Pres­i­dent-for-life in Cara­cas?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

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.

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