Wednesday, May 16, 2007

That sinking feeling: the Chavez revolution meets a reef

Now, before anyone’s hopes raise, the title of that article does not imply that Chavez is about to be undone ; it just means that the violent momentum that chavismo seemed to have acquired last December has met sudden obstacles. To begin with, the momentum claimed by chavismo was rather unjustified. After an enigmatic campaign which started with love and ended up in the infamous “rojo rojito”, chavista voters had voted more for the man than for his programs though they did understood fuzzily that the policies of a socialism of the XXI century would be somewhat more leftwards than in the previous already long 8 years. They were fine with it for many reasons, in particular for shelves reasonably supplied and money to accede to them, but it seems that these reasons might not apply anymore.

It all started with the RCTV closing announcement. As usual when Chavez announces something that big, he does that when nobody listens, under the cover of some holidays preferably when everyone is out at play. It seemed to have worked out for while. The opposition, as always its incompetent self, went away on vacation after the election forgetting that when you are in the opposition you have no vacation if you ever want to become government. And even more so if you pretend to unseat Chavez who has no other life but clinging to power. The silence of the opposition was even more inexcusable: far from celebrating victory on December 3 by giving the country a much needed political rest, an angry Chavez was already mentioning constitutional changes, a unique party, and a line of no concession to the opposition not even freedom for political prisoners. December 3 was not a truce and yet the opposition leadership went on vacation as if we were in peace.

In fact part of the problem that Chavez suffers today is the unexpected pay off from the opposition errors in December, though a small pay off and even meager consolation. The coalition that won 37% started promptly splitting apart. Chavez felt no restraint in speeding up his agenda. And as it is usually the case, when you have no opposition to force you to at least tune up carefully your strategy, problems appear.

Chavez started by firing Jose Vicente Rangel. Rumor has that the Vice did not approve of shutting down RCTV. After all this broadcast station had been strident for years and Chavez popularity had never been seriously affected except or a few months in 2002-2003. So found the exit door the Vice. Then Chavez appointed to replace Rangel the only operator he had, former Jorge Rodriguez of the CNE. A slick character but a totally untrustworthy one, and someone whose zero credibility precluded any discussion to negotiate anything with anyone at the opposition. Sure, Chavez did not need to negotiate a thing but Rodriguez arrogance, “resentimiento social” where not going to be the kind of advice Chavez needed.

So Chavez went on. In January and February he seemed to coast. The unique left party started building as the tool to segregate citizens the way communist parties were used for in other areas of the world. RCTV was finally served notice of its official closing time. Extensive constitutional changes were announced but with an incredible gall: they would be discussed SECRETELY by chavismo. Clearly the 37% of the citizens that voted against Chavez were told to rally the regime or assume a nonentity status.

The opposition came back from its vacation sometime late January as ineffective as ever, with Primero Justicia giving the more than pitiful example of squandering its 2006 capital. So, by early February the media, understanding that once again they would be left alone in front of Chavez, started reacting. After all if anyone understood clearly what Chavez was up to with the constitutional changes and the RCTV closing it was the media: the end of freedom of expression in a not so distant future.

But chavismo was starting accumulating mistakes. Apparently it seems that indeed there is not as much money coming into the coffers of the regime. We suspect that the oil production is not what it is supposed to be, and any savings has been spent in 2006 to buy votes. Maybe during early 2007 the government tried to store some cash away for preparing the constitutional votes of late 2007? Whatever it was the crows started coming home to roost. As consumption kept growing, production did not follow and inflation went up. The sales tax went down by three points. Inflation started again to grow and suddenly there were not enough imports to hide the critical state of Venezuelan production: we are further away than ever in feeding our own country and since February item by item started missing in the shelves: some on an almost permanent basis such as white sugar, other intermittently but with increasing frequency.

Of course in such situation folks start becoming more aware of difference between real inflation and the official one. The so much vaunted economic growth suddenly seemed to reach less people than expected: there was no scarcity of old scotch or Hummers, but there was scarcity of sweetened coffee, the national drug. It is in the middle of this that we must place the developing media campaign to support RCTV. Suddenly in April the government was faced with polls unfavorable as it had not met since 2003! Even more, the RCTV thing was looking more and more like a temper tantrum of Chavez and for the first time since he has been submitted to polling, the Teflon scratched.

In April the disarray within chavismo could not be hidden anymore. The government looked everyday more incompetent at filling shelves, not even those of Mercal. The unlimited reelection of Chavez was not generating the enthusiasm that this one was expecting after his December victory as apparently some of the folks who voted for him are not too keen on having him go beyond 2012. Suddenly Chavez started traveling a little bit less overseas, and the constitutional changes were casually described as not that urgent and perhaps able to wait for 2008!!!! Bread and butter and circus were suddenly thrown in front of Chavez as an issue he could not doge anymore.

But it got worse, by the early days this May the rate of international condemnations as to the closing of RCTV started speeding up, announcing a possible international image disaster. To make things worse the PUS registration did not meet the hoped for success even when Venevision reported lavishly on them during their evening news as if it were a great success. Not only people were not lining up to join the new unique left party, but many people went open on public employees being forced to join. People felt it clearly: the creation of the PUS was nothing more than a reverse Tascon list.

And the opposition in all of this? Fine, thank you very much! People only discuss the break between part of PPT and PODEMOS with chavismo (another surprise for chavismo in February and March!). But people do not discuss Rosales or PJ or anyone else for that matter. The opposition leadership credit seems to be at a nadir! And curiously Granier of RCTV might become in the next few weeks the leader of the opposition which would cause a major realignment of the situation if it were to assume such a leadership. In fact we see some hurried return of Rosales to support RCTV and even PJ seems to be distracted on occasion from its navel gazing. Sometimes I am catching myself day dreaming of a Didalco Bolivar- Marcel Granier team standing up to Chavez. And you know what? They would have no difficulty in becoming more successful than the folks that have appropriated without merits the loudspeaker of the opposition voters in the last few years.

To crown it all today we even got an Hinterlaces poll that says that 3 out of 10 Chavez voters regret their votes already. Do not chant victory yet: do the math and even if you take that 3 out of 10, Chavez would still win an election today as those 3 would have likely stayed home rather than vote for Rosales. But would Chavez win a referendum?

But back to reality. One thing is certain: the recent supposed displays of strength such as making the army salute to the horrible chant of Patria, Socialismo o Muerte, or the degrading refusal to make public the constitutional discussion are only a mark of weakness. Even the wish to shut up RCTV so has to have less “negative” information on the air is a mark of governmental weakness. No matter how often the ineffable William Lara puts down recent polls, we see in him trouble, if anything concern for his job as his anti RCTV campaign is floundering. Suddenly chavismo has remembered that the sic transit gloria mundi could also apply to them someday. Not today, but someday.

Late December there was a total hopelessness, a complete resignation in the country. But chicken started missing and the Venezuelan hoi polloi suddenly looked up. Anger is felt again.

To be continued for sure.

-The end-

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