Can Chavez Resurrect? Dark Days for Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution

Article excerpt

Take a look at any wall or sidewalk in Venezuela, and you are certain to sec two images peering back at you--Hugo Chavez and Simon Bolivar. Graffiti, billboards, and posters lining almost every inch of open concrete extol the virtues of both Bolivar--a nineteenth century revolutionary liberator who lives on in the national consciousness as a mix of Hamlet, Napoleon, and George Washington--and Chavez--the Venezuelan President who has launched a "Bolivarian Revolution" aimed at promoting democracy, equality, and economic independence based on a socialist interpretation of Bolivar's ideals.

After years of popularity thanks to his strong support among the poor, the new decade has not begun well for Hugo Chavez and his dream of a Latin America-wide "Bolivarian Revolution."

On January l7, 2010, an outspoken Chavez critic was elected president of Chile, becoming the first right-wing Chilean president since Augusto Pinochet was forced out of office in 1990. Then, Manuel Zelaya, the deposed former President of Honduras and close ally of Chavez, quietly reached a deal with Honduras' new president and flew off in exile to the Dominican Republic alter a months-long standoff.

Closer to home, Venezuela has endured weeks of drought and rolling blackouts--the types of painful everyday problems that cause regimes to topple far more often than their well-publicized foreign policy failures. The opposition movement, energized by popular discontent, has become more vocal and visible. In response, Chavez has cracked down harder than ever on opposition forces. Already famous for his penchant for cloaking authoritarian tendencies in democratic dress, he seems to be disposing of all pretenses and simply governing as he sees fit. As The Economist put it, the wolf has shed its fleece: Venezuela is now within "a hair's breadth of dictatorship."

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Mundane Aspects of Governance

Though all of Latin America has suffered from the global economic downturn, Venezuela's oil-dependent economy has been hit especially hard. In crafting the fiscal year 2009 budget, the government estimated its income based on a projected price of US$60 per barrel of oil; instead, in November 2009 the price of Venezuelan oil hit a three-year low at US$40.98 per barrel.

As a result, Chavez has been forced to decrease spending on many of the generous social programs that previously buoyed his support among the Venezuelan poor and made him an international celebrity. In January 2009, for instance, Citgo, the Venezuelan government's Texas-based oil subsidiary, announced it would no longer be providing free heating oil to low-income families throughout the northeastern United States. More significantly for the population of Venezuela, Chavez has reluctantly curtailed popular programs like free dental care and access to education in favor of more essential government spending.

Cuts to the crucial social safety nets that keep many Venezuelans out of abject poverty have done nothing to improve the deteriorating security situation within the country. Venezuela now suffers from approximately 40 murders per day. The capital, Caracas, is home to the highest per capita murder rate in the world, and is plagued by "express kidnappings"--in which the kidnappers hold their victims no more than a few hours and limit their demands to a few thousand Bolivares--as well as violent robberies and corrupt police officers, even in upper-class neighborhoods.

The slums that ring the city, meanwhile, have become unpatrolled havens of violence. Whether out of incompetence or inability, Chavez's government has done little to address the mounting problem of basic law enforcement, instead preferring to launch well-publicized government safety programs that are aimed more at boosting Chavez's popularity than saving lives.

Worse yet, a severe drought and years of overuse and underdevelopment have decimated the national power grid. …