Venezuelan democracy looks alive, despite doubts
Wed Aug 16, 2006 8:09 AM ET
By Terry Wade
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Listen to the White House and one might think President Hugo Chavez has turned oil-rich Venezuela into a totalitarian state like Cuba, lacking a free press, freedom of speech and multi-party elections.
Despite the United States' rhetoric against Chavez, elements of democracy are easy to see in Venezuela, political scientists say. But they warn that a drop in oil prices would change the country's political dynamic and could prompt Chavez to become more repressive.
A vigorous local press now frequently lambastes Chavez, berating him for buying billions of dollars in weapons from Russia or accusing him of giving away huge quantities of oil to foreign allies. Newspapers run the gamut of political opinion.
Voter registration has risen sharply, the government says, as it brings people -- often poor -- into the political system who never before exercised their right to vote.
Chavez has called for a social revolution in Venezuela, and the government has an incentive to sign up the poor as most of them will vote for Chavez to thank him for his generous social programs, analysts say. But enabling people to cast ballots is widely viewed as fundamental to democracy.
Sky-high oil prices have made it easier for Chavez to fund campaign pledges to fight poverty. That reciprocity between voters and elected officials is also viewed as a cornerstone of democracy -- and has kept his popularity above 50 percent.
"The system is more democratic than many people believe, though that could change in the future," said Thad Dunning, assistant professor of political science at Yale University who does research in Caracas.
The country's 1999 constitution has at times made Chavez vulnerable, although it also broadened his powers. The constitution allows citizens to petition for a referendum to keep or fire the sitting president.
In 2004, Chavez survived a referendum to depose him. After stalling, he won his third election in a vote international observers called clean though the opposition cried foul.
A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY?
To be sure, critics say Chavez has populist tendencies and sometimes has shown an urge to centralize power. He has ridiculed the opposition press and threatened to close TV stations under a new law that could be used to quash dissent.
Opponents say he stacked the supreme court, the electoral authority, the state oil company and central bank with allies.
The European Union and Organization of American States have denounced officials for using voter data to fire state workers who signed a petition for a referendum against Chavez.
Chavez' foreign policy includes visiting Iran, forging close ties to Cuba and jousting verbally with the White House.
President Bush has called Chavez a threat to democracy. But political scientists say the biggest recent threat to democracy in Venezuela was a failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.
In the domestic sphere, Chavez's revolutionary rhetoric has mostly translated into social spending for the impoverished. Chavez, a flamboyant speaker first elected in 1998, funds programs for cheap food, literacy and healthcare.
In the financial world, he has faithfully paid foreign and local lenders.
Unlike previous socialist regimes around the world, the rich have not been forced to leave the country. Thousands fled revolutions in China and Cuba, fearing political violence.
Wealthy Venezuelans are enjoying the current economic boom, driving big cars, wearing fancy jewelry and living in luxurious homes surrounded by the verdant hills of tropical Caracas.
POLITICAL FALLOUT FROM DROP IN OIL PRICES
Still, tensions between the rich and poor could intensify, analysts say, if oil prices drop from record levels.
"The big question is what Chavez would do," said Pedro Palma, economist and lecturer at the IESA business school in Caracas. "There could be a very dramatic crisis."
Businesses owned by the rich could suffer and, lacking windfall profits from oil exports, Chavez might be forced to cut back on generous social programs or raise unpopular taxes to keep them going.
In that case, Chavez -- who is widely expected to defeat a splintered opposition in December and win re-election to a six-year term -- might evolve to become more hard-line.
His power grew last year when an opposition boycott of parliamentary elections handed Chavistas all seats in Congress.
"I think that if petroleum prices decline then authoritarianism will increase because the government would have to repress demands from the poor," Eduardo Fernandez, a former presidential candidate, told Reuters.
"It is sad that there is no viable alternative to Chavez because you end up with an unbalanced political system."