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The vote came amidst a global economic downturn, as protectionism was on the rise everywhere and the masses feared for their economic security. It was supposed to be just another election, like many before and many to come. But on March 5, 1933, the German people put the last nail in the coffin of the Weimar Republic, overwhelmingly electing the National-Socialist Workers’ Party to their national parliament, the Reichstag.
The calculating new Chancellor of the Republic, an Austrian named Adolf Hitler, made sure that German democracy ceased to exist after that election. Almost 76 years later, on February 15, 2009, Venezuelans will face a similar vote in a referendum proposed by President Hugo Chávez to allow him to “seek re-election indefinitely.” In order to preserve their democracy, they ought to say no.
This is not the first time Chávez has attempted to perpetuate himself in power. Two years ago, he proposed a referendum to modify the constitution to allow him to seek unlimited re-election and better implant his version of “21st-century socialism”. He argued that the Venezuelan constitution constrained his grip on power in a way that prevented his model society from coming to fruition.
But despite Chávez’s subsequent crackdown on the political opposition, his proposal was narrowly defeated, 51 to 49 percent. According to press reports, it was a cinematic ending to a dramatic saga in Venezuelan politics. Upon hearing the news, Chávez promised a sequel, grumbling that “For now, we couldn’t.”
Now he is trying again. If approved, his proposal could allow him to stay in power indefinitely and use his state power to annihilate any political dissent. In the last few years, apart from disrespecting contracts with foreign oil companies and eschewing American involvement in the region, Chávez has repeatedly attacked any media outlet that opposes his rule. Most notably, two years ago he refused to renew the broadcasting license of a TV station, RCTV, that he identified with the political opposition. With such dismal track record, the power of unlimited re-election would be tantamount to burying Venezuelan democracy forever.
In a way, Chávez is a very Latin American problem. Like his hero Simón Bolívar, he thinks he is indispensable to Venezuela, an oil-rich country that has terrible internal problems, most notably a lack of durable democratic institutions and entrenched economic inequality. In fact, he was originally an army paratrooper who became famous in 1992 when he attempted to overthrow the constitutional government in a failed coup d’etat. Old habits die hard.
In the following years, Chávez has worked within the system and eventually accessed power democratically in 1998, mainly supported by the urban lower classes. During his decade in power, he has made Venezuela a stronghold of anti-Americanism and political radicalism. A visionary critic of the Washington Consensus, he initially pledged to end Venezuelan inequality. After nationalizing oil contracts in the country and forcing out foreign investors, he has used the money for lavish projects in Venezuela that have bought him unprecedented support.
Chávez has also used Venezuela’s petroleum wealth to extend his influence in the region while the Bush administration focused elsewhere. In particular, he has invested in his ideological allies in the region, including Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Evo Morales’s Bolivia, and Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. But, for all his hatred of the United States, Chávez remains a dutiful producer of oil for American consumption, delivering over a million barrels a day to the evil superpower in the north. As a result, he has become an unfortunate byproduct of U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
The global economic crisis, however, has changed the political and economic landscape. Although inflation continues to be rampant, growth is now uncertain, given the sluggish demand in developed countries. With oil prices hitting unforeseen lows, he can afford neither the vast federal projects in Venezuela nor his bullish foreign policy favoritism.
This year alone, the opposition in Venezuela estimates that there will be a $30 billion gap between planned state spending and income. As the referendum looms, he has refused to cut down on spending; instead, he has shamelessly plunged into Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves. According to some reports, he has already spent close to a third of the central bank’s assets. These unsustainable spending patterns would effectively doom the country’s future in the event of a crisis in confidence like the one that would follow a Chávez victory next week.
Chávez is attempting to delay the painful but inevitable hard choices in the sphere of Venezuelan political economy until after the referendum. Much like the German parliamentary elections of 1933, this referendum is a high-stakes gamble for absolute political hegemony. With his grip on state power, it would be very hard to remove him democratically once indefinite re-election is constitutionally allowed. So nothing less than Venezuela’s democratic institutions are on the line. But, if Venezuelans manage to reject Chavez’s delusions of autocracy once more, there will most likely be no “next time around.”
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House.
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