and a “drunk” and has warned Washington to maintain its distance. His reasons for doing so are probably more complex than what meets the eye, but undermining his own cause by appearing aggressively anti-American at the United Nations, which turned off the vast majority of Venezuelans who are politically moderate and harbor no ill will towards the United States, is a high price to pay for galvanizing the smaller numbers of noisy radicals.
Even more disheartening than what has turned into nothing more than obnoxious anti-imperialism, however, is that Chávez is beginning to look no different from the populists before him. Latin American demagogues are well-versed in the no-fail approaches they must use to gain the trust and support of the poor, and it will be interesting to see if Chávez’s recent dictatorial streak — and the falling price of oil — will outweigh the amount of political capital he possesses.