Life After Chávez

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, February 11, 2008

Is Hugo Chávez crashing?

It's hard to believe that a strongman who commands more than $40 billion in annual petroleum revenue, who has been granted the right to rule by decree by a rubber-stamp parliament, who controls his country's courts and television media, and who has recently spent billions on new weapons for his army could have much to worry about. Yet as Venezuela's president held a parade to celebrate the 16th anniversary of his unsuccessful military coup against a former democratic government last week, his own nine-year-old administration was struggling to pull out of a tailspin.

The trouble began in early December when Venezuelan voters rejected a new constitution that would have turned Venezuela into a socialist state along the lines of the Cuban model and made Chávez its de facto president-for-life. The self-styled "Bolivarian revolutionary" accepted the democratic verdict, according to multiple Venezuelan accounts, only after the country's military commanders told him they would not support him if the announcement of a fraudulent result touched off a popular rebellion.

Since then an increasingly erratic Chávez has dug his political hole steadily deeper. He shocked both Venezuelans and leftists across Latin America by publicly embracing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a onetime Marxist guerrilla group that long ago morphed into a syndicate of kidnappers and drug traffickers. Last week hundreds of thousands of people from Bogota and Caracas to Madrid and Tokyo responded with anti-FARC marches. Chávez then struck a bellicose posture toward Colombia's democratic government -- which only served to generate broad international sympathy for Colombia's conservative president, Álvaro Uribe, while once again provoking jitters among Venezuelan military commanders.

Venezuelans not worrying about war are increasingly obsessed with the remarkable result of Chávez's disastrous economic policies: worsening shortages of consumer goods and soaring prices, a combination previously seen only in such benighted places as Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Almost every day, newspapers report another addition to the items missing from store shelves: from milk, bread, sugar, chicken, eggs, rice and cheese to auto parts and over-the-counter drugs. A black market thrives; food is smuggled across the border to Colombia, while cocaine in increasing quantities is trafficked back to Venezuela. Chávez recently raised the price of milk 37 percent, contributing to an inflation rate that hit 22 percent in 2007 and 3.4 percent in just the month of January. But he also threatened to seize private banks, farms, supermarkets and food distributors, thereby ensuring that the investments needed to end the shortages will not take place.

Several years ago all this bad news would have had Venezuela's opposition rubbing its hands in barely concealed anticipation of the military coup, national strike or people-power revolt that would finish Chávez once and for all. No doubt some are doing so now -- notwithstanding the previous failure of coups and strikes. But what's interesting about Venezuela is that even as Chávez has grown more erratic, his opposition has been getting more mature. Some are even hoping that their nemesis pulls out of his tailspin -- so that he can survive to be defeated in a free and fair election.

"The difference is that the united opposition is not trying to overthrow Chávez but to build something for November 2012," when the next presidential election is scheduled, says Teodoro Petkoff, the longtime leader of Venezuela's democratic left, who visited Washington recently. "This is the long-term construction of an alternative."

Petkoff, who began his own career as a leftist guerrilla, is now, at 76, one of the foremost advocates of a democratic solution to the political polarization and growing civil disorder touched off by Chávez. As he sees it, the Venezuelan opposition has gone through three stages since Chávez took office: first plotting his undemocratic ouster, then sullenly and foolishly boycotting elections -- which allowed the president to install his followers in every seat of Congress and 23 of the 24 state governorships.

Now, boosted by the defeat of the constitution -- which it, too, did not expect -- the opposition at last is focusing on elections, beginning with November's rerun of the governors. Unified opposition candidates and platforms are planned; Petkoff thinks there's a chance the anti-Chávez forces could take power in Caracas and up to seven other states. That would probably be a fatal blow to Chávez's lingering hopes of converting Venezuela into a Cuba -- and a first step toward electing a different president in 2012.

The challenge, Petkoff says, is not to push Chávez over the brink on which he and the country teeter, but "to create a force capable of governing. Because I suspect the post-Chávez era in Venezuela is going to be a very traumatic period." That will be true whether Chávez's exit is peaceful or fiery, but an opposition that waits, and banks on democracy, will have a better chance to heal.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company