By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
CARACAS, Venezuela — If Hugo Chávez gets his way, he'll be calling U.S.
presidents "donkeys" and "drunkards" for another 20 years — at least.
A nationwide referendum set for Sunday could allow the colorful
Venezuelan president to stay in office indefinitely. That would let
Chávez, 53, continue reshaping Venezuela's economy in the mold of Cuba,
and follow Fidel Castro as the self-anointed lifetime leader of an
increasingly combative global alliance against the United States.
The consequences could be far more serious than the one-liners, clownish
antics and occasional gaffes that have made Chávez a staple on YouTube.
"Venezuela is going to be a big, big headache" for Washington if Chávez
wins the referendum, says Javier Corrales, a political science professor
and Chávez watcher at Amherst College.
Corrales says an emboldened Chávez could drive up energy prices through
his control of Venezuela's oil industry, refuse to cooperate with U.S.
anti-drug efforts and undermine the fight against Islamist militants
through his economic partnership with Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism.
In Venezuela, tensions have started to boil over as polls show the
referendum's outcome is in doubt. Clashes between supporters and
opponents have repeatedly turned violent, and one protester was killed
Monday. Using his trademark hyperbole, Chávez told a crowd of students
last week they could "save the world" by voting in his favor.
Critics fear that a "yes" vote would cement Chávez as a de facto
dictator and lead to more of the problems that have begun to plague his
self-styled socialist revolution. The economy is still expanding thanks
to record prices for Venezuela's oil, but there are growing shortages of
basic goods such as milk, pasta and sugar. The exchange rate for the
currency is so distorted that passengers arriving at the Caracas airport
are immediately besieged by black-market traders desperate for U.S. dollars.
Even some longtime supporters say Chávez has gone too far in trying to
cement his control over daily life. The government is "confiscating the
rights of the people," says Ismael Garcia, a member of the National
Assembly who helped Chávez regain power after an attempted coup in 2002
but now is campaigning against the referendum. "It's not democratic,"
Chávez says the changes will allow him to implement a centralized
socialist state better equipped to improve the lives of Venezuela's
poor. The reforms would remove presidential term limits, cut the workday
to six hours and make it easier for the state to seize private property.
"Communal cities" would be established under presidential control, which
could allow Chávez to ignore elected local officials. The president also
would be able to suspend civil rights in emergencies.
Venezuela's poorest people have been the biggest beneficiaries of the
health and education programs that Chávez has financed with record oil
revenue. The former paratrooper is counting on their support to stay in
power long enough to rival his mentor Castro, who has tormented
Washington for 47 years.
"I'm ready. I have the moral strength, the physical strength and the
will to continue with you at the helm until at least 2020," Chávez told
supporters last week. "And if the strength continues with me, and God
wills it, then I'll probably go on to 2027."
A year after calling President Bush "the devil" at the United Nations,
Chávez has begun to couple his barbed attacks with words explicitly
targeted at damaging the U.S. economy. After meeting with Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran last week, Chávez said the
falling dollar was "a sign the U.S. empire is coming down," and called
on OPEC countries to use the euro instead. His comments helped push oil
prices closer to $100 a barrel.
U.S. companies such as Heinz, AES and Verizon have been damaged by
Chávez's recent economic changes, which included nationalizing
Venezuela's electricity sector and buying out many other companies.
Chávez's office did not respond to a request for an interview. Saul
Ortega, a Chávez ally and president of the foreign relations panel in
the National Assembly, notes that U.S. companies still do billions of
dollars of business a year in Venezuela and says Washington has nothing
Unlike Castro's Cuba, where dissent is not tolerated, Venezuela is not a
police state. Media are allowed to criticize Chávez, although he shut
down an independent TV station this year, sparking massive protests.
Venezuelans are also free to leave the country anytime, something that
thousands have done in recent months to places such as Panama and Florida.
"We're finding our own path," Ortega says. "It's going to be a
democratic, free, prosperous, beautiful country, not subject to any
Visitors to Caracas are aware of the referendum's high stakes from the
moment they arrive at Caracas' international airport, where a huge 3-D
sign celebrating socialism hangs above baggage claim. From there, the
onslaught of revolutionary slogans and crimson banners never lets up.
"Nothing stops the revolution," says one sign hanging from a building
downtown. "Full-speed revolution toward socialism!" say signs in the subway.
