Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Same old Chavez

By Carlos E. Ponce

In the United States the government and the people celebrate independence with barbecue and fireworks. In France people celebrate with band music and political festivities. In most democratic countries where independence means freedom, celebrations occur and are regarded as opportunities to reflect on the virtues of their political systems.

However, in authoritarian countries like North Korea, Syria, Belarus, Cuba, and of course, Venezuela, independence celebrations are instead a chance for autocratic regimes to show their new toys. Regimes show how they wasted millions on weaponry to defend their countries against foreign intervention. Instead of health and education, these regimes spend their money on means to consolidate their own power and defend against often imagined schemes to ouster their government. Some countries celebrate with fireworks while others do so with tanks and repression.

Venezuelans celebrated 200 years of independence under Chavez tyranny and Cuban control. Hugo Chavez was so proud of his Russian purchased weapons, which he tweeted about with great joy—like a kid playing war games. Even though it is impossible for me as a democrat and a human being to rejoice at someone’s health problems, what we saw in Venezuela last week was the same old Chavez but under recovery.   Even with cancer Chavez remained the same cruel and despotic autocrat. During his almost three weeks in Cuba, Chavez still managed to keep up the repression.  When he arrived in Venezuela the police forces repressed a group of youth activists and the president’s “followers” threw rocks at one of the main opposition figures in the National Assembly and some students invited to the TV program “La Hojilla” (favorite and supported by Chavez) in the Government TV channel (VTV) were beaten until the bodyguards of the conductor of the program, Mario Silva, and the SEBIN (Government Police forces) were tired, the kids ended in the hospital. Chavez’s judiciary showed no sympathy toward political prisoners also facing health problems such as former judge Maria Lourdes Alfiuni.  It is the same bad government of the same autocrat.

Though Chavez amended the Constitution to suit his own interests, consolidating his power over the country, the leader does not know if he will last six months, let alone the 20 years he could still rule under the constitutional changes. He will try to stay in power until his death and he will do whatever is in his hand to do that. But Chavez has been always been driven by power. The president has been controlling institutions, repressing activists and opposition figures, and using his corrupt authoritarian base to remain in power whatever the costs to the country.

President Chavez has the ability to turn all the bad situations to his favor. He was a mediocre military officer who took advantage of the failures in the institution to rise to power.

A mediocre in the military decided to join the left tendencies and then he got a free ride and support from an inner logia in the army, a failed coup d’├ętat "leader" who said the right words taking advantage of a mistake from former president carlos Andres Perez inner circle and turned him in a celebrity, failures of former president Rafael Caldera, blind political elite and the ambition of business sectors allowed him to win the presidency, major riots and public demonstrations on April 11, 2002, took him out of power and then Pedro Carmona’s coup d’├ętat against the country and civil society and a failed “national” strike produced massive reactions which empowered Chavez and allowed him to return “victorious” and helped him to destroy any opposition allowing him to learn from his mistakes and rule for the following years , when he saw that he lost popularity he changed the electoral rules at the last minute so he kept control of the parliament; so he always wait until the right time to take advantage of any bad situation.

Chavez’s first two weeks in Cuba were the best opportunity for the supposed “external” and “internal” enemies to oust his regime. However, Chavez held his ironclad grip on power even from his hospital bed. Now that he is returned to Venezuela, Chavez is likely to take advantage of his health problem to curry sympathy, increasing his popularity with Venezuelans and the international community. He is manipulating his own health problem to gain more power.

After 12 years of intense micromanaging, his recovery from the operation and treatment will give an opportunity to rest and plan his next move. An invigorated Chavez will fight for his reelection while the opposition will be thinking that he is just a sick opponent.  They will remain fighting for an empty bottle instead of planning accordingly and joining forces against the leader.

As soon as the media attention shifts away from his illness he will change only the key elements of his cabinet to include his loyal inner circle in key positions. He extended the retirement date of his corrupt military commanders and he will appoint the vice president, among the most loyal followers and of course with a pro-Cuba orientation.  He will use his fight against cancer as an epic battle for consolidating his political control over Venezuela, a campaign to be played out as a great “soap opera” aimed to recover the love of his followers.

Chavez is a fundamental piece of the Castro regime’s efforts to maintain power. Chavez provides Cuba more than five million  regime provides more than 5,000 million dollars per year in direct subsidies, as well as several additional incentives, contracts, oil allowances, and payments. He is also a fundamental tool for other authoritarians in the region. The end of the Chavez era will be the end of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, the Castro Brothers in Cuba, and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Rafael Correa in Ecuador will stand alone as the only Latin American autocrat.

The bad news for Chavez is that he will not be here forever. He has an expiration date, measured in months or years—not in decades. Chavez’s revolution is self-centered, and when he leaves power, there is no one to replace him. Chavez’s political party consists of rent-seekers, criminals and groupies who will easily fracture once his party leaves power. There is no alternative leader to take up his revolution. There is no contingency plan. His international revolution is a mixture of low life autocrats like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and violent radical movements. His intellectual contribution is minimal, comprised only on old dogmas, quoted phrases, and fascism dressed-up to look like socialism. Noam Chomsky, his last intellectual supporter, has finally denounced Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

Perhaps Chavez will change, but I doubt it. History has shown that when authoritarian leaders get sick their repressive tendencies increase. They become more obsessed with power and less willing to share it. This was the case with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe,  Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen,  North Korean autocrat Kim Jong-il and even Fidel Castro, who has been fighting for his life for decades. They don’t have anything else to do and the best alternative is to die in power.

Only time will tell if Chavez will be able to continue micro-managing the country from his bedside to orchestrate a triumphal return at sometime in the future. If the opposition doesn’t react, even in the worst of scenarios we will see another five or six years of Chavez rule. In the meantime, the opposition assumes real leadership, plan for all possible scenarios, and keep up the fight for democracy. The worst mistake of opposition forces could make is to believe that the Chavez’s means he will be weaker in the next election cycle. For Chavez, there is no tomorrow after the presidency. His only alternative is to fight with all means to remain in power. His only option is to remain in power, but Chavez owns words predicted his destiny when Venezuela’s Cardinal Ignacio Velasco died due to Cancer: “I’m sure that I will see you in hell Cardinal,” that is the respect from Chavez to another human being, which is the respect that Chavez deserves.   

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