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Hugo Chavez

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Venezuela: Drifting Towards Civil War

“I am no Mussolini,” insisted Venezuela’s beleagured President Nicolas Maduro on television early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro’s rule are now in their second month, and around forty people have already been killed, most of them by the police. “Molotov cocktails” (fire-bombs) are old hat; the new fashion is for “poopootovs” – containers of human or animal excrement that are thrown at the security forces. Nobody knows when it will all end, but most people fear that it will end badly.

It didn’t begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who had led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.

He had strong popular support – majorities of around 60 percent in the 2002 and 2006 elections, and still 55 percent even in 2012 – and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 percent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.

The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela’s poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela’s income did too, and everything went sour.

Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world (700 percent this year), and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up by 30 percent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.

Maduro’s response has been to blame all the problems on the local business elite, who he claims are hoarding goods to cause shortages, and on the United States, which he says is plotting with the local opposition parties to overthrow the elected government. But plots are hardly necessary: he barely scraped into office in the 2012 election, and he would lose massively in an election held today.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro’s first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fueled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators were demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. It’s not even certain that the rank-and-file of the security forces can be relied on to defend him forever. So he has played his last card: a new constitution.

The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999. At the time, he said it was the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries, but on May 1st Maduro said the country needs a new one. He is going to call a “constituent assembly” to write it, although he was vague on how its members would be chosen. Some might be elected, and others would be chosen from “social organisations” (i.e. his cronies).

The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose, and this is the best he can come up with. It won’t work, because the opposition understands his game and will not accept it. The country is drifting towards civil war.

“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But in the longer run he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7. (“Maduro’s…today”)

Venezuela and Saudi Arabia: Sharing the Wealth

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans began the time-consuming process of validating their signatures on a petition demanding a recall referendum on the elected president, Nicolas Maduro. Food riots are breaking out all over the country, and the capital, Caracas, has the highest murder rate of any city in the world. Many citizens expect a revolution.

Half a world away, Saudi Arabians don’t have to worry about referendums, or indeed about national elections. But no Saudi Arabian citizen goes hungry, and the capital, Riyadh, has a lower murder rate than Toronto. And nobody expects a revolution.

But why compare Venezuela and Saudi Arabia? They don’t have anything in common, do they? Well, actually, they do.

The two countries have the biggest oil reserves in the world, and oil exports account for more than 90 percent of their national incomes. They have about the same population (Saudi Arabia 27 million, Venezuela 30 million), and more than half the adults in each country depend directly on the government for their jobs or at least their income. But one country is rich and one is poor. Why?

The Venezuelan oil boom started back in the 1930s, but very little of the money reached the poor majority. Saudi Arabia only started earning real money from its oil in the 1960s, and the ruling al-Saud family got very, very rich – but they did ensure that enough money trickled down to raise the living standards of the whole population.

By the 1990s almost every Saudi citizen had a decent home, ample food, and access to education and health care. Less than half of Venezuela’s population did, so in 1998 the radical ex-military officer Hugo Chavez was elected president and began to carry out what he called the “Bolivarian Revolution”.

It was really just what the Saudi Arabian regime had been doing for decades already, dressed up as “socialism”. Chavez’s regime created fake jobs in the government and the oil industry as a way of putting money into the hands of the poor, gave direct subsidies to those unable to work, and provided free health care and education for all.

Within ten years Chavez’s “revolution” had given Venezuela’s former poor the same basic living standard and social services that Saudi Arabia’s former poor already enjoyed. So far, so good – but then it started to fall apart.

Massive corruption sabotaged Venezuela’s oil production: it has more oil than Saudi Arabia, but it pumps only a quarter as much. More and more of the country’s heavily subsidised food ended up on the black market, starving the government-run supermarkets of supplies but enriching government employees.

Then the oil price collapsed, from $110 per barrel in June 2014 to only $26 by January 2016. It’s back up to around $50 now, but that’s still less than half what the Venezuelan and Saudi Arabian governments (and all the other oil exporters) used to get for their oil. So Venezuela is on the brink of revolution – but Saudi Arabia is not.

Every year Saudi Arabia saved a portion of its oil income, and when the price crashed it had $750 billion in cash reserves to draw on. It has run through $150 billion of that reserve since mid-2014, but it can probably keep popular living standards high until the price eventually recovers.

Venezuela had no cash reserve, and so the fall in the oil price meant instant, acute crisis. Chavez died in 2013, and his (legitimately elected) successor, Nicolas Maduro, has none of his charisma. Even if he did, the lack of any cash cushion made a collapse in living standards inevitable, and he could not now get re-elected.

