Saturday, February 14, 2009
A Bolivar for his Oliver
Hugo Chávez's time is up
If Venezuela's president wants to prove the Bolivarian revolution is about more than just him, he shouldn't seek a third term
* Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Friday 13 February 2009 17.30 GMT
This weekend, on February 15, Hugo Chávez has his second try at lifting term limits so that he can run for a third term as president of Venezuela when his second expires in 2013. This time he has cunningly added ending term limits for legislators, governors and mayors to the referendum to understate the personal element, even if he rather spoiled it by declaring the 10th anniversary of his election earlier this month a public holiday.
The Venezuelans convincingly elected Chávez, and it is up to them whether they want to see him haranguing them and the world ubiquitously and permanently on their TV screens. But just as foreigners watched bemused but resignedly as Americans re-elected Ronald Reagan and George Bush to second terms, we do not have to applaud their choice. Cheering every foreign leader who was rude about Bush has led to people who should know better to support Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic as saviours of the international proletariat.
Chávez is a more complicated case, not least since he has been blessed with such an incompetent and incoherent opposition at home and abroad.
One notes that Michael Bloomberg's successful attempt to overcome term limits and run again for mayor of New York has not yet earned him anything like the obloquy that conservatives have heaped on Chávez for doing the same thing. Too often the degree of political attachment to eternal principles is a function of the glue of partisan interest.
But on the other hand, one wonders what the reaction of the American and European fans of Chávez would have been if either Reagan or Bush had sought to overthrow the 22nd amendment and run for another term.
Conversely, it was of course Republicans still smarting from the New Deal that FDR had brought about who secured the amendment in the first place. While we may breathe a sigh of relief for both the New Deal and victory in the second world war that FDR defied convention with a third and indeed somewhat less momentous fourth term, there is a sound principle there.
The American-style executive presidency, like the constitution, is a fossilised relic of its time and place. In effect, the president of the United States has all the prerogatives and powers of a Hanoverian monarch – far too many, in fact. The tension between the deference due a head of state, and the default disrespect with which the media and others should treat any elected politician is shown at White House press conferences when the media actually stand for the arrival of the commander-in-chief and then metaphorically mostly fall on their knees immediately afterward, and maintain that posture thereafter.
As president, Chávez has amassed even more power than King George W and Dick Cheney did. For example, while there is a vigorous press in Venezuela, he has squeezed the opposition off the airwaves. Admittedly during the Bush years, it sometimes seemed as if that were the case in the US, but it was far from totally so. Chávez has appointed military comrades to positions throughout the administration and developed a finely honed apparatus of political patronage that makes standard US pork-barrelling seem almost halal. With the exception of the Gucci riots in the Florida vote-counting halls, Bush did not have the red-shirted cadres to take over town halls because opposition candidates won, as has happened in Caracas.
In the midst of the current economic crisis in the US, comparisons are even more odious than usual. But even so, Chávez has not prepared the Venezuelan economy for the bruising to which it is cruising. Social spending at home and vanity spending abroad, cheap oil for Cubans, London transport and American heating oil are all less sustainable now with oil prices plummeting.
Chávez has starved the state-owned oil company of re-investment and resources, and its production has fallen by a quarter while its revenues have been diverted elsewhere.
The Wall Street Journal editorialists and the like are far more concerned about Chávez using the oil wealth to buy political support and re-election from poor voters than they have been with other oil states whose rulers use the revenues to deprive the poor of both votes and handouts. Nevertheless, there is a problem. Venezuela's oil revenue made up over 90% of GDP last year. And most of the rest of the country's economic activity is devoted to spending the oil money, in services, retailing and distribution. Albeit popular, the choices that Chávez has made for spreading the revenues have not diversified the economy away from that dependence on oil - and its price.
With the referendum next week, rushed to beat the crisis, and then the election that he wants to run in, it is unlikely that Chávez will make the hard choices necessary. His manifestly messianic ego means that Chávez is unlikely to emulate the modest Nelson Mandela and step down while the going is good. With one military coup under his belt, would his attachment to democracy last an electoral defeat?
Like compulsory retirement, term limits clear the stage for new blood. The sophisticated choice for Venezuelans would be to vote "no" again in this referendum so that Chávez and his more capable ministers could tackle the impending crisis without worrying about his re-election and test the premise that there is more to the Bolivarian revolution than Hugo Chávez.