Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Jan 31/07 | On the OAS's Predicament: Principles or Buildings For Sale?

Hugo might acquire the real estate to house
the conscienses he's already bought

PMBComment: Juan Forero, the one who wore panglossian glasses when covering Venezuela for the NYTimes, presents a very realistic picture below of the continuing distress being produced by Mr. Chávez’s misinterpretation of his “mandate”. When the great-grandchildren, the grandchildren, the children and even recent immigrants leave by the thousands, we can easily describe not only the present state but also the future predicament of a country that for centuries had been a net recipient of opportunity seekers from near and far.

Today, in one of those populist charades so dear to the heart of totalitarian rulers, an illegitimate National Assembly – after all it was elected by less than 18% of the eligible voters - will surrender in Caracas’ Plaza Bolivar its legislative duties to a man who in 8 years has been able to destroy much but who has built nothing more than a heinous and limitless cult of personality. Surrounding him, as is usually the case, are countless sycophants who have excelled in the art (or is it a science by know?) of looting the coffers of the state with reckless abandon, not to mention absolute impunity.

Today is the first day in which using the term democratic to refer to the rule of Hugo Chávez is not only wrong – as it has been the case for years by the way - but also a sign of inexcusable connivance.

If the member states of the OAS let this latest abuse go unnoticed, I can – and probably will - recommend a good real estate broker who would happily arrange the disposition of the magnificent OAS headquarters on Constitution Avenue. What’s the use of a building where the signing of the Democratic Charter is celebrated with Argentinean and Chilean wines and canapés, and the systematic destruction of democracy is ignored with a collective and duplicitous yawn. PMB

Washington Post

Venezuela Poised to Hand Chávez Wide-Ranging Powers

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; A01

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The line forms every day after dawn at the Spanish Consulate, hundreds of people seeking papers permitting them to abandon Venezuela for new lives in Spain. They say they are filled with despair at President Hugo Chávez's growing power, and they appear not to be alone. At other consulates in this capital, long lines form daily.

Two months after Chávez was reelected to another six-year term by an overwhelming margin, Venezuela is experiencing a fundamental shift in its political and economic climate that could remake the country in a way perhaps not seen in Latin America since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. On Wednesday, the National Assembly is expected to entrust him with tremendous powers that will allow him to dictate new laws for 18 months to transform the economy, redraw the structure of government and establish a new funding apparatus for Venezuela's huge oil wealth.

Chávez's government announced earlier that it intends to nationalize strategic industries, such as telecommunications and electric utilities, and amend the constitution to end presidential term limits.

The new, more radicalized era is enthralling to the president's supporters. To them, Chávez is keeping the promise he has consistently made over eight years in office -- to reorganize Venezuelan society, redistribute its wealth and position the country as an alternative to U.S. capitalist policies.

"This is a moment that could be key in the history of Latin America," said Joanna Cadenas, 36, a teacher in the state-run Bolivarian University. "I never thought you could love a president."

But the moves -- which opponents say are marked by intolerance and strident ideology -- are prompting some Venezuelans to leave the country and others to prepare for a fight in the last battlegrounds where the opposition has influence. A few are trying, against the tide, to remain apolitical in a country marked by extreme, even outlandish rhetoric.

"What we're seeing happen here is not good," said José Manuel Rodríguez, 42, an accountant seeking travel documents at the Spanish Consulate. "What we see here is the coming of totalitarianism, fewer guarantees, fewer civil rights. I want to have everything ready to leave."

Chávez's moves are worrying Bush administration officials, who have voiced concern over the ideological nature of nationalization plans that have targeted companies such as CANTV, the dominant provider of fixed-line telephone service, and the utility Electricidad de Caracas, both of which have stakeholders in the United States. U.S. officials have also expressed concern that the government will not renew the broadcast license of RCTV television, which Venezuelan officials charge supported a short-lived coup against Chávez in 2002.

"We should all be concerned about the direction President Chávez is taking his country," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, said in a statement this week. "Any leader who tries to tighten his grip on power by destroying the institutions of democracy, curtailing press freedom and using his office to intimidate pro-democracy opponents is setting in motion a dangerous process with potentially ominous consequences."