Chávez's supporters credit him with giving them more of a share of
Venezuela's booming economy, which has grown about 10% a year since a
massive collapse in 2002. Poverty has fallen from 42.8% in 1999 to 33.9%
in 2006, according to Venezuela's census bureau, although progress on
unemployment has been mixed.
"The comandante has done so many good things for this country," Aura
Eslada, 54, a secretary who wore a red cap and a "yes with Chávez"
T-shirt, said during a march Tuesday. "There's no other leader like him.
The opposition doesn't have anybody better to offer."
However, María Elena Sánchez is one of many Venezuelans who are growing
frustrated by the economic problems created by Chávez's policies.
"I haven't been able to buy liquid milk in three months," Sánchez says,
standing in front of an empty cooler at the Sud-America Supermarket.
"This isn't supposed to happen in Caracas, right? The capital is
supposed to have everything."
Strict price controls on food items have discouraged companies from
producing enough of some goods because they can't turn a profit on them.
Controls on buying dollars, in place since 2003, have simultaneously
made it difficult for importers to buy abroad.
"Pasta, milk, rice, sugar, wheat flour, sometimes even salt is hard to
get," says Wilfredo Chacón, shift manager of the Sud-America. "Sometimes
all the deliveryman gives me is one box of 9 liters of milk."
A poll released Saturday by Datanalisis, a respected local pollster,
showed 46% of Venezuelans blame the government for the shortages, while
31% blamed businesses. Six months ago, 65% blamed businesses.
Some of the economic distortions border on the bizarre. Airline tickets
to and from Caracas are increasingly hard to come by because so many
seats are being bought up by Venezuelan currency speculators who can
make an easy profit by manipulating the financial system.
The speculators fly to nearby Panama, Aruba and Curacao, where they can
charge up to $5,000 to their credit cards and receive U.S. dollars in
return from local businesses. Upon returning to Venezuela, the travelers
then sell their dollars on the black market at twice the official rate —
making thousands of dollars.
"You can't get a flight to those places at any price now," said Eduardo
Ablan, a travel agent at Festival Tours in Caracas. "It's all because of
the black market."
Even some Chávez supporters wonder just how far he will go. "I think
health, education, that's all gotten better," taxi driver William
Batista says. "But when he says he wants a socialist state, I honestly
don't know what he means."
Wrong place, wrong time?
Even if the vote swings in Chávez's favor Sunday, he may not be able to
fully carry out his move to socialism, says Michael Shifter, an analyst
at the Interamerican Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
"Venezuelan society is too individualistic, is too chaotic and is not
amenable to those tight controls that he wants," Shifter says. "There's
a real difference between where he wants to take the country and how far
the country wants to go with him."
Chávez blames Bush for not opposing the short-lived 2002 coup against
him, and constantly talks of the threat of a U.S. invasion. Washington
strongly denies any such plans, and has in recent years mostly chosen to
ignore Chávez's rhetoric.
Chávez's continuing demands for higher oil prices and his suspicion of
U.S.-led trade pacts could disrupt attempts to form trade alliances that
could counter the European Union and China.
"He would like to establish Venezuela as an alternative to the U.S.
model of how to do things," says Terry McCoy, a political science
professor at the University of Florida.
A recent study by pollster Latinobarometro — as well as an outburst this
month by Spain's normally mild-mannered King Juan Carlos, who told
Chávez to "shut up" — suggest his influence in the region could be
waning. On Wednesday, Chávez said he would no longer have "any type of
relations" with neighboring Colombia, calling its pro-U.S. leader "a
pawn of the empire."
Venezuela's growing economic relationship with Iran is most worrisome,
especially at a time when the United States and the European Union are
deliberating more sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program,
Shifter and McCoy say.
On Monday, Chávez presided over the delivery of 200 cars built by
Venirauto, a joint venture between the two countries, to health workers
and local government officials. Iran and Venezuela also have cooperated
in producing petrochemicals, housing and tractors.
Whether relations between Venezuela and the United States improve may
depend on Bush's successor. Chávez has professed to getting along better
with President Clinton than "the Texan who walks around shooting from
Opposition leaders would rather start the relationship over.
"We are fighting for the future of Venezuela, for the world of our
grandchildren," says Garcia, the former Chávez supporter. "If in 10
years I have a grandchild and he sits on my knee and he says, 'Grandpa,
you were there, and what did you do with my country?' What am I going to
"That's why we're fighting this with such passion."
Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic