Venezuela: Trial Balloon--or Tightening Grip?

Venezuela's Chávez hints at a state of emergency

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez just can't get enough power. On May 10, the populist former lieutenant-colonel, who already controls the national legislature, the highest court, and regional governments, revealed that he is "seriously considering" declaring a state of emergency when he returns from a trip to Asia and Russia on June 2. The declaration, known as a "state of exception" under the constitution Chávez wrote himself, would allow him to shut the National Assembly and the courts, impose a curfew, and order the military to patrol the streets.

Chávez may simply be floating a trial balloon. But the fact that he is even considering a state of emergency shows he wants to turn up the political heat to make faster progress on the "peaceful revolution" he declared against corruption and poverty after sweeping to power in late 1998. Chávez has spent the past two years engineering political reforms that strengthened his power base and steamrolled the opposition. Now, Venezuelans want him to start delivering on his economic promises. Says University of Simón Bolívar political scientist Aníbal Romero: "It's obvious the revolution is going nowhere."

To be sure, Chávez still enjoys tremendous popularity. Some 61% of the public supports him. But that is down from 90% at the time of his election. What's more, strikes and demonstrations have been mounting by the week. In Caracas, people have taken to the streets close to 200 times so far this year to protest everything from low wages for teachers to rising crime. Much-publicized social projects to paint schools and pave roads, which are run by the military and Chávez' handpicked political allies, have been tainted with corruption. "People are very disenchanted," says Eric Ekvall, an independent political consultant.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's economy is hardly booming. True, high oil prices boosted gross domestic product by 2.1% last year. And GDP was up more than 2% for the first quarter of 2001, compared with the same period in 2000. But "the nonoil sector has been much slower to recover" from the 1998 recession sparked by slumping oil prices, says Alejandro Grisanti, research chief at Santander Investment. "Investors, both domestic and foreign, have been affected by the climate of high political conflict," he adds. The government admits that poverty is rising, with some 20.7% of Venezuelans now lacking money to cover basic needs. And capital flight is increasing. Economists figure more than $10 billion in assets have left the country since Chávez' election.

Would a state of emergency help Chávez achieve his ambitious goals for Venezuela? Many analysts think not. For starters, Chávez doesn't effectively utilize the power he has now. For example, he won from the National Assembly fast-track powers that enable him, until October, to adopt laws by decree without debate by legislators. But he has largely failed to take advantage of them. Instead, he has used the fast-track powers to enact only a third of the legislation they were intended for. He has not pushed through key measures, such as social security and land reform, that many have been awaiting. The reason, political analysts argue: Chávez can't govern. "It's chaos. There's no leadership at the top. All [Chávez] does is talk and travel," says Mark Falcoff, Latin American specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Since the government was run for decades by parties now in opposition, many officials surrounding Chávez lack experience.

While Chávez could close down the National Assembly under a state of exception, the constitution prohibits him from gagging the press or summarily throwing his opponents in jail. Some analysts think Chávez wants simply to quell unrest. "He could restrict the right to hold a strike or the right to hold a demonstration. This is a move of desperation," says Teodoro Petkoff, editor of opposition newspaper TalCual. There are signs Chávez might consider more extreme measures. In a May 8 speech at a plant opening, he declared: "If the attempt to forge a revolution without arms fails, what would come next would be a revolution with arms." Some analysts fear Chávez could resort to violence to advance his agenda.

So Venezuelans are left wondering what new surprises their ex-paratrooper has in store when he returns from abroad. Whatever they turn out to be, they are unlikely to make much of a dent in the intractable problems facing the country.

By Christina Hoag in Caracas

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