Sunday, August 22, 2004

Chávez consolidates power

Most of the major papers seem tired of this story. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe all ran wire stories on the Carter Center/OAS press conference yesterday.

So all the more reason to go straight to Steven Dudley's piece in the Miami Herald today as he looks at what's next for the Chávez government. It's not a pretty picture:

After last Sunday's sweeping victory in a recall referendum, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has more power than ever. He has routed his political opponents; his party controls Congress; his associates run the judiciary and the powerful state oil company, PDVSA.

He has even silenced his favorite foreign target, the United States, and won the praise of governments around the world for overseeing an unprecedented show of democracy -- 10 million people, or 75 percent of the registered voters, waited an average of eight hours to cast their ballots.

Now many are wondering what Chávez will do next to consolidate the "Bolivarian revolution" on behalf of Venezuela's poor that he so boldly launched in 1998. The answer is as complicated as the president himself, and could have far-reaching implications for the country and the region.

For starters, Chávez is proposing a dialogue with opposition politicians and increased social welfare. But analysts predict he will also seek to exert more control over the security forces as well as expand his influence over Latin America. The United States, in turn, may be hard-pressed to slow him down....

But Chávez has also said the government is ready to move to the next phase of his revolution, beyond the literacy "missions" that are some of his government's most successful programs to date.

"The next thing we have to do is address the poverty issue," said William Izarra, a Chávez movement ideologue. "This is what we live for."

Izarra says the government will use what are called "patrols" -- small groups of militants who fan out into poor neighborhoods to expand the social programs.

"This is no longer a top down structure," Izarra explained.

But at the same time as his men talk of power from below, Chávez continues strengthening his hold from above.

One of the president's first priorities in this next phase, says Alberto Garrido, who has written several books on the president, will be centralizing control of the security forces.

Following a coup in April 2002 that ousted him for 48 hours, Chávez has spent the last two years cleansing the armed forces of unfriendly officers. Garrido says it's now the police's turn.

"Remember, the final goal is to have civic-military revolution. It's peaceful, but it's armed," he said, using the term, ''civic-military,'' that Chávez himself has used.

Garrido added that the neighborhood "patrols" that will be spreading Chávez's social agenda will also offer an extra blanket of security for the government.

Maribel Castillo, a leader of the pro-Chávez political party Podemos -- We Can -- said there will also be an effort to consolidate the various pro-Chávez political groups.

"Inside the revolution, the Commander [Chávez] says there's a lot we have to purge," she said. "What we want is a single party."

The "patrols" will also be training people ideologically, educating them about a continent-wide revolution that Chávez advocates. Garrido believes that this is the centerpiece of Chávez's plan....

Some Venezuelans are afraid of where else Chávez's increasing power may lead him. "There's a real danger of totalitarianism," said Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist Venezuelan guerrilla who is editor of the independent newspaper TalCual. "I'm not going to say that Chávez is a dictator. But obviously there's been a tendency to control Congress, the Supreme Court and the other branches" of government.

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