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Hugo Chavez Still Trying to Become President for Life

Guess what, Hugo? People still don't want you to be president forever!

Based on polling data obtained by Reuters, a Consultores 21 survey conducted in December "found 56.8 percent of people planning to vote oppose the referendum, while 41.8 percent support the change. In another December poll, received by Reuters from Datanalysis recently, 52 percent said they would vote against the amendment with just 37.7 percent supporting it." No amount of rubber bullets fired by riot police against student demonstrators opposed to the referendum, which would eliminate the limit of two six-year presidential terms, will change that. 

Banking on the theory of "if at first you don't succeed, try try again," Hugo Chavez has dedicated his efforts to cramming indefinite electoral terms down the throats of Venezuelans. But if he thought the revolt against his "reform" referendum was a swift kick in the backside last time, he'd better prepare for another blow next month. His desired Feb. 15 election date -- vote, people, vote, before the price of oil falls more and the government looks worse for sticking its head in the mud -- was approved last Friday by the National Electoral Council. 

Or -- and he may have been planning this all along -- he'd better burnish his absolute takeover plan in which he tenderly yet forcefully guides the ignorant masses into his vision of 21st century socialism. He reminded his captive audience in an excruciating eight-hour annual address (which he started three hours late) last week that the "Simón Bolívar Socialist Plan 2007-2013" was the law, and a mandate of his 2006 re-election. "We are implementing the first national socialist plan 2007-2013. This plan is a law passed by the National Assembly. We must remember that. This is a law." 

"I am the law" would have been a more accurate statement from Chavez, as he vowed "only people and time will drive me out of office." Only he must steer the folks not on board with the socialism plan -- namely, the opposition whom he accused in his address of cooking up fears of financial crisis even as oil prices have tanked and last year Venezuela saw 32 percent inflation.

But now he sees the deadline staring him in the face: 2013, the year he'd be termed out of office if he doesn't either get his referendum to pass or keep the reins by force. Dutifully, lawmakers passed the resolutions last week that pushed the referendum before voters. Six lawmakers were brave enough to oppose Chavez's referendum re-run, while five abstained.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar kicked off Chavez's talk-a-thon and reform-a-thon week by denouncing the "Chávez, (Russian president Dmitri) Medvedev and the Ayatollahs' system" as political models of "nations where freedoms have dramatically moved backward and they try to get united against free nations based on democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights." It's nothing less than "a political project based on an ideological renewed edition of the hardest-core Marxism intended to dismantle liberal democracy." 

Obviously. But what is Chavez going to pull out of his bag of dirty tricks to ensure that he's not humiliated at the polls like he was in Referendum 2007? 

First, he's kissing up to the administration in Washington, which appears to have been returning the favor. U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Caracas John Caulfield said he expected a warming in relations after chatting last week with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro about "the opportunity for a new dialogue ... between our governments from the perspective of a new administration in Washington." For his part, Chavez has lauded the selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, according to Caracas newspaper El Universal, and he expressed hope in his marathon address that Obama's arrival will stop the "meddling" in his grand Bolivarian plans. Though now the hot-and-cold ruler thinks Obama has "the same stench" as Bush. 

Next, Chavez faithful are doing the dirty work against the country's remaining free media in the run-up to the vote. La Piedrita, a Che-loving "humanismo socialista" organization, proudly takes responsibility for recent multiple attacks on Globovision (which made Chavez's bashing list in his snoozefest address), on one Globovision reporter's home, and on the daily newspaper El Nuevo Pais. In the run-up to the November elections in which Chavistas lost ground (including the mayorship of Caracas),  Tarek El Aissami, Chavez's interior minister, defended the militant attacks on the media by accusing Globovision of a "conspiracy" against Chavez. After the elections, Chavez opened an administrative investigation into Globovision's activities, assuredly trying to send the last non-satellite opposition news station the way of Radio Caracas TV. 

But what about that trifecta cited by Aznar? Never mind that Chavez and his Bolivarian buddy Evo Morales have been invited to a feast in Tehran celebrating "victory of the Palestinian resistance" (yes, Iran has already congratulated Hamas on its "victory" in the wake of Israel's unilateral Gaza pullout). Venezuela's $1 billion arms loan from Russia doesn't just ensure that Chavez can defend himself from the "empire," as he often claims, but supplies him with enough might to fend off international entities who may spring to Venezuelans' defense should Chavez begin systematically purging the opposition and forcefully pass his "reforms." That $4 billion worth of Iranian industrial development in Venezuela doesn't hurt in propping up the regime, either.

And if at first you don't succeed, then just buy more votes this time.

It's precious to see tyrants stick together, but it's more important to see how the Venezuelan opposition sticks together at this juncture. The polling that shows Chavez headed for defeat may not yet reflect Chavez's wholesale efforts to rally his blind followers or a stepped-up campaign of intimidation against the opposition. While bracing for a few weeks of hell, those brave enough to stand against Chavez's "Groundhog Day" referendum -- again -- will need to watch their backs (and invest in some good masks to protect against tear gas).