Venezuelan government officials argue that the president's moves are the will of the people and that his latest electoral victory is a mandate for Chávez to deepen what he calls his Bolivarian revolution.

"We cannot disqualify Hugo Chávez as social leader who, with the support of big majorities, makes decisions," said Haiman El Troudi, a former chief of staff to Chávez who now works at the International Miranda Center, which is funded by the government. "I don't see people moving forward against this. I see the same old opposition groups."

El Troudi, the author of a book about the kind of companies that should make up the 21st-century socialism that Chávez extols, said the government will move quickly to transform the country into a mixed economy of state firms and private ones, "but with conditions." He said that politically and economically, Venezuela is steadfast against capitalism.

El Troudi also acknowledged that the government needs to better woo the 4 million Venezuelans who voted against Chávez and now feel they have no political representation. "These 4 million people are not oligarchs, and they don't represent the ideas of the oligarchy," he said.

Still, Chávez's own rhetoric, in daily speeches that can last hours, are filled with invective against opponents and the Americans, giving the former paratrooper the air of what prominent Mexican author Carlos Fuentes calls "a tropical Mussolini."

Even some of Chávez's allies have raised eyebrows over some of his plans. The president has formed a coalition, the United Socialist Party, to unite the numerous parties in the National Assembly -- all of them pro-government. But the leaders of bigger, well-established parties such as the Communist Party and Podemos are balking, at least for now.

In a recent meeting for leaders of Podemos, one delegate, Pedro Peraza, said that although support was strong for folding into the president's party, Podemos needed to be cautious. "Things cannot be that way, that it's all about what the president says and that we just follow along," Peraza said. "That would be like communism."

Despite concern voiced by several Podemos members, the president of the party, Ismael García, said that the dissolution of his party was only a matter of time. Asked if folding Podemos and other parties wouldn't give Chávez too much power, García cited the widespread support the president enjoys.

"We're not turning over anything to anybody," he said. "The president has won this through his prestige, his worth as a leader, his courage."

Chávez's boundless energy, and broad ambitions, have hardly slowed plans that include putting a satellite into space, sending 100,000 poor Venezuelans on vacations to Cuba and purchasing 4,000 tons of Bolivian coca, once the drug crop is manufactured into flour and other products. Even in a country now long accustomed to Chávez, the pace of the changes is hard to keep up with.

"We thought 2007 would be a time for change, a time for constitutional reform, but we never thought one month after the election we'd see a creation of a sole party, the shutdown of RCTV, the nationalization of CANTV and the electricity of Caracas, and the announcement of a new political map of Venezuela," said Julio Borges, an opposition leader.

Rigoberto Lanz, a prominent intellectual who is an adviser in the government's Science and Technology Ministry, said the size of Chávez's ever-expanding government has done little to curb what he called the two most serious "enemies" of the Chávez administration, corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

And while Lanz and others are working to empower Venezuelans, he said, there is not a mechanism for people's wishes to be reflected in major policy moves, such as nationalizing companies. Among Chávez's plans are communal councils, funded by oil revenue, that would give ordinary people decision-making powers. "We're still far from the big decisions being made by the people," Lanz said.

A recent survey done in Venezuela by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Washington polling firm, showed that a strong majority of Venezuelans were against the plan to eliminate presidential term limits and the decision not to renew RCTV's license. Venezuelans also said it would be preferable if the opposition had more power. And a vast majority said Chávez, known for his pugnacious attitude, should be more conciliatory toward the opposition.

"It suggests Chavistas are uncomfortable with some of this and, more importantly, it shows that Chávez is misinterpreting his mandate," said Mark Feierstein, a political adviser with the polling firm who helped oversee the survey.

Perhaps surprisingly, some in the opposition see this moment as a time for optimism. Once badly fragmented and discredited, they believe they could find adherents as Chávez tries to inject socialist dogma into schools, as he has promised to do, or replace municipal governments with community councils.

