As the Venezuelan regional elections draw near, Hugo Chavez finds his party’s support waning in the polls and increasing grumbling among voters and in the military. Venezuelans are pleased with relative economic prosperity brought by the high price of oil, but are frustrated with massive government corruption, Chavez’ increasingly bizarre behavior and irrational hostility to the United States and the bully tactics of Chavista thugs who regularly threaten and intimidate opposition politicians and reporters. Since his defeat in an effort to extend the term of his presidency indefinitely last year, Chavez has attempted to tighten control on the country with presidential edicts which violate even his hand-crafted constitution and have made citizens very worried about their rights and safety.
As his personal popularity has declined, Chavez’ response has been to look for strength beyond the support of his people. He has grown closer to the Russians, including inviting them to visit his country with naval warships and strategic bombers. He has increased his support for rebels and oppressive regimes in neighboring countries, liberally bribing other South American leaders. He has also made an increasing number of improbable declarations about secret assassination plots and unverifiable coup attempts. Finally he went into a rage on television, shouting “go to hell, shit yankees” and ordering the expulsion of the US ambassador and ultimately the entire US embassy from his country, supposedly as a show of solidarity with his cocaine-socialist neighbor and part time puppet Evo Morales who last week kicked the US Ambassador out of the small portion of his country that pro-freedom rebels have not yet seized control of. Ironically it appears that the US Embassy has not actually departed, though Ambassador Patrick Duddy did take his wife to the US for scheduled medical treatment.
One issue which looms particularly large with Venezuelan voters is Chavez’ misuse of government funds generated by the high price of oil. Rather than using the oil windfall to benefit Venezuelans, much of the money has been taken out of the country by the president’s cronies, or spent on a massive program of international bribery which has seen as much as $30 billion taken out of the country to bribe leaders of other South American countries, to underwrite terrorist groups like FARC and to prop up pro-Chavez and anti-US regimes in the region. This misdirection of funds is an ongoing embarrassment to the country as a highly publicized trial progresses in Miami for a Venezuelan-American businessman who was caught acting as the bag man for the Chavez regime in an attempt to illegally underwrite the reelection campaign Argentinian president Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. The situation is aggravated by Chavez’ failure to follow through on promised infrastructure improvements, leaving much of the country with inadequate electricity and waste disposal capacity. Corruption at the top has also opened the country up to drug traffickers which has led to an increase in crime and popular concern over the decline in personal safety. Venezuelans are also unhappy that Chavez’ campaign to silence the opposition media has continued to the point where few sources outside of the control of the state are willing to speak up and are intimidated into silence or repeating the party line.
There also continue to be problems in the Venezuelan economy and people do not feel that they are sharing fairly in the success of the country’s oil industry, contrary to Chavez’ promises. Over the past 10 years they have suffered with a cumulative inflation rate of 800%. Unemployment which had been declining rose sharply during the first half of 2008 after the nationalization of oil industry holdings and changes in government policy which created a hostile business environment. General Motors’ Venezuelan auto assembly plant has been closed for two months and GM is considering not reopening it because it has become too difficult to do business in Venezuela between the pressures of high taxation, regulation hostile to foreign businesses and governmental corruption.
In the face of the very real possibility of losing even more popular support in the upcoming regional elections and suffering the same kind of embarassment he did in the 2007 referendum, Chavez has developed a radical election strategy. It is based around directing popular anger at foreigners, businessmen and especially the United States as he has done in previous elections, but now has the added twist of expanded efforts to precipitate some sort of actual regional crises to force the US to intervene in and make his paranoid accusations of assassination attempts and coups seem legitimate. Increased funding of FARC operations in Colombia, providing massive military and financial aid to the Morales regime in Boiivia and giving the Russians a place to show a symbolic military presence in the Western Hemisphere to balance the US missile defense system deployment in Poland all figure into an effort to raise tensions and force a reaction. The expulsion of the US ambassador is just the latest symbolic gesture to try to aggravate the Americans into doing something he can point to as a justification for increased crackdowns and perhaps negating the results of the upcoming election.
Chavez clearly believes that if he can provoke the United States sufficiently then the Bush administration might abandon its strategy of just ignoring Chavez while trying to stabilize neighboring countries like Colombia and Bolivia. The problem is that indirect US efforts in Bolivia and Colombia have been surprisingly successful and despite all of the Russian arms and oil money which Chavez has poured into those countries, FARC is increasingly ineffective and the Morales regime may be forced to make an accommodation with rebellious local governments. That being the case, aside from the Russian military presence, Chavez doesn’t hold a lot of cards when it comes to provoking the United States. Russia doesn’t want a direct conflict with the US and is pulling its visiting planes and warships out of the area, having made their point. That leaves Chavez impotently waving his fist in front of crowds of hireling loyalists and thugs, screaming about plots which clearly don’t exist and threats which never materialize.
A real threat from America would have made Chavez look strong, because the evil empire to the north would never go after someone unworthy. Ranting powerlessly while his plans crumble around him and his support erodes and the Americans continue to just ignore him, makes him look like a clown in a red shirt, and no one wants to vote for a clown, especially one with that crazy Pagliacci glint in his eyes.