Chavez Loses — But Does That Vindicate Him?

Hugo Chavez suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls for his referendum on dictatorship. He unexpectedly lost a narrow plebiscite that would have made numerous changes to Venezuela’s constitution, including those that would have allowed him unfettered ability for re-election and personal control over most of Venezuelan public life. But did he become the ultimate winner in this loss?

President Hugo Chavez suffered a stunning defeat Monday in a referendum that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely and impose a socialist system in this major U.S. oil provider.
Voters rejected the sweeping measures Sunday by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent, said Tibisay Lucena, chief of the National Electoral Council. She said that with 88 percent of the votes counted, the trend was irreversible. …
Chavez said his respect for the outcome should vindicate his standing as a democrat.
“From this moment on, let’s be calm,” he declared. “There is no dictatorship here.”

Well, not yet, and that’s due at the moment to this particular vote. Chavez has maintained popular support through a period of increased socialist operation and aggregation of personal power. He expected a ringing endorsement of steps that would have taken Venezuela even further towards a dictatorship, but instead found out that Venezuelans have limits on their tolerance for tinpot fascism.
Having expressed those limits, does this election vindicate Chavez? If the results stand, has he not shown himself bound by the electoral process and therefore no dictator? Chavez almost had a no-lose situation in this sense; if he won the referendum, he’d get even more power thrust into his hands by popular acclaim, and if he lost, he’d prove himself a democrat, at least for now. The only way he could lose is if he claimed victory in a tight election, as everyone would have assumed he manipulated it.
The important calculation for Chavez is not a single data point — one election — but the thrust of his policy over the long term. He has shut down media outlets critical of his rule. He has nationalized industries. Chavez regularly sings the praises of Fidel Castro and makes no secret of his plans to turn Venezuela into a Socialist state using Cuba as a model. If he is not in fact a dictator at the moment, thanks to the momentary intervention of the Venezuelan people, he certainly aspires to that status. And the Venezuelan people need to keep him from realizing that goal.
Chavez should worry about this, too. The blinders are off, and Venezuelans have decided to push back against the creeping dictatorship. Chavez can’t bully them into compliance, and anti-Americanism has reached its limit. Does he have any other tricks in his bag?
UPDATE: Fausta and Alberto seem rather happy ….

Chavez Threatens US Oil Supply (Update: He’ll Boycott Himself?)

Hugo Chavez, facing a potentially embarrassing defeat on his dictatorship referendum this weekend, has declared the opposition a CIA operation. He now says those voting against a potential lifetime presidency for himself will have cast a vote for George Bush, and threatened to cut off oil sales to the US if the CIA continues its operations against him:

A threat by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to stop oil exports to the United States has raised the stakes over a Sunday referendum he has called in a bid to expand his powers.
Chavez told tens of thousands of supporters late Friday he was putting Venezuela’s oil field and refineries under military “protection” and would halt the exports “if this (referendum) is used as a pretext to start violence in Venezuela.”
He accused the US Central Intelligence Agency of preparing to spread unrest during the plebiscite in an effort to topple him, and said if its operation was activated “there won’t be a drop of oil from Venezuela to the United States.”
The menace was an escalation of anti-US rhetoric Chavez has long employed, and highlighted both Venezuela’s pivotal role as South America’s biggest oil producer, and the parlous relations between Washington and Caracas. ….
The referendum calls for a scrapping of term limits for the president, opening the way for Chavez to stay on past 2013, when he is due to step down. … Changes to allow the government to take over the central bank and expropriate private property in the name of “economic socialism,” and gag the media in times of emergency are also being proposed.