"Our job is to present alternatives, and then we need to organize and make people conscious," said Leopoldo López, the opposition mayor of Chacao, an affluent district of Caracas. "I'm not despondent. The lack of hope is the worst enemy we have."


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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Jan 27/07 | Editorial or Obituary? Crashing into Black Holes

Diminishing expectations

Washington Post | Editorial

Venezuela's Satellites
A year of elections has left democracy and free markets flourishing in most of Latin America. Pity the exceptions.

Saturday, January 27, 2007; A18

A Remarkable year of democracy in Latin America has left the region generally stronger. Presidential elections were held in 11 countries in the past 13 months, and political moderates won seven of them, including those in the four largest countries: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Throughout most of the hemisphere, the elections reinforced a consensus that continued growth must depend on free markets and free trade but that governments should concentrate on narrowing the large gap between rich and poor.

The new year nevertheless has begun with attention focused on a handful of countries where democracy is dead, dying or in danger. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez began his term this month with a flurry of authoritarianism, promising to cancel the license of the largest independent television station and seeking authority to rule by decree. He then rushed to attend the inaugurations of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, whom he hopes to convert into satellite leaders in a Venezuelan-led "socialist" bloc. Bolivia's Evo Morales and an ailing Fidel Castro are already in Mr. Chávez's orbit; thanks to Venezuela's petrodollars, Cuba's totalitarian system may survive Mr. Castro's demise.

Mr. Chávez's best chance may lie with Mr. Correa, who distanced himself from the Venezuelan and his policies to win the election, then swung back to his side on inauguration day. Mr. Correa denounced globalization and called the United States an "empire." More ominously, he adopted Mr. Chávez's political strategy, calling for a constituent assembly to bypass Congress and rewrite the constitution -- a step Mr. Chávez used to begin dismantling Venezuela's democracy seven years ago.

Mr. Morales's attempt to use the same tactics in Bolivia is foundering, but it is also pushing the country closer to another crisis. The Bolivian constituent assembly is deadlocked over voting rules; meanwhile, opposition governors in the relatively prosperous eastern lowlands are mobilizing masses against the president and his Venezuelan tutors. If he presses forward, Mr. Correa may encounter similar resistance.

Interestingly, Mr. Ortega is moving with considerably more caution, though he, too, has been showered with promises of Venezuelan aid and graced with an inaugural visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Elected with just 38 percent of the vote, the former Marxist dictator has avoided anti-American rhetoric and promised not to tamper with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. His new finance minister told the Financial Times that socialism is not the government's program.

At 61, Mr. Ortega may understand something that Mr. Chávez, 52, and his would-be followers have yet to learn: Socialist economics are a recipe for impoverishment, while political power grabs tend to boomerang. The mini-bloc of Latin outliers poses little threat to the United States or the region's overall stability. But even as their neighbors consolidate democratic institutions and unprecedented prosperity, the people of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba may be headed for a miserable year.


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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jan 25/07 | On Cuba as cause and Venezuela as consequence: Inheriting your way to trouble

Annointed by the hand that has destroyed a nation

PMBComment: One of the most credible theories for the suddenly maddening pace of Chavez’s “revolutionary” announcements is related to the struggle for power purportedly underway inside of Cuba.

It has been more than apparent for some time that Chávez is intent on being acknowledged around the world as Fidel Castro’s favored pupil and effective heir. It is safe to assert that in the international arena he faces little competition for this infatuated aim.

However, where there is a great deal of competition and even growing opposition to such airs is within Cuba itself. Trying to sideline Raul Castro and his hand-picked cadres is the daily job of the last faithful – or should one say sycophantic - ring around mythical but moribund Fidel. Brother Raul (who is yet to be referred to as Acting President, or the like, by the Cuban Press – 100% official of course) seems to prefer a swift shift towards something akin to the Chinese model – economic opening to the world, including conciliatory stance towards the US, and robust domestic political control buttressed by a compliant and entrepreneurial military. On the other hand, the diehard ‘fidelistas” or “tropical talibans”, see their own claim to power legitimized by paying homage to Fidel’s eternal vision of world revolution and, most importantly, by their unfettered access to Venezuela’s easy-come-easy-go wealth. To counter years of expected brotherly succession they must tie their future to the current enfant terrible of world politics, and allow him a level of interference in domestic Cuban politics that runs counter to the very grain of a nationalistic zeal unrivaled in the region.

