Chávez Uses Natural Disaster to Grab More Power

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez greets people affected by rains at Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas. Miguel Guttierrez / AFP-Getty Images

For most societies, natural disasters are rare moments of national unity, when even blood enemies lay down their clubs for the greater good. But leave it to President Hugo Chávez to turn calamity into political opportunity. As torrential rains swept Venezuela in early December, leaving some 35 dead and 130,000 homeless, Chávez wasted no time in leveraging the elements to his advantage.

On “humanitarian grounds,” the man Venezuelans know as El Comandante asked—and on Dec. 17 won—the Congress’s blessings to rule by decree for the next 18 months. His plans, quaintly bundled as “organic laws,” go way beyond sheltering the homeless. “I have a battery of 20 laws ready to go,” said Chávez, now in his 12th year in power. Now Venezuelans are bracing for confiscations of private property, higher taxes, more state takeovers of banks and private companies, and a crackdown on foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations. He also means to police the Internet for content that may “generate anxiety” or “affront public authority,” according to officials.

Any doubts over Chávez’s intentions quickly vanished when the government announced a series of land takeovers. “Right now you are part of an army, of a collective ... that is going to liberate lands,” Agriculture Minister Juan Carlos Loyo, wearing a Che Guevara T shirt and a pistol at his hip, told a group of soldiers.

Chávez has never wavered in his design to remake Venezuela into an experiment for “21st-century socialism.” Technically, the unicameral legislature must sign off on major initiatives, such as creating new taxes and rewriting the Constitution. Yet since Chávez’s Unified Socialist Party and fellow travelers own 95 percent of the 167 congressional seats, that has never been a worry. And there is the genius of Chávez’s style of rule. With a patina of legislative legitimacy, the Venezuelan strongman has done as he pleases in this nation of 29 million, untroubled by public opinion, political opposition, or any of the other impediments of democracy. His new powers will only bolster the status quo. Score one more for the Bolivarian revolution.

And to think that just three months ago the Venezuelan government was in deep trouble. After all, the economy is in tatters, on track to shrink 2 to 3 percent this year, even as every other nation in the hemisphere but Haiti is growing. Inflation is running 30 percent a year, and violent crime is spiking; the country logged 16,000 homicides in 2009 (when Caracas stopped publishing crime stats), more than three times the killing rate in Iraq that year. Not surprisingly, Chávez’s approval ratings plummeted to below 50 percent. So on Sept. 26 Venezuelans went to the polls in a foul mood.

Chávez was not on the ballot, but he’d made a point of turning the election into a plebiscite on his government and heard a blunt rebuke. The fractious opposition united for once and took slightly more than 50 percent of the popular vote. But in the arcane arithmetic of the Bolivarian Republic, more is less. Months before the balloting, Chávez had redrawn the electoral map to give more clout to poor rural zones, where the cant of 21st-century socialism (and a sprinkling of government largesse) still makes pulses race. So even though government allies garnered less than half of the overall popular vote, they will still control nearly 60 percent of the Legislative Assembly, which takes seat on Jan. 5. In this way, Chávez wins by losing.

But the man who claims to be inspired by Latin liberator Símon Bolívar himself, and is used to playing Congress like a flute, wants much more. Hence the bid for rule by fiat, which will allow Chávez to bypass the newly fortified opposition altogether and reduce the Legislative Assembly to a chamber of winds.

Opposition to Chávez’s power play came from the usual suspects. “He seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers,” remarked Philip Crowley, speaking for the U.S. State Department. The Organization of American States called the decree laws “extraordinarily grave” while the Inter American Press Association and Reporters Without Borders also condemned the clampdown on the media.

But there was hardly a whisper from the rest of Latin America, where even countries that have rejected the autocratic Bolivarian brand nonetheless indulge Chávez’s bullying with a convenient silence. “We don’t exist for the diplomatic community,” says Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations. “There was so much outcry in the region when the Honduran president [Manuel Zelaya] was ousted from power [in 2009], but no one says anything about the danger to Venezuelan democracy.”

This is the fourth time Chávez has sought extraordinary powers in his years in government, and the track record is not auspicious. The first three times, he muzzled the independent press, nationalized private companies and banks, and ransacked farms as “bourgeois” enclaves in the name of 21st-century socialism. Now he is adding to the revolutionary oeuvre by cutting off foreign aid from human-rights groups (who have often been a thorn in his side), demanding that foreign banks pony up for a social-development fund, and halting public funding of all scientific research that is not “socially relevant” (read: government approved). “This could be the end of scientific research in our country,” says biologist Jaime Requena, a senior member of the Venezuelan Academy of Sciences. All this with a view to squelching dissent and plumping up Chávez’s war chest for the 2012 elections, when he will stand for reelection.

For a nation that has already lost hundreds of thousands of its most talented professionals to jobs abroad, including some 25,000 scientists, the new twist of the Chávez tourniquet will likely not stanch the wound. Chávez’s maneuvers may well revive his flagging revolution. Whether what’s left of Venezuelan democracy can also survive is an open question.