The opposition parties won a large majority in last December’s congressional election, and are now pushing for a “recall” referendum that could drive Maduro from the presidency long before his term ends in 2019. He is resisting fiercely, and is even threatening to abolish Congress if it persists in opposing him.

The Venezuelan crisis may well end in major bloodshed, whereas Saudi Arabia is cruising through an equally big shortfall in national income relatively untouched. What can we learn from this remarkable contrast?

Nothing of universal signficance, but we can certainly offer some tentative advice to Third-World countries that suddenly get rich from oil. Don’t be a democracy if you can help it, because the corruption will be massive and the political perspectives very short-term. Have a royal family that plans to be in business for a long time.

The monarchies will be corrupt too, but the ruling families will keep it within bounds. They will redistribute the wealth as well or better than the democracies do, because it is in their interest to have satisfied, loyal subjects. And they will do long-term planning (like saving for a rainy day) because they think in terms of generations – their generations.

Not that they are really likely to stay in power forever.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Within…employees”)

The Combative Colombian and the Volatile Venezuelan

31 July 2010

The Combative Colombian and the Volatile Venezuelan

By Gwynne Dyer

On 22 July, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia accused Venezuela of allowing left-wing Colombian rebels to have bases on the Venezuelan side of the 2,000-km. (1,400-mi) border between the two countries. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, replied immediately by giving all Colombian diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, moving troops to the border, and warning that the US and Colombia are planning to invade Venezuela.

Both men are being thoroughly disingenuous. Venezuela at least turns a blind eye to the dozens of camps that FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) maintains in western Venezuela near the Colombian border, if it does not actively supply and support them. But why did Uribe wait until the last month of his eight years in office to bring this up?

Chavez’s behaviour is equally perverse. He detects an impending attack and puts the Venezuelan armed forces on “maximum alert” at least once a year – last year he even threatened to invade Honduras to reverse an alleged coup there – but normally it’s just bluster that blows away after a few days. This time, he warns that a war with Colombia would bring “a hundred years of tears,” but he really seems willing to risk it.

Uribe’s motive is fairly transparent. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, elected in May, is also a conservative politician, but he is widely seen as much more open than Uribe to a reconciliation with Venezuela. As Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva put it, “(Santos) has given signals that he wants to build peace. Everything was going well until Uribe made this denunciation.”

Very well, but then why did Hugo Chavez fall for it? He is surrounded by yes men, but surely there must be somebody left in his entourage who would point out to him that Uribe’s last-minute accusations against Venezuela are spoiling tactics intended to undermine Santos’s forthcoming peace initiative. So why didn’t Chavez just maintain a dignified silence and wait until 7 August, when Uribe leaves power and Santos takes over?

Partly because Chavez is constitutionally incapable of maintaining a dignified silence, but also because he is more vulnerable politically at home than ever before. Venezuela is in a mess, and Chavez needs a foreign enemy fast to draw the public’s attention elsewhere.

It’s not all Chavez’s fault. This year has brought Venezuela its worst drought in a hundred years and the huge dam that supplies 73 percent of its electricity has the lowest water level ever, so rolling power cuts black out large parts of the country daily.

The devaluation of the Venezuelan currency last January was ultimately his fault, on the other hand, and that is making even his loyal supporters among the poor really ratty. The Venezuelan army is arresting shopkeepers every day for putting up their prices, but what else are they to do when imported goods cost twice as much in bolivars as they did last year?

That’s why Chavez needs lots of distractions for the public, or maybe one big one that lasts a lot longer than his usual games. In mid-July Venezuelans were encouraged to follow the action on TV in real time as they dug up the great hero of South American independence, Simon Bolivar, in order to test Chavez’s theory that the Liberator had been poisoned 179 years ago, but that sort of thing gets old very fast.

So when Uribe made his accusation about Venezuelan support for FARC, Chavez promptly and deliberately misinterpreted it as a Colombian threat to invade Venezuela and overthrow him (allegedly with US support). The threat of war can keep people in line for years, as the Cold War amply demonstrated. It will serve Chavez’s purposes admirably, so long as it doesn’t slide into a real war.

But it might, because the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier is mostly unmarked, and there are armed bands of guerillas crossing it all the time. The Venezuelan armed forces may also be over-confident and eager to try out their new toys (Chavez has bought them $2 billion worth of Russian arms). But if it came to a real war, Venezuela would lose.

Drive east along a number of major roads in eastern Colombia, and an hour or two before you reach the Venezuelan border the highway suddenly gets ridiculously wide for a kilometre or so. These are emergency airstrips for refuelling and rearming combat aircraft, built many years ago in anticipation of a possible war with Venezuela. There are no comparable preparations on the Venezuelan side.