The almost daily tirades and shows of blatant authoritarism by Hugo Chávez could therefore be intended for a different audience and for a very different purpose. Producing a schism among the Cuban military might dash the hopes of those who have been promoted into positions of civilian and armed power by Raul Castro and who have reportedly always resented the fact that Chávez’s limitless largesse brought about a reversal of long overdue, and quite popular, reforms. The most obvious early loser, if the “fidelistas” were to succeed aided by Caracas, could be the Vice President Carlos Lage, who most likely would be the top man in a Raul dominated “transition”. His unexpected visit to Caracas yesterday looked like an obvious assertion of his own claims. If in effect Fidel’s prolonged sickness has allowed time for the historically unified castrismo to split along creases made crisper as a result of Hugo Chávez’s officiousness then all notions of an orderly or even peaceful transition might have to be taken off the table.

If the above were a credible explanation for the events that are rattling Venezuela, then there is a great deal of incremental instability coming our way. Becoming “truly revolutionary” after 8 years of quasi absolute power seems suicidal for the Bolivarian regime since they are the status quo, they are THE establishment, and as such, the heads of some among the up-and-coming “Boligurgesia” must roll first if you want to instill the requisite fear into a country all too comfortable with the material comforts delivered by a dual bonanza: high oil prices and unabated drug money laundering. On the other hand, inserting themselves with narcissistic obsession in what will be a political hypercharged transition might mean having to be ready to confront nationalistic and foreign dynamics much mightier than their whim and more formidable than anything they have faced in the domestic front to date. PMB

Note: In the fascinating article I post below Bernd Debusmann from Reuters coins the term “tropical talibans” to tag, among others, the following diehard Fidelistas: Otto Rivero, vice president of the Council of Ministers for the Battle of Ideas, Hassan Perez, vice president of the Union of Communists, Miriam Yanet Martin, president of the Jose Marti pioneers youth group and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque

Reuters
FEATURE-Fidel Castro fades out. Tropical Taliban next?

17 September 2006

Reuters News

(c) 2006 Reuters Limited

By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent

HAVANA, Sept 17 (Reuters) - No matter whether Fidel Castro returns to office or not, diplomats and dissidents say the post-Fidel era has already begun and some foresee an ideological tug of war between "tropical Taliban" and proponents of Chinese-style economic reforms.

Castro, 80, handed over power to his brother Raul, 75, on July 31 after undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding blamed on overwork. While officials said the elder Castro was recovering well, he was too ill to make an appearance at a summit of 116 Third World countries in Havana last week.

The Castro brothers hold world records for years in power: Fidel is the world's longest-serving head of government, Raul the longest-serving defense minister -- both 47 years.

"It is difficult to envisage Fidel running the country as he used to, and with the same vigor," said a Latin American diplomat. "He is on the way to becoming a symbol and a figurehead."

More than 70 percent of Cuba's 11 million population were born after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and tend to be reluctant to talk about a future without him. But a number of dissidents speak out frankly and on the record.

"Cuba has not been the same since July 31," said Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of the Ladies in White, a group of women whose husbands were arrested, tried and convicted in a large-scale crackdown on dissidents three years ago.

Her husband, economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was released for health reasons 19 months later. Most of the others are still in prison and the Ladies in White stage a silent protest march every Sunday. Espinosa Chepe and Leiva aired their views in an interview in their tiny apartment in Havana.

Both see economic reforms managed by the Cuban Armed Forces headed by Raul Castro as the best hope for the near future, a sentiment echoed privately by many Cubans who tend to complain more vociferously about economic misery than the political system.

TROPICAL TALIBAN

"What would be disastrous would be for the tropical Taliban to run the country," Espinosa Chepe said. The phrase refers to a younger generation of officials mentored personally by Fidel Castro.

The phrase Taliban is borrowed from the Afghan militants whose narrow interpretation of Islam caused them to ban music and stone adulterers to death.

