The End Draws Near for Chávez

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By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Saturday, February 14, 2009

The beginning of the end is setting in for Hugo Chávez.

The authoritarian Venezuelan president is holding a referendum tomorrow on a constitutional change that would allow him to run for president indefinitely. Pollsters say Chávez leads slightly, but the election is mostly irrelevant. Barring an oil miracle, the former army paratrooper is slowly being undone by his economic mismanagement and corruption, like any of a number of populist strongmen before him.

Oil prices may recover somewhat from their current lows of around $40 a barrel, but not soon and not anywhere near the more than $80 a barrel that Chávez needs to stave off a major currency devaluation that would stoke rampaging inflation and food shortages. His is a chronicle of a political death foretold, an old story that ended in most of Latin America in the 1980s but that Chávez and too many Venezuelans chose to revisit.

There is a lesson here for the new Obama administration. It should not engage Chávez in public quarreling and certainly should not work privately against him inside Venezuela. Both approaches are a fool's errands, ones that leftover Cold War warriors foisted on George W. Bush during his first term. The clever Chávez verbally made Bush into a laughingstock south of the border and badly damaged hemispheric trust in the United States when the Bush administration seemed to endorse a 2002 coup against Chávez that failed.

Obama should merely ignore Chávez and let Venezuelans take care of him. Much is made of how Chávez is a troublemaker who has enlisted Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Cuba in an anti-American leftist alliance. Who cares? None of these small countries is a threat or wants to be. There is no Soviet Union to use them as a platform, and Chinese dabbling in the hemisphere is purely commercial.

History is also a guide. Two Venezuelan dictators in the past century made similar constitutional changes to be reelected, and both were overthrown a year later -- the last one in 1958, beginning the democratic cycle that led to Chávez. In 10 years as president, however, Chávez has been a poster boy for "illiberal democracy," using majority votes, mostly from the poor and uneducated, to gut the country's Congress and courts, shut down independent media, and nationalize many industries.

Chávez lost a similar referendum 14 months ago. For this coming vote, he has resorted to 1930s fascist tactics of fomenting insecurity -- and then rising in the polls. His supporters have thrown tear-gas bombs at the homes of opponents (and even at the Vatican mission), attacked demonstrators, and singled out opposition student leaders as Jewish, creating a climate in which a synagogue was desecrated two weeks ago. Now Chávez campaigns as the alternative to this chaos.

To be sure, Chávez has some genuine support. He has halved the rate of extreme poverty in a country that has long been badly run and cursed by the popular irresponsibility common to so many oil countries. With oil largess, Chávez built schools and hospitals for the poor and led the country in a consumption boom. But crime and corruption boomed, too, and he built nothing economically sustainable.

As Christopher Sabatini of the Americas Society in New York says: "The global economy is passing Chávez by, and sadly for him and all the leftists who saw in him an antidote to globalization, their Bolivarian dreams are about to end with the collapse of the one source of their power: oil."

Inflation in Venezuela is running at 31 percent, by far the highest in Latin America, and is expected to hit 45 percent this year. The official exchange rate is 2.15 bolivares to the dollar, but the black market is at more than 5 bolivares, a gap so large that the government will have no choice but to devalue the currency, which will cause local prices to rise still more. The government has enough reserves for the next year to continue subsidizing food prices, but that has caused food shortages. And the government is so far behind on payments to oil contractors that many have stopped working, cutting back production from the goose that lays the golden eggs. Oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela's exports.

This is a familiar picture. It has led to chaos and coups in Latin America. Chávez's opponents, many of them young, say they want to defeat him fairly in the next elections, scheduled in 2012. They may not have the luxury of his lasting that long.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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