Chavez Flails at Home and Abroad
As the troubles and pressures mount, the Venezuelan leader is more unpredictable and contradictory than ever.
August 12, 2009 - 12:00 am
Daily, as all but a few Chavista favorites become poorer and more oppressed, Hugo Chávez becomes more unstable, more dangerous, sillier, and probably less powerful.
Domestically, Chavez policy is “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” Internationally, he changes course almost daily, and at least a few Latin American countries seem to be gaining an increased perception of the loose cannon he represents. This may even be having an impact on the situation in Honduras, where the new government appears to have “won” and former President Manuel Zelaya — and his mentor Chávez along with him — appears to have lost.
There has been a takeover of coffee producers due to shortages; Venezuelan coffee production is now the lowest in twenty years. The main reason is that coffee prices artificially set by the government are inadequate to permit the producers to grow and harvest their crops. This affects small and large producers alike. This is important because Venezuela produces excellent coffee and Venezuelans love to drink it. This may assume an importance approaching even that of the shortages of rice and other foods.
Thirty-four radio stations were closed very recently and legislation was proposed under which “any person who divulges false news through the media that upsets public peace … will be sentenced to prison from two to four years.” The legislation was offered by the attorney general, who said it was needed because of “new kinds of crime that result from the abusive exercise of freedom of information and opinion.” Others among Chávez’s government ministers claimed that the public was “clamoring” for such a crackdown and that there was great need for “an appropriate protection for citizens who are left defenseless against the irrational use of power by the media.” Chávez’s minister of housing and public works welcomed the legislation due to the poisoning of society by opposition media and because freedom of expression should not be seen as “the most sacred of freedoms.”
Then, on August 6, the vice-president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference charged that Chávez was trying to “turn the country into a society that has only one ruler, one entity who has all the right and all the obligations and gives the leftovers to the citizens.” This criticism came in the context of the closure of the Venezuelan radio stations.
Suddenly, the National Assembly decided that the attorney general’s office had no legislative powers and accordingly could not pass such legislation. That articulation makes little sense, because such technical details have generally been insignificant in Chávez’s Venezuela — the attorney general speaks for Chávez and Chávez rules. More than likely, Chávez et al are pulling back a bit. In any event, the legislation is “no longer” on the National Assembly agenda.
Globovisión (which the Chávez government is in the process of shutting down) was attacked by a mob of Chávez’s “Red Shirts,” who invaded the building, set off tear gas bombs, and generally trashed the place. That’s nothing new; it’s what the Red Shirts, like the Brown Shirts before them, do. After the fact, however, Chávez condemned the attack: “Yesterday, something happened that we condemn, because what it did was give oxygen to the bourgeoisie,” he fumed. What had particularly irked him was that fingers had been pointed at him as unfavorable images whizzed around the world amid the immediate fall-out from the attack. “This act of aggression yesterday against a counter-revolutionary television channel, what it does is give oxygen to the counter-revolution and it is a counter-revolutionary act,” he declared with no sign of forgiveness towards his former companera. Giving Chávez’s Bolivarian socialism a bad name is to be tolerated only within limits arbitrarily approved by Chávez.
Chávez may be temporarily detouring around domestic problems in favor of stirring up international tensions. There are two obvious motivations for such a ploy. It may, at least briefly, divert public attention from daily hardships and focus it on phantom external problems. Chávez may also see it as enhancing his international image. It needs refurbishing, and bluster has worked in the past.
Based on a claim of threatened invasion by the United States from military bases in Colombia to steal Venezuelan oil, Chávez has announced the purchase of several battalions of tanks from Russia. According to Chávez, a battalion normally has forty tanks. Other weapon purchases from Russia are also being negotiated.
Chavez considers the U.S. plan “a possible step towards war in South America” and called on President Barack Obama to reconsider it. “We’re talking about the Yankees, the most aggressive nation in human history,” he told reporters at a press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace last Wednesday.
Only a year ago, Chávez said that Venezuela would welcome Russian military bases. He was quoted in the Russian news agency, Interfax, as saying that Russian troops would:
be welcomed warmly. … We will raise flags, beat drums and sing songs, because our allies will come, with whom we have a common worldview.