To hear Cubans tell it, the list of true believers includes Otto Rivero, vice president of the Council of Ministers for the Battle of Ideas, Hassan Perez, vice president of the Union of Communists, Miriam Yanet Martin, president of the Jose Marti pioneers youth group and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

They are all in their 30s and early 40s and their views are reflected by a banner along Havana's fabled Malecon seafront boulevard. "Fidel Forever!" it says.

The true believers versus potential economic reformers scenario has gained so much currency it prompted questions at a news conference during the non-aligned summit that ended on Saturday.

Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, responding to a reporter's question, said: "In the hypothetical case that Comandante Fidel remains ill, would there be a change in Cuban policy toward a market opening? I can categorically say that is not foreseen, the Cuban people do not want that."

CLOWNS AND MASSEURS

Castro initiated a limited economic opening in the early 1990s but rolled it back three years ago, cutting licenses for services that private individuals can provide, including clowns and masseurs.

Why do some Cubans place their hopes for reforms on the Armed Forces? They were the first to introduce capitalist business practices into Cuba and now control technology and computing firms, beach resort hotels, car rental firms, an airline, a fleet of buses and a large retail chain.

The Cuban sugar industry is run by a general, as is the ports administration and the lucrative cigar industry.

"It is difficult to see political change but Raul will have to introduce economic reforms if he wants to avoid a social explosion," said Espinosa Chepe, the dissident economist. "The Armed Forces are the best organized entity in the country and much more flexible than any other."

Outside experts agree the Armed Forces would be a better agent of change, if it were to come, than any other institution. "Unlike the Communist Party, the armed forces are widely popular," said Hal Klepak, a history professor at the Royal Military Institute of Canada and author of a book on the Cuban military.

Change in Havana, diplomats say, depends to a considerable degree on attitudes in Washington and Miami, where Cuban exiles have been relentlessly hostile toward Castro and instrumental in maintaining a 44-year-old economic boycott of Cuba.

Critics of the embargo, including prominent dissidents, see it as a chief reason for Castro's long survival. "Without it, he wouldn't have been able to foster nationalism the way he did. Without it, he couldn't have blamed the U.S. for his disastrous policies," said Espinosa Chepe.

Most of the world agrees. The embargo is regularly put to a vote at the United Nations. Last year, the margin was 182 in favor of a resolution to end the embargo, four against.


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Monday, January 22, 2007

Jan 22/07 | On the look of one man rule: Le Figaro got the picture

"My new government" Courtesy of Le Figaro

No PMBComment necessary


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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Jan 16/07 | A flashback in search for context: Venezuela as it was

PMBComment: A seasoned US journalist sent me the story below with the following note: "Pedro: almost everyday I read something in the press that leads me to conclude that my younger colleagues care little, or nothing, for history. Anyone who lived or studied Venezuela's emergence as a democratic juggernaut would think twice about giving credit to Mr. Chavez for anything other than the destruction of a country that, with all its troubles, was miles ahead of most in terms of civic fervor and economic progress. Without any doubt, the reelections of CAP and Caldera signalled that the system had gone into negative recycle mode, but then the election of Chavez, a failed coupster with blood in his hands, proved that the system was a forgiving and open one. What has followed is at times hard to read, watch or listen. I just wish it would be put into a proper context. Mr. Chavez is a destroyer and not a redeemer, and as such, history should judge him severely.

Digging in Time's archives I found the following which was written in November of '68 by a colleague who went to Caracas to cover what many said was one of the most democratic elections ever held in the world (BTW, I remember I went with him to interview your father and when we arrived at your house he was on the phone with you, I think you where in boarding school, in England at the time).

What a great country it was."