The Colombian army has been in combat almost continuously against well-armed local insurgents for the past half-century. It is also three times as big as the Venezuelan army, which has no combat experience whatever. And the oilfields around Maracaibo that provide most of Venezuela’s income are very close to the border, whereas all of Colombia’s major cities are far to the west of it.

If I were a Venezuelan general, I would be urging Hugo Chavez to do nothing that risks provoking a war with Colombia. Maybe Venezuelan generals really are saying that to him. But he doesn’t appear to be listening.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“That’s why…fast”; and “Drive…side”)

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

29 June 2009

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

By Gwynne Dyer

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has declared that any attack on his country’s embassy in Honduras will lead to war between the two nations, and I can’t help wishing that the Hondurans would call his bluff. The Venezeluan blowhard is getting tiresome.

In the first of the “Dirty Harry” movies, thirty years ago, Clint Eastwood achieved immortality with a single line. Pointing a very large pistol at an evil-doer (as George W. Bush might have put it), he addresses the miscreant, who is thinking about reaching for his own gun, as follows: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Hugo Chavez is more a well-meaning idiot than an evil-doer, but the question is the same: will he really go for his gun? The answer is no. He’s not a complete idiot, and his threats to attack other Latin American countries whose behaviour offends him (the most recent was Colombia, last year) always fade away after a while.

What provoked Chavez’s threat was the removal of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who had become Chavez’s close ally. Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military, bundled into a plane and flown to Costa Rica on 28 June.

Elected to a single term as president in 2006, Zelaya astonished friend and foe alike by turning out to be not the centre-right, business-friendly politician he had seemed. Instead, he began moving steadily to the left in his domestic policies, and linked Honduras diplomatically with the other socialist governments in Latin America.

There is no doubt that he caused deep annoyance to the conservative elite who have traditionally dominated Honduran affairs, but they made no move to overthrow him. Why bother? The constitution limits Honduran presidents to one four-year term in office, and Zelaya’s term comes to an end next January.

No other leftist candidate was likely to win the presidential election that is due in November: recent opinion polls suggested that Zelaya’s support nationally is down to around 30 percent. Even Zelaya’s own party was unlikely to nominate another leftist as his successor, and many of its members no longer supported him. So all the major political forces were content to wait for the clock to run out on him — until he started trying to change the constitution.

Zelaya’s bright idea was to end the one-term limit so he could run for president again himself. It’s exactly the same tactic that Chavez has used in Venezuela to prolong his rule indefinitely (he now talks about being in power until 2030), and Zelaya believed, rightly or wrongly, that he could make it work for him in Honduras. So he set about organising a referendum on the subject. It was scheduled for last Sunday.

Alas, the president of Honduras does not have the right to organize a referendum all by himself, and the country’s Supreme Court ordered him to stop. Congress also condemned the manoeuvre, but Zelaya plowed ahead regardless. When the army, obedient to the Supreme Court’s orders, refused to help Zelaya run the referendum, he fired the army’s commanding general and got his own party activists to distribute the ballot boxes.

At that point, Congress voted to remove Zelaya because of his “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders and judgments of the institutions,” and the Supreme Court ordered the army to intervene and arrest the president. It was a mistake to put him on a plane bound for Costa Rica, as that made it look like a traditional Central American coup, but apart from that everything was done within the law.

The speaker of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who has taken over until the November elections, insists that he has become interim president “as the result of an absolutely legal transition process.” Chavez and his Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and Cuban allies claim it’s a military coup, and insist that the United States is behind it.

Washington, which wasn’t paying much attention until last Sunday, has been bounced into backing Zelaya too, as has the Organisation of American States, whose secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, has promised to accompany Zelaya in a grand return to Honduras. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the events in Honduras as a coup, and for all we know she might accompany Zelaya too.

If Chavez decided to go along too, they would have enough people for a game of celebrity bridge, but all this posturing won’t change anything. It might be different if the next Honduran election were years away and there was time for diplomatic and economic pressures to wear the legitimate Honduran authorities down, but it’s only five months until the 29th of November.

So long as that election is conducted properly, other countries will have no grounds to reject its outcome — and Zelaya is constitutionally barred from running again. End of story.

Unless Chavez actually attacks Honduras, that is, but it is a long way from Venezuela and Chavez’s forces are not really equipped or trained for amphibious assaults or long-range air-drops. You can almost hear the Honduran soldiers muttering “Go ahead, make my day.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“In the first…for awhile”)