Fortunately, oil is a fungible market. If Hugo Chavez wants to sell his oil elsewhere, we would buy ours elsewhere. It might or might not raise the costs, but if it did, it wouldn’t have a great effect on the price. Moreover, the type of crude Venezuela produces is more expensive to refine, and many nations would prefer to use the lighter crude available from other producers. Chavez may actually find his crude a little less valuable without the US as a trading partner.
The threat shouldn’t bother the US, where people already avoid Venezuelan-owned Citgo, but the people of Venezuela. Chavez has tipped over the edge of paranoia and megalomania, and this example proves it. Even Chavez’ fans among the poor have begun questioning his mania to turn their country into an homage to Fidel Castro, and his political allies have started to peel away from his spittle-flecked rants.
Can Chavez lose this plebiscite? It would take an extraordinary effort for Venezuelans to reject it. Chavez has all but called opposition to his proposal seditious. He told his now-friendly media that anyone voting against his referendum would be acting to further American imperialism and professing loyalty to Bush rather than Chavez. This kind of rhetoric should alert Venezuelans to the kind of dictatorship they would be approving in this plebiscite — where dissent equals treason, as decided by a man who already has not hesitated to use firepower to intimidate the citizenry.
If Chavez loses, watch out for the explosion. Most likely, though, Chavez will “win” this election regardless of how the vote turns out.
UPDATE & BUMP: CapQ reader Janna B reminds me that PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company) bought Citgo years ago specifically for its capacity to refine the low-grade crude PDVSA produces. In effect, Hugo sells his crude to himself, mainly because few other refiners can handle his product. If he cuts off the US, he’s cutting off Citgo, and there may be few markets left for Venezuelan crude outside of his own subsidiary.
Hugo may enjoy cutting off his nose to spite his face, but Venezuelans may not care to follow suit and dive into poverty.

It Might Boost Their Cred

After picking rhetorical fights with the monarchs of Spain and Saudi Arabia, Hugo Chavez apparently has more sparring energy to expend. He called out CNN for “instigating his murder,” seizing on an error on a recent broadcast as a signal to Venezuelan assassins:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Wednesday CNN may have been instigating his murder when the U.S. TV network showed a photograph of him with a label underneath that read “Who killed him?”
The caption appeared to be a production mistake — confusing a Chavez news item with one on the death of a football star. The anchor said “take the image down” when he realized.
But Chavez called for a probe in an interview on state television, where he repeatedly reviewed a tape of the broadcast, questioning why the unconnected photograph and wording were left on screen for several seconds.
“I want the state prosecutor to look into bringing a suit against CNN for instigating murder in Venezuela,” he said. “… undoubtedly it is part of the psychological warfare.”

The subtext of this accusation can be found in the faltering approval ratings for his latest referendum for dictatorship. Venezuelans have started to sour on Chavez’ plan for socialism and personal rule. Polling shows that his latest constitutional changes will fail in this weekend’s plebiscite — which means that Chavez needs to hit the anti-American paranoia well yet again.
CNN, meanwhile, has to be amused by the allegations. Normally they get accused of coddling dictators like Chavez. Their former VP Eason Jordan admitted in 2003 that he cooked reporting on Saddam Hussein in order to keep CNN’s offices open in Baghdad. A little dictatorial paranoia might do wonders for CNN’s credibility back home.

Why Do People Not Speak Up?

Jackson Diehl takes note of the undiplomatic smackdown delivered by King Juan Carlos of Spain to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez last week, but turns the question around. Rather than just applaud the king’s public chastisement in asking Chavez, “Why don’t you just shut up?”, Diehl wants to know why more of the world’s leaders haven’t spoken up against Chavez’ scheme to transform Venezuela into a Cuba with oil. Chavez will accomplish that in less than a fortnight:

Crude and clownish, si, but also disturbingly effective. Borrowing the tried-and-true tactics of his mentor Fidel Castro, Chávez has found another way to energize his political base: by portraying himself as at war with foreign colonialists and imperialists. Even better, he has distracted the attention of the international press — or at least the fraction of it that bothers to cover Venezuela — from the real story in his country at a critical moment.
In 13 days, abetted by intimidation and overt violence that has included the gunning down of student protesters, Chávez will become the presumptive president-for-life of a new autocracy, created by a massive revision of his own constitution. Venezuela will join Cuba as one of two formally “socialist” nations in the Western hemisphere. This “revolution” will be ratified by a Dec. 2 referendum that Chávez fully expects to win despite multiple polls showing that only about a third of Venezuelans support it. Many people will abstain from voting rather than risk the retaliation of a regime that has systematically persecuted those who turned out against Chávez in the past.
Venezuelans are not giving up their freedom without a fight. Tens of thousands of students have been marching in the streets of Caracas, and the few independent media outlets that still exist have been trying to combat the unrelenting propaganda campaign being waged on state-controlled television. Some of Chávez’s longtime supporters have defected, including the recently retired defense minister, Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who calls the constitutional rewrite “a coup d’etat.” The president’s response was to publicly lead a chant about Baduel that promised he “will end up before a firing squad.”

