A jubilant Chavez supporter in the Venezuelan capital Caracas
Venezuela on the brink
A new challenge to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez suggests an imminent showdown. There may be more at stake than the stability of the country's oil exports, Hisham El-Naggarwrites from Buenos Aires
The world is becoming accustomed to a Venezuelan crisis every few months. The previous one proved to be little more than a putsch. The current one has all the trappings of a showdown between President Hugo Chavez's supporters and opponents. For the moment at least, the military are not directly involved.
The precariousness of the situation stems from the fact that Chavez has lost popularity, but still has a strong power base, notably among the poor. Flamboyant, provocative and convinced of the constitutional legitimacy of his hold on power, he has no intention of bowing to his opponents' pressure and calling early elections -- a prospect apparently not contemplated in the country's constitution.
There is more to the struggle than a simple argument about what the Venezuelan constitution does or does not allow. In the opinion of many -- including himself -- Chavez has come to represent the paradigmatic populist leader. The role includes a generous dose of anti-Americanism, or at least a willingness to consort with traditional enemies of the United States like Cuba, Iraq and Libya.
Chavez's loss of popularity has more to do with the deterioration of living standards, especially among the middle class, than with his international stance. But the US is openly backing the opposition to Chavez. Indeed, the State Department has all but made the call for early election its own. The opposition to Chavez is wide-ranging. It includes broad segments of the middle class, almost the entire economic establishment, much of the church leadership, a portion of the union movement -- especially in the vital oil sector -- and a part of the armed forces. In a country and region where the poor easily outnumber everybody else, Chavez would be sitting pretty if he had the undivided support of the lower classes.
The trouble is, he probably no longer has it. Many of the poor have only become poorer since Chavez was democratically elected, largely with their support, four years ago. As paradigms go, Chavez's dilemma is perhaps typical of Latin American populist leaders these days. Increasingly, pure rhetoric is not enough to rally the masses any more, what the masses are clamouring for is a palpable improvement in their living standards.
Alas, the most obvious recourse available to a populist leader, namely "redistribution of wealth", is likely to produce disappointing results. Wealth in much of Latin America is concentrated in such a tiny segment of the population that even dispossessing it entirely would be insufficient to bring about the bonanza the population so desperately craves.
The key is, therefore, growth rather than redistribution, or at any rate than redistribution alone. Unfortunately, growth is a slow affair at best, and if populist leaders' "revolutionary" claims are to amount to anything concrete, they have to be able to show at least an effort at restructuring the economy root and branch in the short term. But such is not the sort of exercise populists excel at, it is far easier to have a go at rhetoric, red herring disputes and virtuoso showmanship. None of which Chavez has disdained. He has had one advantage over other Latin American populists: Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world and the supplier of 13 per cent of US oil needs. That has meant enough hard currency to stave off near-bankruptcy, all too common elsewhere on the continent, and also a certain margin for manoeuver in dealing with a cautious US which, however hostile to him, would rather not jeopardise such a vital -- and non-Middle-Eastern -- oil source.
This is why Chavez's opponents have chosen to centre the challenge to his authority on the oil sector. The experience of the putsch earlier this year has taught them that there is a part of the armed forces that is still loyal to Chavez, ousting him by force is impractical -- even if "the Free World" acquiesces in old-fashioned coups. But if they can bring the oil sector to a standstill, they can strangle his regime's lifeline and leave him with no argument as to why the North should put up with him much longer.
So far this episode has followed much the same script as the first stage of the putsch earlier this year. If the "anti-Chavists" have learnt from their mistakes, they will eschew any direct attempt to junk the constitution and try to rule the country by force. These were the very errors which provoked a reaction from a majority of the armed forces and put their all-too-enthusiastic foreign supporters -- the IMF, for instance, which all but welcomed the coup while it lasted -- in a awkward spot.
Chavez's opponents have gone out of their way this time to stake all on a "peaceful" strike with no military overtones. By making the strike open, the idea is to win a war of attrition.
Chavez, on the other hand, is unlikely to take it lying down. He has already emphasised that the call for early elections is anti-constitutional, and his own supporters from poorer neighbours have organised counter-demonstrations in opposition to the numerous anti-Chavists demonstrations calling for "elections now". The outcome is anything but a foregone conclusion. For one thing, the international scenario is more complex. Instability elsewhere in the oil-producing world makes Venezuela's oil particularly important and a prolonged strike most inconvenient.
Meanwhile, Latin American governments are reluctant to support the US call for early elections. In a region where not a few presidents have been ousted by popular pressure, what appears to be at stake is the creditworthiness of the constitutional process. Considering the effort it took to make democracy the norm and coups decidedly gauche, that creditworthiness may matter more at the regional level than the thirst for oil does elsewhere in the world.