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.
Venezuela has insufficient funds to import increasingly scarce food and other necessities which it no longer produces in sufficient quantity, but Chávez’s acquisition of armaments to withstand the claimed U.S. threat from Colombia seems unaffected.
More recently, Chávez froze relations with Colombia, a move that was not well received by some. Chávez also claimed that he would halt the importation of ten thousand cars from Colombia. On August 7, an increasingly mercurial Chávez reversed course and sent his ambassador back to Colombia. During a televised conference, he said, “Go back to Bogota, Gustavo. Go to work, and you have a lot of it.” Chávez also denied any intention to sever relations with Colombia. It has been suggested that Chávez was gently reminded that Venezuela’s fading oil wells need lots of natural gas from Colombia to maintain the pressure necessary for oil recovery.
Most Latin American countries, other than Argentina — the birth place of many fine wines, Che Guevara, and Juan Peron — have not been much bothered by the United States-Colombia accord. However, Chávez’s symbiotic relationship with FARC, which continues although denied by Chávez, seems to concern even some of his allies. These concerns are being exacerbated by Colombian President Uribe, who has been touring other Latin American countries and giving leaders his dossier on Chávez. It has been speculated, probably correctly, that Chávez’s turnabout on Colombia was a result of President Uribe’s favorable reception in other Latin American countries. Brazil was the cornerstone of President Uribe’s efforts, since the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, is principally Brazil’s baby and although Venezuela is a member of UNASUR, Brazil has not yet accepted Venezuela into the Southern Cone Economic Zone (MERCOSUR).
Brazil is becoming an increasingly powerful country and is a natural rival for Venezuela as well as for Colombia. The United States is now investing $10 billion to help Brazil exploit massive hydrocarbon reserves off Brazil’s coast, which are expected eventually to transform Brazil into one of the world’s ten largest oil producers. This cannot be good news for Chávez, whose own oil production continues to decline.
Chávez cannot control the international price of crude oil (although he would like to); as it has declined much of the funding for his social programs has become unavailable. A cutoff of natural gas from Colombia would obviously accelerate the decline. Substantially reduced oil production during Chávez’s reign also has hurt. Chávez needs oil money to continue to provide bread and circuses at home; when he is reduced to providing only circuses but no bread, his power suffers. Oil funds are also needed to advance the spread of “Bolivarian socialism” elsewhere. However, inflation reached an all time high in July, and the unavailability of hard currency and dramatic declines in Venezuelan production of oil, food, and other necessities are attributable directly to his policies, which don’t work. One can hope that some of his acolytes may have noticed this.
Nor have things been going well for Chávez in Honduras, to which former President Zelaya has been unable for more than forty days to return, other than by stepping briefly over the border with Nicaragua. Here is a very good translation of an article in an Honduran newspaper, la Tribuna, explaining for those who don’t already know why what happened in Honduras was not a “military coup.”
Apparent failure in Honduras and at least modest support for the new Honduran government from Panamá, Japan, Taiwan, Peru, Germany, Colombia, and Israel cannot be pleasing to Chávez. Even the United States may be getting on board. A Department of State letter released on August 4 was remarkable in that it omitted any repetition of the demand that Zelaya be reinstated and for the first time put most of the blame for Zelaya’s current situation on Zelaya. It now appears that the United States will no longer threaten sanctions and that “whatever changes that come will be by Honduran consent alone.” Even President Obama has backed off a bit. On August 7, he said that although he continues to support the reinstatement of Zelaya, the United States cannot take unilateral action. “I can’t press a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.” Perhaps the reference to “Mr.” Zelaya, rather than to “President” Zelaya was due to a teleprompter malfunction; perhaps it was intentional. Meanwhile, the Honduran government has decided not to receive OAS representatives who want to come to negotiate the return of Mr. Zelaya:
The group’s mission was to try to persuade Micheletti to negotiate with international mediators seeking to return President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup on June 28. But in addition to insisting that he accompany the delegation, Insulza failed to include foreign ministers who might be open to “reconsidering our position,” the statement said, which “has made it impossible to hold the visit” now.
From the beginning, Insulza and the OAS as a whole have harshly condemned the coup and said that any solution to the crisis must include Zelaya’s restoration to office.
Honduras continues to prepare for its regularly scheduled November 29 elections, to which a dozen countries have agreed to send observers. Panamá is helping Honduras to plan a credible and rapid method to transmit the results.
It is impossible to hide the increasing severity of problems from those directly experiencing them. The culture of impotence, long prevalent in many Latin American countries, extends only so far and, as the people have to do without even the bare necessities of life, the limits of their acceptance of the status quo must eventually be reached. That seems to be happening. As it occurs domestically, Chávez’s allies are becoming more attentive to his international blunders as well.