What will this referendum do that hasn’t already been done by Chavez and his handpicked parliament? After all, he already has the right to rule by decree. Chavez has wrested control of the main economic strut, the oil industry, away from those he sees as his competitors. Chavez also controls all of the media outlets. How much worse can it get?
Plenty. The new constitution would give Chavez control of the central bank and its reserves, making the entire Venezuelan economy his personal checkbook. He will have the power to unseat local governments and their elected representatives and replace them with whomever he sees fit. The Venezuelan Army will become his personal enforcers, superseding civilian law enforcement.
Where’s the outcry? Diehl says it’s nowhere to be found. Human Rights Watch has absorbed itself in the supposed abuses in nearby Colombia while completely ignoring the creation of a police state in Venezuela. The White House has distanced itself from Venezuela in an attempt to reduce Chavez’ influence in the region, and the Democrats appear completely uninterested.
Chavez has proven himself a shrewd analyst of global will to intercede on behalf of freedom and liberty. People may cheer King Juan Carlos, but they’re not prepared to follow his example.

Ernesto Is Not A New Man

Hugo Chavez has decided to direct his socialist crusade at some politically correct targets. He wants Venezuelans to emulate his New Man ideal, a socialist revolutionary ascetic, and he’s using tax policy to force them to do so. Taxes on art, cars, tobacco, and liquor aim to price sin out of reach for most of his countrymen:

President Hugo Chavez is on a moral crusade in Venezuela, preaching against vices from alcohol to cholesterol, vowing to curb whisky imports and ordering beer trucks off the street.
His government announced increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco on Monday, and Chavez also plans steep new taxes on luxury items such as fancy cars and artwork.
It’s all part of Chavez’s efforts to encourage Venezuelans to adopt the psyche of the “New Man,” a socialist revolutionary with a monk-like purity of purpose. Chavez often cites the life of Cuba’s iconic hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara as an ideal example — and complains that many Venezuelans’ values are not up to par. …
It won’t be easy for Chavez to persuade his people to shed their shopping-mall materialism and hard-drinking ways.
“If I drink my bottle of whisky it’s because I worked for it. I made the sacrifice and therefore I can drink whatever I want,” said shopkeeper Ernesto Gonzalez, 49, who gawked at Hummers and luxury cars at an auto show in Caracas where people sipped draft beer and pina coladas on the showroom floor.

Ernesto has still not comprehended Chavez’ brilliance. He works for the Venezuelan Socialist Ideal, not for himself. Therefore, he has sacrificed nothing and done nothing to earn that bottle of whiskey. Neither has he earned a trip to the shopping mall, at least according to the AP’s Christopher Toothaker, who denigrates shopping malls for no apparent reason in his report.
No longer will beer trucks ply their trade in Caracas. Beer may now only be sold where Chavez can regulate the sales, which would be in the stores. He threatened to send the National Guard into the streets to confiscate the beer trucks who sell directly to the consumer. They’ll probably be busy stopping the Hummer sales as well, since it takes a tank to block the big vehicles.
Other Chavez edicts for Venezuelans:
* Don’t douse food with too much hot sauce. Apparently, the New Man has a wimpy tongue.
* Respect speed limits. The New Man does the double-nickel.
* Eat low-cholesterol foods. (Is Mike Bloomberg a New Man?)
* No Barbie dolls for Venezuelan girls. Also, no boob jobs for teenagers.
So what can New Men do for enjoyment? Soon, they can give up their beer and bratwurst for Hugo Chavez’ All-Time Hits, a number of songs sung spontaneously which one of his aides compiled from his speeches. Even Chavez gave it a bad review, but at least it’s approved. Unfortunately, Venezuelans will probably require large amounts of highly-taxed alcohol to listen to Sing Along With Hugo (Or We’ll Lock You Up).

