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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chavez's Heavy Hand




Venezuela is going through a revolution of sorts. Its president, Hugo Chavez, freely elected and wildly popular, is determined to transform his country's political system. But he is moving in a direction that bears scant resemblance to the kind of democratic system that most analysts expected would characterize Latin America at the end of the millennium. Venezuela, with its ambiguous, hybrid features - part democratic, part authoritarian - may become more the rule than the exception in Latin America.


The failure of democratic institutions to satisfy citizens' demands for economic advance, social justice, political participation and personal security may be leading to governmental systems largely devoid of checks and balances. Such a tendency is easy to discern in Venezuela, and there are signs in other countries, Peru especially, that the growth of unconstrained political power may be gaining ground.


Venezuela's old order, corrupt and thoroughly discredited, is, by all accounts, finished. It is striking that the Constituent Assembly, elected in July to rewrite the constitution, does not have a single representative identified with the two political parties that dominated Venezuelan politics for 50 years. More than 96 percent of the Assembly's members back Chavez.


The contours of the new order are murky, however. There is considerable risk that Venezuelans will succumb to a nihilistic, "now it's our turn" mentality by sweeping out the old without worrying too much about what should replace it. Most are cheering Chavez on. With a popularity rating of some 70 percent, he enjoys the highest level of support of any leader in the hemisphere. The reasons are hardly mysterious. In the '80s and '90s, oil-rich Venezuela - the third-largest oil producer in the world and the major supplier to the United States - suffered through two decades of poor economic performance and mismanagement. The country's per-capita national income declined by a stunning 40 percent during this period.


Venezuelans overwhelmingly believe that their country's economic and political elites have robbed them of their fair share of national wealth. It's hard to overstate their pent-up anger and resentment. Chavez is the symbol and beneficiary of these emotions.


He has become the alternative to a patronage-driven system that collapsed under its own weight. For Chavez, Venezuelans' disgust at the prevailing system justified drastic action, using whatever means necessary. Eventually, he opted for the electoral route.


Since April 1998, when Chavez began his steady rise in public opinion polls, it has been clear that his message and personality are enormously attractive to Venezuelans. He was resoundingly elected president last December. Since taking office in February, he has preparedthe ground to dismantle the bankrupt political system.


The Constituent Assembly is his chosen vehicle. Already, it has sharply and substantially limited the authority of the country's judicial system and Congress. Chavez supporters in the Assembly threatened to do the same with governors, local officials and even the country's unions. They pulled back when the Catholic Church stepped in to defuse the institutional crisis. But the Assembly's actions only deepened tensions and heightened political polarization.


Chavez is bent on concentrating power in himself - and he is for the most part succeeding. Emergency conditions, he says, justify his strategy. The country's traditional institutions are hopelessly ineffectual. The one exception is the military, to which he has assigned an increasingly leading role, including carrying out certain national development tasks.


The former lieutenant colonel has appointed many of his military colleagues - some joined his unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 - to key government posts. Because his support in the Assembly is diffuse and heterogeneous, Chavez has come to rely more and more on the military. The result could be a more politicized military, a development that would defy a key tenet of Latin American democracy. Chavez's moves are soaked in irony. By systematically concentrating power in himself, the Venezuelan leader's new political system could be more vulnerable to corruption and abuse than the old. Indeed, in the name of reform or even "revolution," Chavez may make such an outcome unavoidable. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Chavez's ability to ride his country's tidal wave of public anger. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, in office since 1990, continues to trade on his country's deep-seated political and economic crises of the late 1980s and the public's continuing rejection of traditional leaders and parties. Fujimori is attempting to organize for his second re-election next April, and Chavez has proposed a provision for consecutive re-election in Venezuela's new constitution.


Most observers believe that Chavez will be able to sustain himself politically because of rising oil prices. The trend in prices is indeed favorable. But his decision Aug. 31 to replace a highly respected professional with a political ally as the head of Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company, doesn't bode well for continued sound performance. The move stirred a furor in business circles and put an even deeper dent in investor confidence.


Chavez is center stage in Latin America's politics. Although his significance for the region remains unclear, his governing style may presage a wider return to an authoritarianism built on mass appeal.


Michael Shifter teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.