Reading the TIME story, it is interesting to note that AD got a great deal of credit for spreading well what was insignificant oil income by today's measure. PMB


Time Magazine

Friday, Nov. 29, 1968

Continuismo v. Change


By day, Caracas resembles a collage of advertising posters. At night its plazas glitter and bustle with popular rallies. Next Sunday is election day, and Venezuelans are enjoying the campaign with the enthusiasm of a people liberated from dictatorial rule only ten years ago. No fewer than 28 parties are competing for congressional seats, and have festooned the capital with tigers, roosters, flying saucers and other party symbols. In one square, the chief opposition presidential candidate, Rafael Caldera, head of the Social Christian Party, has a huge calendar ticking off the days until el cambio, "the change." In riposte, the governing Acción De-mocrática party is flying two calendars charting the days "until the fourth defeat"—a reference to Caldera's three unsuccessful tries for the presidency.


Outgoing President Raúl Leoni has cut so many ribbons inaugurating public works during the campaign that opponents claim he keeps a pair of scissors in his pocket. Leoni cannot constitutionally succeed himself, but his appearances aid Acción Democrática's candidate. He is Gonzalo Barrios, 65, an adroit and tough politician who, as Interior Minister, put down Venezuela's Castroite rebels.


Generation Gap.

Barrios can use all the help he can get. During Acción Democrática's ten years in power, it has fissioned three times, in each instance losing some of its younger and more radical supporters and some momentum for reform. Hoping to charge through that generation gap is Caldera, 52, a talented lawyer who has been trying for the presidency since 1947, and now has assembled the country's smoothest-functioning political machine. Also in the running are four splinter candidates, most notably Acción Democrática Dissident Luis Beltran Prieto and Miguel Angel Burelli, who has the support of three minor opposition parties.


The election turns largely on Caldera's cry for change and for more activist government as against Acción Democrática's slogan of continuismo, or more of the same. Undeniably, Venezuelans have never had it so good. During ten years in power, Acción Democrática has poured the country's ample oil revenues into schools, highways and public works. The economy is growing at an annual rate of 5.1%, and the benefits have spread through much of the population. Venezuela's per capita income, $745 a year, is the highest in Latin America. Unemployment is down to less than 7%, and the bolivar is one of the world's strongest currencies.


Whoever wins is unlikely to tinker drastically with such success. No less encouraging is the fact that the election has not been marred by riots, as in 1958, or terrorism, as in 1963. On a continent where military dictatorships are more the rule than the exception, Venezuela's military leaders took the unusual step of publicly promising to "respect and enforce respect for the verdict that emerges from the election."


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Friday, January 12, 2007

Jan 11/07 | An article worth reading!!

The Economist
Venezuela


With Marx, Lenin and Jesus Christ
Jan 11th 2007 | CARACAS
From The Economist print edition


Hugo Chávez's "21st-century socialism" starts to look even more like old-fashioned autocracy

THE story of Hugo Chávez's presidency in Venezuela since he first arrived in office in 1999 has been a bit like the dance of the seven veils. This week, as he began a new six-year term after winning 63% of the vote in an election last month, the leftist former army officer cast aside some of his "democratic socialist" clothing to reveal more radical and authoritarian plans. "The transition is over," Mr Chávez declared, and a "new era" has begun.

Seemingly unable to restrain his enthusiasm, the president sketched this era's outline in surprise announcements in the days before the formal inauguration of the new term on January 10th. He said that he planned to nationalise the telecommunications and electricity industries. He rang a television show to say that he was replacing the vice-president, José Vicente Rangel, who was one of the few remaining figures in the government with his own political clout. Earlier, Mr Chávez had announced that the government would not renew the broadcasting licence of RCTV, the largest opposition-run television channel, meaning it will be off the air by June.

The president said that the main telecoms company—Compañia Anónima Nacional Teléfonos de Venezuela (CANTV), privatised in 1991—and energy were "strategic" businesses that should be in state hands. Verizon, an American telecoms firm, had been planning to sell its 28.5% stake in CANTV to a consortium controlled by a Mexican businessman, Carlos Slim. Another candidate for nationalisation is Electricidad de Caracas, the country's largest electricity company which was bought for $1.7 billion in 2000 by AES, a Virginia-based power company.

CANTV's shares plunged: its American Depository Receipts, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, lost almost 40% of their value in two days. They recovered after the finance minister said that the nationalisation would follow the law, which requires that compensation be paid.

