Saturday, December 6, 2008

Even in Venezuela, all politics is local

By DeWayne Wickham

Hugo Chavez believes he has a better idea. He wants to forge a socialist revolution out of Venezuela's struggling democracy.

The one-time army lieutenant colonel, who was jailed in 1992 for leading a failed coup against the country's elected president, wants to use Venezuela's oil wealth to undergird his "21st century socialist revolution."

But with just four years remaining in his second six-year term as Venezuela's president, time is running out on him.

So Chavez is making another attempt to change the country's constitution to allow him to seek re-election again — and again and again.

A similar referendum was defeated last year. But, buoyed by his party's win of 17 of 22 governorships in last month's election, Chavez says he'll try again in a February referendum to get voters to remove the term limits on his office.

As it is now, Venezuelan presidents can serve just two six-year terms. That, apparently, is not enough time for Chavez to transform Venezuela into the socialist state he envisions and make himself South America's most powerful leader.

But he's off to a good start.

A few days ago, Chavez and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on a warship off the Venezuelan coast, shortly before their navies conducted a joint exercise. In October, China launched into orbit Venezuela's first communications satellite. It's being monitored from a Venezuelan space center at an air force base south of Caracas.

As America's economic crisis causes financial markets across the globe to contract uncontrollably, Venezuela is pushing ahead with plans to create the "Bank of the South," Chavez's alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Given the billions of dollars the United States is spending to fight two wars abroad and shore up its economic system, a Chavez-controlled development bank would fill a void — and enhance his standing — in the region.

But all of this may be for naught if the Venezuelan president doesn't take to heart the admonition of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local."

Chavez's popularity, while still high enough to give his party an impressive showing in last month's elections, is threatened by a surging crime rate that helped the opposition party win governorships in three of the country's most populous states, plus the mayor's office in Caracas.The danger for Chavez is one that many populist leaders face when their message collides with the day-to-day survival concerns of the people they govern.

A 2002 coup that nearly toppled him and a failed 2004 recall vote have helped keep the revolutionary fervor of Chavez's supporters high, but other Venezuelans have more basic concerns as crime rages out of control. The country of 26 million has averaged 10,000 homicides a year since Chavez took office, The Washington Post reported in 2006.

While Chavez has done much to reduce illiteracy and protect the rights of his country's indigenous people, crime in the capital city of Caracas has turned it into one of the world's most violent cities.

So not surprisingly, Antonio Ledezma, one of Chavez's longtime political opponents, was elected mayor of Caracas last month. He made crime and poor trash collection — not Chavez's leftist leanings — the top issue in that contest.

While Ledezma's party managed to win just five governorships, those victories came in heavily populated areas that are home to 40 percent of Venezuela's population.

That's a warning sign Chavez shouldn't ignore.The governors' races and the mayoral election in Caracas suggest that, like politicians the world over, Chavez needs to work a lot harder on the basics of government than on his grand scheme.

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