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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is signaling that a crackdown against his critics is imminent.

He seems increasingly concerned that his popular support will drop. And so the president is turning to Cuba: relying on Cuban advisers, setting up a presidential intelligence service and creating new political organizations. Chavez will probably succeed in consolidating power.

During a rally June 9, the president warned leading bankers, industrialists and news media owners that they would soon be arrested on tax evasion charges and would have to forfeit personal and corporate assets. The next day Chavez announced the immediate expulsion of foreigners critical of his government.

The formerly populist president is now making a bid for absolute power. During his tenure, high oil prices had allowed him to remain popular with the majority of the public even though he imposed controls on the country’s constitutional and legislative systems and the power of the political elite.

Labor unrest, poverty, rampant crime and government turmoil, however, have disenchanted many citizens who once believed that Chavez, a fiery orator and former paratrooper, could save Venezuela. As he faces the prospect of losing popularity, Chavez is turning to Cuba for support. But Chavez knows President Bush will not move to stem, or even slow, Venezuela’s march away from democracy as long as Venezuela does not interrupt its oil shipments to the U.S. and as long as Chavez does not interfere with Plan Colombia.

Chavez is now relying on Cuban assistance in intelligence, security and political matters. Caracas dailies El Nacional and El Universal reported last week that Chavez has created a new intelligence service, with headquarters at the Miraflores presidential palace, that answers directly to him. Cuban military advisers and intelligence experts reportedly are helping Chavez create this service to keep tabs on his growing political opposition.

Retired Adm. Rafael Huizi, a leader of the Institutional Military Front, a group of retired military brass who oppose Chavez, charged last week that the “Cubanization of Venezuela” is under way.

The Chavez government denies the presence of Cuban military advisers and intelligence operatives. But the Bush administration reportedly has quietly suspended longtime intelligence-sharing contacts between Washington and the Venezuelan Interior and Justice Ministry’s political police.

Moreover, soon after Chavez returned from his foreign tour, Peter Romero, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, told the Miami Herald that Chavez “has the right to travel where he wishes and say what he wishes, but what he says will have consequences in terms of U.S. perceptions of Chavez.”

Also, Chavez has personally organized a new grass-roots political group reporting directly to him. Chavez announced June 10 the creation of “Bolivarian Circles,” with branches in neighborhoods, companies, hospitals, schools and universities. Its mission, he said, is “to defend the Bolivarian revolution against the counter-revolution.”

Critics in Venezuela fear the main activity of these organizations will be clandestine surveillance to identify critics and opponents. The Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 has been rebuilding its national membership since last March and reportedly is signing up new recruits for concealed handgun permits.

The government is motivated by a worsening economic situation. Private investment has virtually dried up. Since Chavez became president in early 1999, more than $15 billion in private capital has fled the country, including $8 billion last year.

Oil prices are staying moderately high for Venezuela – more than $22 a barrel – and the economy will grow about 3 percent in 2001 thanks to higher oil revenues. But inflation is edging upward, and the official unemployment rate has stayed above 14 percent for more than two years. More than 45 percent of Venezuelan households are poor, according to the United Nations, while the country’s human development index at the end of 2000 had regressed to 1960s levels.

In the midst of this slowdown, there are signs Chavez’s cult of personality is flagging. His promises of a better economy rest on high oil prices and the ability of his government to manage the country’s resources efficiently and effectively.

While the president is popular with more than 60 percent of Venezuelans, Chavez’s job approval ratings have declined lately: One recent poll found 80 percent of Venezuelans are dissatisfied with government efforts to control crime. Pro-Chavez rallies at the presidential palace draw a few thousand participants today while a year ago, tens of thousands attended. Venezuelans are apparently growing impatient with the burdens of personal economic hardship.

Chavez’s presidency is also hitting a historic mid-term slump. The popularity of every democratically elected president since Romulo Betancourt in the late 1950s has dropped like a stone midway through the five-year term. The only exception was Jaime Lusinchi in the 1980s, who bankrupted the country but left office as the most popular president in Venezuela’s democratic history. Chavez has now been in power for two and a half years.

As a result, the president appears increasingly focused on grabbing absolute power that would allow him to be president up to 14 years, the amount allowed by his tenure under the recently revised constitution. Chavez is tightening his grip to ensure he does not lose control if oil prices drop sharply, plunging the economy into recession and erasing his popularity.

Few institutions have enough power to stop Chavez, and the two that do are unlikely to block him. The military is one of the few potent domestic institutions. But military officers are not likely to oppose the president because the military is one of the main beneficiaries of the Chavez regime.

Romero, the U.S. government official, cautioned that change and reform in Venezuela “must be kept within the parameters of the law and constitution of Venezuela, and within universally accepted standards of democracy.”

However, meeting these political requirements will not be a problem for Chavez. Venezuela’s Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Council and the National Assembly are virtual legal rubber stamps for his whims.


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