Also deemed "strategic" were refineries which upgrade the heavy oil from the Orinoco belt, operated by multinationals including BP, Exxon Mobil and Total. Hitherto, the government had merely said that the companies should cede a 51% stake in the oilfields themselves, not the refineries. In his inaugural speech, Mr Chávez said he wanted to change the constitution to give the state control over natural-gas operations as well.

The telecoms and electricity takeovers would be the first outright nationalisations by Mr Chávez. Private business in his Venezuela has profited from economic growth, which is running at 10% a year because of a huge windfall from high oil prices. But it is hedged in with price and exchange controls. It co-exists with an expanding state sector and a host of government-funded co-operatives.

What unites the various elements of the "new era" is the relentless centralisation of all power in Mr Chávez's hands. His supporters already hold all the seats in the National Assembly, because the opposition boycotted a legislative election in December 2005. He also controls the courts.

Now, he says, the central bank will lose its constitutional autonomy (though in practice this had already become a fiction). Other proposed constitutional changes will curb the powers of state governors and mayors, and remove the bar on the indefinite re-election of the president.

Mr Chávez also said that he would ask the assembly to approve an enabling law empowering him to introduce a raft of socialist measures by decree. These, he said, would be much more radical than a similar package in 2001, which sparked a three-year opposition campaign to unseat the president that included a failed coup attempt and a two-month general strike.

Many of these announcements came at a ceremony on January 8th to swear in the new cabinet. Behind Mr Chávez as he spoke was a 10-metre-high close-up of his own face and hands, reminiscent of a bishop blessing his flock. Along with the mounting personality cult is a change of language. The president sneered at those, including Catholic church leaders, who have wondered aloud what his much-trumpeted plan for "21st century socialism" really consists of.

The bishops, he said, should read Marx, Lenin and the Bible. "Christ was an authentic communist, anti-imperialist and enemy of the oligarchy," he said. He added that he himself had been a "communist" since at least 2002 (at the time he claimed to want to "improve capitalism".) It is the first time that he has publicly assumed that description. He signed off with a slogan ("fatherland or death, we shall prevail") coined by his friend, Cuba's Communist president, Fidel Castro.

As always with Mr Chávez, the rhetoric may run ahead of the reality. But the direction of travel seems clear. The "new era" will see less scope for dissent. A law already going through parliament will restrict the ability of non-governmental organisations to receive money from abroad. By closing down RCTV, which he dislikes because it supported the coup against him in 2002, Mr Chávez is sending a message to the rest of the media that they need to toe the line, or else.

The departure of Mr Rangel from the government may also mark a turning point. A veteran leftist, he had been in government uninterruptedly since 1999. He was a moderating influence. He convinced Mr Chávez, who led a failed coup of his own against a democratic government in 1992, to adopt electoral politics.

Mr Chávez can claim an electoral mandate for "socialism". Yet many Venezuelans equate this with the social-welfare programmes that he has implemented, thanks to oil money and Cuban know-how. There is much polling evidence that they value democracy and do not want Cuban-style communism.

Of all his announcements, the closure of RCTV raised most concern abroad. José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, said this appeared to be "a form of censorship" and "a warning" to others. That brought an intemperate outburst from Mr Chávez, who had backed Mr Insulza, a respected Chilean, for the job against opposition from the United States in 2005. He called on Mr Insulza to resign, saying he was an "idiot" who was acting like a "viceroy of the empire" (ie, the United States).

At a session of the OAS permanent council, Mr Insulza was backed by many governments including those of Brazil and Chile. But there is little sign that these moderate left-wing governments, which claim to stand for democracy and capitalism, are prepared to distance themselves more generally from the newly unveiled "communist" in Caracas.

All rights reserved. The Economist


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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Jan 11/07 - From Oil Bonaza to Ruin: XXI Century Folly

There are times - actually many times - when a cartoon saves the day and expresses clearly much more than words. Venezuela, a land of plenty, is being dragged down a beaten path by a messianic narcissist punch-drunk as a result of amassing absolute power in the absence of both shame and principles. We all know the ending and the size of the bill. Will we be able to stop this new "March of Folly"? PMB


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