Courtesy Reuters

Slouching Toward Authoritarianism

Hugo Chávez--a self-described revolutionary presiding over the world's fifth-largest oil producer -- has certainly not lacked for either grand plans or the resources to carry them out in his nine years as president of Venezuela. So far, he has also deftly deflected criticism and overcome opposition. With his newest initiatives, however, he may be overreaching--threatening to stall his project both domestically and internationally.

On the national front, Chávez is resolutely consolidating his autocratic governance model. The National Assembly overwhelmingly approved the articles for a constitutional reform that will be submitted to a national referendum on December 2. The 69 amendments cover private property, social security, central bank autonomy, the length of the workday, and much more. But the centerpiece of the overall package is a reform to allow the Venezuelan president -- but no other office holders -- to be reelected indefinitely. Other proposed changes would give Chávez instruments to further control the economy and suppress dissent.

There is little doubt that Chávez's December 2 referendum will pass. After polls showed around 60 percent of Venezuelans opposed the indefinite reelection proposition, Chávez quickly added sweeteners, such as reducing the workday from eight to six hours. The political opposition continues to be divided and ambivalent about whether to participate in what they see as a rigged system. It was a shortsighted 2005 legislative boycott by the opposition that left the national assembly filled with only Chávez supporters.

Still, Chávez's not-so-subtle push to be “president for life” has revealed one of the regime's real soft spots. Compounded by declining oil production, persistent corruption, skyrocketing crime rates, inflation, drug-trafficking, and continued infrastructure problems, these weaknesses have deepened fissures within the government coalition -- and created openings for new opposition forces. In the National Assembly, the pro-Chávez Podemos party openly opposed the indefinite reelection measure. More significantly, student leaders -- who emerged earlier this year when Chávez failed to renew the license for the RCTV station -- have mobilized once again

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