NEW YORK — Recent developments in Venezuela — work stoppages, increasing public dissatisfaction with government policies, deficiencies in essential services, a weak economy, the beginnings of military resistance — seem to augur dif ficult times for President Hugo Chavez. He is becoming isolated from most of the people who originally supported him. Unless he substantially changes his policies, Venezuela seems set for a serious confrontation between the people and Chavez’s government. This is a sad development for a regime that initially appeared to fulfill the needs and ambitions of the Venezuelan people, particularly the most vulnerable.
Chavez took power in 1998, with promises to reform a corrupt government and a chronically corrupt political system. He initiated a “political revolution,” increasing his personal power within the government and that of the government over its citizens. He assumed power with 56 percent of the vote, as opposed to 9 percent for the two establishment parties — Democratic Action and Christian.
He won overwhelming support for the formation of a Constituent Assembly hierarchically superior to all other public institutions in the country. But later he took the drastic step of removing congressional and Supreme Court controls over his own power. In addition, he incorporated the armed forces into the civilian sector through cooperation programs and the appointment of military officers to top government positions.
Chavez was the chief architect behind the intention of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, to cut oil production quotas to keep oil prices high. As part of an audacious foreign policy, he visited several foreign governments and didn’t hide his admiration and friendship for Cuban President Fidel Castro, who wholeheartedly supported him. Predictably, this lead to considerable friction with the Bush administration, climaxing recently when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell severely criticized Chavez’s visits to Iran, Iraq and Libya.
Since his government began, a gap has existed between Chavez’s intention to improve the economic situation of Venezuelans, particularly those with the lowest incomes, and his plans for achieving that goal. He became increasingly intolerant of criticism and adopted a belligerent attitude toward the press and the Catholic Church, calling the latter a growing national “tumor.” He has relied more and more on military colleagues and severed ties with several politicians.
As a result, massive popular protests have taken place in recent weeks, involving a wide spectrum of Venezuelan society. In recent days, Pedro Luis Soto, an air force colonel, asked for Chavez’s resignation and demanded that new elections be held in the country.
“We cannot say that there is democracy in Venezuela when the president rules over the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and the armed forces,” Soto said. His position is reportedly shared by several military officers concerned about the increasing intensity of the protests.
According to Capt. Garcia Morales, who was discharged from the military because of his criticism of Chavez: “There are 1,500 military officers from the Venezuelan Armed Forces who are ready to defend democracy. Our demand is that Chavez be persuaded to resign peacefully and that the country form a new civilian government.”
The atmosphere of instability has led to the devaluation of the bolivar, the national currency, and to a declining level of U.S. dollar reserves at Venezuela’s Central Bank.
Chavez’s popular support is fading fast. He has become increasingly alienated from the very people who initially supported him. His actions are raising the danger of either a popular revolt or a military uprising. Should that happen, he cannot blame anybody but himself.
His lack of management skills, failure to push effective economic policy and his erratic personality have transformed him into an unpopular president. Should he continue on this same path, he may find out, much to his regret, that he has become his own worst enemy.