This ought to be a time of triumph for Hugo Chávez,Venezuela’s self-proclaimed “21st-century socialist”. As he marks ten years in power this week,what he calls “savage capitalism” is wounded and seemingly at bay while his would-be nemesis,George Bush,has departed the White House. On February 15th Mr Chávez hopes to win a referendum that would remove all political term limits,a first step to realising his modest ambition to remain in power until at least 2030. In fact,neither Venezuelans nor their leader have much to celebrate.
Mr Chávez’s supporters-and it has to be recognised that these have until recently numbered around 60% of Venezuelan voters-claim that he has transformed his country for the better by empowering the poorer and darker-skinned among its citizens. Social “missions”,some of them staffed by Cubans,are said to have improved the provision of health,education and vocational training,as well as offering cheap food. But it is hard to assess the truth of these claims: strangely,openness and accountability have no place in “21st-century socialism”. Mr Chávez may not-yet-be a dictator,as some of his opponents aver,but he is an autocrat. The “defining features” of his Venezuela,according to a report last year by Human Rights Watch,a pressure group,include “discrimination on political grounds” and his government’s takeover of the judiciary.
Another is its increased dependence on oil. The fall in poverty owes everything to the surge in the oil price since 1999. Mr Chávez has harried private business; millions more Venezuelans depend on the state for jobs and handouts than a decade ago. The motor of economic growth has been public spending. The state oil company,run now as a political project,produces around a quarter less oil than it did a decade ago,while its debt has almost doubled.
The fall in the oil price,if sustained,thus threatens the country with savage socialist pain. So far Venezuelans have not felt this,because Mr Chávez has raided the reserves of the Central Bank. But the haste with which he has organised the referendum speaks of desperation. There were already signs that Venezuelans were starting to tire of their leader. In December 2007 they rejected his first attempt to abolish term limits (and to modify the constitution in a quasi-totalitarian direction). In local elections last November,Mr Chávez’s supporters won a narrow majority but the opposition made important gains.
The danger that consent is replaced by thuggery
This time Mr Chávez has gilded the question by proposing to abolish term limits for mayors and state governors too. He is also making life harder for the opposition. A quasi-fascist undercurrent within his regime is becoming visible: there was even an attack on a Caracas synagogue last month,though officials eventually condemned it.
Just as the oil price puffed up Mr Chávez over the past few years,now it is diminishing him. His ambition to sponsor a continental movement of radical leftists is being crimped as the money runs short. Even if he wins the referendum,he will face growing discontent at home as the economy moves into recession and inflation rises. His way of governing is plebiscitarian: almost every year in the past decade Venezuelans have been asked to vote in ballots that the president has turned into a referendum on himself,and whose outcome he has then taken as a blank cheque. Without the oil windfall,a majority of Venezuelans are likely to withdraw their consent. If and when that happens,the risk will be that Mr Chávez resorts to bullying to stay in power. Left-of-centre governments elsewhere in Latin America,which have been overenthusiastic in embracing him,must try to ensure that doesn’t happen.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008