It … Is … Alive!

All of those Fidel Castro death pools will go unpaid, at least for now. The Cuban dictator appeared in a taped interview on state-run television, looking frail but clearly alert:

Fidel Castro appeared on Cuban television for the first time in three months since he underwent intestinal surgery in July.
In a taped interview, Mr Castro, 81, looked frail but alert and laughed off speculation that he was on his death bed after a long absence from public view.
“They say ‘I was dying’ and ‘if I die’ and ‘I will die the day after tomorrow’ or something,” he said in the interview.

The news will disappoint some who had hoped that Cuba could liberate itself after Fidel’s death. The Cuban ex-patriate community had heard rumors of Castro’s room-temperature status for weeks, but they turned out to be false. Instead, the dictator laughed at the speculation, having beaten the odds, albeit with a large amount of foreign medical intervention.
However, while Fidel still lives, his grip on power has not. According to a new book about Castro, he has already permanently transferred authority to his younger brother Raul and does not expect to return to office:

The new book Without Fidel, by CBS television correspondent Ann Louise Bardach, reveals that Castro has permanently ceded effective power to his brother Raul – not on the temporary basis that Cuban authorities claim.
It confirms that when the dictator disappeared from public view this summer he was undergoing treatment for an illness that is expected to kill him.

Fidel wants to outlast George Bush’s term in office, but Raul doesn’t appear to have the same level of spite. According to the Telegraph, Raul has quietly begun releasing dissidents from prison and looking to Vietnam as a model for emerging from harsh communism to open markets. He has even begun approaching the US to improve relations and to get assistance in transitioning away from Fidelism.
If true, Fidel may not just survive Bush, but also live long enough to see his work discredited by his own brother. That may not be a full measure of justice for Fidel, but it would provide a healthy sting to the dictator as he shuffles off this mortal coil.

Hugo Plays Hide The Salami

Michael Stickings provides an interesting comparison between the Soviet efforts to co-opt Europe and the tactics of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Using a model described in a British television series, Stickings calls Chavez’ slow push towards tyranny “salami tactics”. By going one slice at a time rather than in a rush, Chavez hopes to hold off any strong reaction to his power grab, and it seems to be working.
Stickings, who blogs at The Reaction as well as at TMV, can hardly be dismissed as a conservative with a chip on his shoulder regarding socialism. He is one of the few on the Left who sees Chavez for the threat to personal liberty that he is. At Heading Right, I take a look at Venezuelan salami and wonder how long it will take before Venezuelans — and Chavez apologists — start to choke on it.

Next They Came For The Schools

Hugo Chavez has progressed onto the next agenda item in his bid to create a new Cuba out of Venezuela. He has threatened private schools with closure if they do not teach their students to adopt his socialist vision, ending the independence of educators and taking another step towards indoctrinating children:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has threatened the country’s private schools with closure unless they adopt the government’s socialist ideology.
Mr Chavez warned all schools they must introduce a new curriculum this year that he said would help develop values of cooperation and solidarity.
Education had been ignored by past governments, said the president. But many parents are concerned that the new curriculum will spell indoctrination for their children.

One has to wonder when the people of Venezuela will say, “Enough!” Will it be when Hugo sends the state after their children? Or will the parents of these children simply opt to take the money they spent on private education and flee the country instead, taking their economic participation with them before Chavez bars any exit from the country?
What excuse will Chavez apologists give this time? When they came for the television stations, his fans claimed that the broadcasters committed treason. When Chavez nationalized industrial assets, his backers said that foreign companies had exploited the poor of Venezuela. When Chavez demanded and received dictatorial powers, his supporters claimed that he got them legitimately.
What treason have educators committed? What exploitation have teachers in private schools committed? How do they interfere with Chavez’ power to implement emergency economic measures for the poor? What threat do private schools represent to the people of Venezuela?
None, of course. That won’t keep Chavez’ apologists from offering a new rationalization for the new Fidel of South America. I just can’t wait to hear why educational independence threatens the well-being of Venezuelans. Maybe I’ll post the most ridiculous later in the show.

