Venezuela: A Country In Flux

5 MINS READJan 27, 2010 | 11:22 GMT
VENEZUELANS TOOK TO THE STREETS for the fourth day in a row Tuesday in the wake of a controversial government decision to shut down a handful of cable TV stations, among them the now-infamous Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which had been booted off public airwaves and onto cable in 2007. Amid banners reading, "The first time was insanity, the second time is dictatorship," a wave of mostly student protesters blocked streets and engaged in violent confrontations with Venezuelan police for three days. The protests began with a general demonstration on Saturday that had been planned in advance to oppose the country's economic decline. The demonstrations echo the 2007 riots and protests that followed the government decision to allow RCTV's license to expire, but this time the student protests are part of a larger increase in opposition activity. With elections in September, Venezuela's political opposition will have a shot at sharing the country's legislature for the first time since they boycotted the 2005 legislative elections (a move that left them with a complete lack of representation in the central government). But with eight months to go, the elections remain relatively distant, making the sudden increase in activity quite notable. Few if any of Venezuela's political opposition parties — which include the Democratic Action party, the Social Christian Party of Venezuela and Un Nuevo Tiempo among others — appear to have volunteered to lead this outpouring of discontent. Indeed, as far as anyone can tell, the student and political opposition groups in Venezuela are, while quite passionate, mostly rudderless. While some STRATFOR sources report a growing connection between student groups and opposition groups as a result of student leaders having graduated into the political opposition, others point out that there is still precious little lateral coherence among student and opposition groups. At this level, the opposition remains fractious and unorganized. In addition to their failure to cohere, they have been under intense pressure from the government. Over the course of the past year, many of the opposition's political and student leaders have been exiled, banned from running for office, or put in jail, making it easier for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government to hold tight the reins of control. With elections in September, Venezuela's political opposition will have a shot at sharing the country's legislature for the first time since they boycotted the 2005 legislative elections. The lack of coherence among the opposition has provided Chavez with time. Since assuming power, his strategy over the past decade has been to harness the power of oil. The moment Venezuela discovered oil in 1918, the Venezuelan state became inseparable from the Venezuelan energy sector. Pouring all of the country's capital into energy development caused other industry and agriculture to stagnate, leaving Venezuela with only one real source of income and a single point of economic and political control. To put it bluntly, he who controls the oil controls the country. For a decade, that has been Chavez, who used oil revenues to fund the populist policies that allowed him to secure support from the country's majority poor population. But the fruits of the oil industry are diminishing as a result of Chavez's policies of nationalization and enforced loyalty over competence in employees at Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the country's state-owned petroleum company. With growth declining, food often scarce and debt skyrocketing alongside inflation, Venezuela has entered a period of serious economic decline. If projections about the country's deteriorating electricity sector bear fruit, this economic decline could well be coupled with a complete collapse of the electric system, which would make maintaining support among the poor especially difficult for Chavez. There are also signs that all may not be well in Chavez's inner circle, first and foremost among them the recent resignation of Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizales. Chavez is feeling pressured to tightly control the country. The problem is that his ability to maintain his populist policies is falling along with the oil industry and the economy, which threatens the popular support that has served as the foundation of his control. There are few roads for Chavez to choose from in the months ahead. He will likely try to once again legally or politically restrict opposition leaders ahead of the September elections, but in the meantime, if the protests of the past few days are any indication, he will have to face the prospect of drawn out and spontaneous violence with no obvious leader to target. The future is equally unclear for the opposition. Without leadership or a unified goal, there is little chance that the loose amalgam that is the opposition will find itself in a position to make the coherent political demands necessary to transmute the momentum of the protests into political gains. Until opposition elements in Venezuela coalesce into a coherent political force, Chavez will have time — and the upper hand — as long as the declining economic situation does not turn his support base against him. Should public opinion turn drastically against Chavez, the kinds of protests witnessed over the past few days could spread uncontrollably.

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