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Is Hugo Chavez the Next Domino to Fall?

Venezuelan strongman is convinced he is immune from the fate of Middle Eastern leaders, but the opposition is gaining confidence.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 2/20/2011, 6:57 PM / Last Update: 2/20/2011, 10:08 PM

 

Autocracies are under assault throughout the Middle East, but in Venezuela,  Hugo Chavez remains sanguine and expects to steer his country into socialism. Venezuelan students have launched a hunger strike against his rule and have appealed to the Organization of American States and its head Jose Miguel Insulza to look into human rights abuses by the Venezuelan regime.

The US State Department urged Venezuela to allow Insulza's visit, but this approach was immediately rejected by Venezuela and its Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro who accused Washington of trying to destabilize the Chavez government. "They're trying to create a false scenario, something like a virtual Egypt,," he said. Chavez has attributed Mubarak's downfall to the state of poverty in Egypt, something that presumably does not exist in Venezuela.

The opposition does not appear ready to emulate the demonstrations in the Middle East, but they are banking on the fact that Chavez, despite his bravado, is weakening. One sign was Chavez going on TV (he has appeared approximately 10,000 hours since taking power 12 years ago) to lecture the people on energy conservation.

A liter of high-octane gasoline costs $.02 in Venezuela, the lowest price in the world, because the government subsidizes gasoline by 90%. This amounts to $1.6 billion a year in subsidies and is part of  the reason for the country's economic problem. The cheap fuel not only goes into automobile tanks, but given the country's electricity shortages,  into generators as well.  A rise in gasoline prices will therefore have a severe impact on the economy. Venezuela's energy minister was quick to deny that a gradual price hike was in the offing.

Venezuela's cash cow -the oil industry-- is also being indentured to Chavez' state owned enterprises that owe the oil company $1.6 billion.

Venezuela's biggest problem is the galloping inflation of 405% in the last three years. Even on the official market, the Venezuelan Bolivar has been devalued against the dollar by 168%. Chavez tried to bottle up inflation by price controls, but as occurred in Soviet Russia, such controls merely lead to shortages and the government had to give up the idea. To shore up his standing, Chavez has promised housing to Venezuela's poor, and while he has only built 300,000 apartments in 12 years, he promises to build 2 million in the next 6 years. If he fails to supply the actual houses, he can definitely expect to supply the paper deeds to his supporters.

The opposition is coming up with credible candidates. One such candidate is Leopoldo Lopez, who was slated to run for mayor of Caracas, but was denied the opportunity when Chavez' rigged judicial system disqualified him on trumped up charges. Lopez turned the disadvantage into an asset by moving into the Venezuelan periphery and building a power base for the opposition. He is also appealing the court ruling before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.

Last Tuesday, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma announced his intention to run in the 2012 presidential election against Chavez. Ledezma's victory in Caracas was a major victory for the opposition in 2008 but Chavez immediately stripped him of most of his powers.

To make sure that the proliferation of candidates does not play into Chavez' hands by splitting and tiring the opposition, opposition leaders will seek to shorten the primary election period.