Power Grab

Thursday, August 7, 2008

ONLY NINE months ago, Venezuela's voters rejected President Hugo Chávez's proposed rewrite of the Venezuelan constitution. In addition to making Mr. Chávez de facto president for life, the changes would have given him the power to supplant locally elected governors with his own appointees, dispose of the reserves of the central bank and, perhaps most ominously, create a new "Bolivarian Militia" answerable not to the Venezuelan army's chain of command but directly to him. The defeat, followed soon after by embarrassing revelations of his support for Marxist guerrillas in Colombia, seemed to have a chastening effect on the Venezuelan strongman. He withdrew a provocative domestic spying plan and even called on the Colombian guerrillas to make peace.

But now Mr. Chávez has unveiled a package of presidential decrees that will do by fiat most of what the voters refused to authorize in the constitutional referendum. There will be no perpetual reelection or official declaration of Venezuela as a "socialist" state like Cuba. But Mr. Chávez's decrees would nevertheless radically tighten his grip on power: The "Bolivarian Militia" is back, as is a plan for a parallel system of Chávez-appointed governors with free access to the national treasury. As the economy continues to suffer from shortages of basic goods, caused mainly by his policies, Mr. Chávez has answered with a string of state takeovers of various industries and of a Spanish-owned bank. His new decrees reinforce this by threatening food distributors with imprisonment for allegedly refusing to produce or sell "items of basic necessity" -- which are to be defined by Mr. Chávez. Separately, citing trumped-up corruption charges, a Chávez-controlled government office is barring some 250 opposition candidates from contesting state and municipal elections scheduled for November.

After his referendum defeat last December, Mr. Chávez made contradictory statements. He said he did not want the "Pyrrhic victory" of pushing through his constitution against the wishes of the majority. But he also declared that he would not retreat from "one comma" of his plans, adding ominously "this is another 'for now,' " a reference to his famous words following a failed military coup he once led. Apparently, the latter vow was the one that he meant. His power grab is a backhanded tribute to the strength of Venezuela's democratic opposition -- proof that this tribune of the people actually fears them.


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