President-for-life in Caracas?
Next week, at the initiative of its President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela will hold a referendum on an unusually wide-ranging set of constitutional changes. “[C]entralized socialism fueled by oil” is how the International Herald Tribune aptly describes them. Consisting of 69 proposals in total, the changes would entail significant centralization of power in the presidency as well as a deeper socialization of the already comparatively socialized Venezuelan economy, featuring a new six-hour workday across the economy. Insofar as the increasing personalization of a Western Hemisphere government in one man’s hands detracts from regional security, the changes warrant attention outside Venezuela.
First and most radical among them is a measure to allow the unlimited re-election of the president. Under current law, two terms are the Venezuelan president’s legal limitation; the country’s still-quite-popular president will be required to step down no later than 2012. The 53-year-old Mr. Chavez would be eligible for life if these measures pass.
Removing executive term limits would itself be a major enhancement of the chief executive’s authority, but this change is also accompanied by several other measures that consolidate and deepen Mr. Chavez’s power. One measure increases the number of signatures needed for a president’s recall and effectively insulates him from recall. Another allows the president to create new administrative regions that override existing local governments and to install vice presidents to oversee these new regions. The central bank and its currency reserves are also effectively handed over to the president’s control in one measure. Finally, the president may declare an indefinite “state of emergency” under another of the measures.
The Venezuelan president is not some weak executive. To the contrary, the popular Mr. Chavez already controls most major Venezuelan media, the courts and faces few obstacles from a pliable legislature filled with his allies. Phone companies, the oil industry and electric power generation are all wholly or partially nationalized in state companies.
It is worth knowing that many, perhaps a majority, of Venezuelans currently oppose the measures. One poll by the firm Mercoanalysis shows that 64 percent of Venezuelans plan to vote against them. Another poll shows 51 percent in support and 49 percent against. Both would give the lie to a lopsided victory, if Mr. Chavez’s regime enforcers were to successfully engineer one. Even some of Mr. Chavez’s old allies in the military are openly calling the measures a coup by stealth.
The West must begin ignoring Mr. Chavez’s fiery rhetoric and condemnations. These are meant to deflect attention from the real story. Power in a onetime constitutional democracy and important Latin American country is being consolidated in the hands of a very ambitious man whose very evident goal is becoming President-for-life Hugo Chavez.