A Liberal Reconsiders Chavez

Jeb Koogler, a staunch liberal at The Moderate Voice, has defended Hugo Chavez for a long time. He thought that Chavez intended to help the poor and downtrodden and made excuses for his tough tactics as a necessary interlude towards a better society. He disregarded Chavez’ authoritarian impulses as unimportant in the long run. Now Koogler says he can remain silent no more — and wonders why his colleagues on the Left haven’t made the same decision:

The sum of these recent developments, combined with previous measures to stack the courts and the legislature, have solidified Chavez’s rule to the point where there should no longer be any doubt about the direction in which the country is headed. Chavez is pushing for dictatorial-like powers and there seems to be little hope, at least in the near future, of re-establishing any semblance of democratic governance.
Unfortunately, many of us on the left have been silent on this issue for far too long. While we have been quick to criticize our own administration and other foreign governments (think Vladimir Putin) for undemocratic policies, there has been a tendency to overlook the authoritarian governing styles of leftist regimes like that of Venezuela. For some reason — probably because these leaders profess the dogma of economic equality and social reform — many of us on the left have defended these liberal autocrats.
But it’s time to wake up and get our priorities straight. We should not be blind to what is going on in Venezuela. We can no longer forgive Chavez’s dictatorial tendencies merely because of his avowed commitment to the country’s poor. Indeed, it is a grave mistake to overlook tyranny or authoritarianism even when it is couched in the rhetoric of liberal reform and social justice.

The ends do not justify the means, no matter how noble the ends may be. Koogler realized this not long ago, when Chavez shut down the one major independent media voice left in Venezuela and finagled dictatorial powers for himself. The cult of personality, as Koogler accurately describes it, brings back memories of other tyrants who had to turn themselves into secular gods in order to cow their populations into acquiescence.
Koogler’s reconsideration is well worth reading. It’s not easy to admit error as Koogler does in this piece, and he explains his change of heart very clearly and rationally. The sooner that the American Left follows Koogler’s advice, the sooner we can start working to help the Venezuelan people free themselves from Chavez’ megalomaniacal grip on power. Be sure to read it all.

The Happiness Dictator!

Hugo Chavez will push through an end to term limits on an elected office in Venezuela, not coincidentally his own. The change will allow Venezuelans the pleasure of electing him indefinitely, which he sees as critical to his nation’s “happiness”, if not his own:

President Hugo Chávez will unveil a project to change the Constitution on Wednesday that is expected to allow him to be re-elected indefinitely, a move that would enhance his authority to accelerate a socialist-inspired transformation of Venezuelan society.
The removal of term limits for Mr. Chávez, which is at the heart of the proposal, is expected to be accompanied by measures circumscribing the authority of elected governors and mayors, who would be prevented from staying in power indefinitely, according to versions of the project leaked in recent weeks.
Willian Lara, the communications minister, said Mr. Chávez would announce the project before the National Assembly, where all 167 lawmakers support the president. Supporters of Mr. Chávez, who was re-elected last year with some 60 percent of the vote, also control the Supreme Court, the entire federal bureaucracy, public oil and infrastructure companies and every state government but two.
The aim of the overhaul is “to guarantee to the people the largest amount of happiness possible,” Mr. Lara said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Supposedly Chavez “only” wants to retain power until 2021, which would give him 22 years as president. He claims he needs that long to complete the socialist transformation of Venezuela, although he’s off to a fast start. He’s already nationalized the main technology sectors, such as telecommunications, electricity, and oil.
The plan calls for the limitation of power for local offices, including stronger term limits. Dictators cannot abide divisions of power, and Chavez is no exception. He wants to ensure that no rivals generate any sort of power base that could threaten his own. The less power the governors and mayors have, the more power Chavez accumulates.
Chavez also has a mechanism that will cripple these officeholders even further. Hugo has formed 20,000 “communal councils” that will have the power to distribute funds from the dictator on infrastructure maintenance and social welfare programs. The councils answer to him, and their distribution of money will solidify Chavez’ grip on the nation.
Hugo has done his homework. He has created a banana republic from a once-vital democracy. It would be impressive if it weren’t so depressing.