The Chavez Revolution

President Hugo Chavez has embarked on a sweeping overhaul of the nation's government, says Javier Moreno in Madrid's liberal daily El Pais.

Addressing the newly elected Constituent Assembly in early August, Chavez called for the assembly to assume emergency powers that would supersede the authority of the nation's present executive, legislative, and judicial branches. "What is occurring is a revolution, and it will be futile to try to avoid it; Venezuela is being reborn from the ashes, and no one can stop it," he told the assembly.

"Venezuelan institutions have ceased to make decisions in view of the fact that the Constituent Assembly has declared itself to be ... the supreme power of the state, and the resolution threatens in a dangerous way to paralyze the political system," Moreno writes.

With his supporters holding all but 11 seats in the new assembly, Chavez easily won a controversial vote "re-legitimizing" his presidential man-date. The proposed constitution would extend the presidential term to six years and allow him to stand for re-election, introduce new mechanisms for referendums and recall of public officials, and authorize a broader government role in the economy to preserve state control of oil and other strategic resources.

The Chavez regime's apparent shift toward a more interventionist economic model has heightened concern among business leaders that such policies will prolong Venezuela's deepening recession and exacerbate unemployment, which has surged to a record 17 percent. "Such statistics raise fears of a social explosion, which have been exorcised up to now by the promises and hopes inspired by the constitutional process among the most disinherited of the nation, the [poorest] 80 percent of Venezuela's 23 million inhabitants," Moreno adds.

Yet, the resounding success of Chavez himself in the 1998 presidential election and his handpicked assembly candidates in the July 25 assembly vote confirm that, "without a doubt, Chavez is just what Venezuela deserves," writes Rhona Ottolina in the centrist El Universal of Caracas. "After 40 years of underdevelopment ... where misery and corruption proliferated in abundance, we must not be surprised that the masses ... today feel avenged and rep-resented by Chavez. Now it is the turn of the people."

In Caracas's centrist El National, Anibal Romero cautions that Chavez's support among the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society "springs from the failure of populist statism and a yearning for the leadership of a strong and miraculous man who will lift them up with his indomitable will." That path will only repeat Venezuela's past mistakes in embracing protectionism and government control of the economy, he argues. Equally troubling, Romero adds, is the fact that Chavez's power depends neither on the loosely knit political organization that has taken shape around him nor the government institutions that he has charged the Constituent Assembly to over-haul. "What we are observing now," he writes, "is an un-equivocal course toward personalization of power, centered around the figure of a charismatic caudillo."