Friday, December 19, 2008
THE FUTURE does not look bright for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Last month, opposition candidates won control of the country's three most populous states and the two largest cities. The price of Venezuela's heavy oil has dropped below $35 per barrel, which is 40 percent below what the government says it planned for in next year's budget and less than half of what independent analysts say Mr. Chávez needs to sustain his heavy spending on projects such as the nationalization of domestic industries, purchases of Russian weapons and subsidies to clients including Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. Already, Venezuelans are experiencing inflation of more than 30 percent, shortages of basic goods and the world's second-highest murder rate. In less than five weeks, the inauguration of Barack Obama will remove Mr. Chávez's favorite foil -- George W. Bush -- and replace him with a president who may be more popular in Venezuela than Mr. Chávez himself.
What to do? Mr. Chávez could have moderated his policies and reached out to his opposition. Instead he is rushing to stage another referendum on a polarizing constitutional amendment that would remove the limit on his tenure in office. The self-styled "Bolivarian revolutionary" lost a similar vote last December, and polls show that only about a third of Venezuelans now favor such a measure. So why insist on this new vote, which could take place as early as February? Evidently, Mr. Chávez sees his opportunity to turn himself into a president-for-life slipping away along with the opportunity to lead a new bloc of authoritarian and anti-American states in Latin America.
In theory, advocates of democracy in Venezuela might welcome this referendum as a way to decisively stop Mr. Chávez's attempt to turn the country into a 21st-century Cuba. The problem is that elections in Venezuela are no longer free and fair. Mr. Chávez has turned national television into a state propaganda outlet, and the Miami Herald reported Sunday that the government spent tens of millions of dollars to buy votes in the recent state and local elections. The state election authority, which is controlled by Mr. Chávez's loyalists, delayed the announcement of his defeat in last year's referendum; reliable sources say the president conceded only after he was told by military commanders that they would not put down protests against a falsified result. The official results, showing the margin of Mr. Chávez's loss, have not been released.
Mr. Chávez's campaign means that the Obama administration is likely to find Venezuela in turmoil as it takes office. The caudillo has taken to threatening his domestic opponents with arrest or military action -- and both history and the polls say he cannot win this referendum without force or fraud. While any U.S. attempt to influence the vote would probably be counterproductive, Mr. Obama ought to make clear that any chance that Mr. Chávez has of rapprochement with his administration will disappear if he corruptly entrenches himself in power.