Ahead of a December 2 referendum on constitutional reforms, thousands of Venezuelan university students have taken to the streets in protest (CSMonitor). But they face a stiff challenge in blocking the reforms that would broadly expand President Hugo Chavez’s powers. The Venezuelan government, awash in oil revenues, has shared the windfall—from the upper-middle class down to the poor in Caracas’ barrios. A gallon of gas runs a mere 6.3 cents. As a result, Chavez is likely to win approval (IHT) for a package of changes to Venezuela’s constitution expanding his particular brand of socialism, the so-called Bolivarian revolution.
The president and his followers already control most of the government, including the National Assembly, the state-owned oil company, and the courts. The proposed constitutional changes, however, further centralize Chavez’s power (Economist), allowing him to be reelected indefinitely, giving him more leeway for declaring states of emergency, and mandating the creation of new regions led by vice presidents picked by Chavez. Other amendments call for economic changes, such as allowing the president control over the central bank. A report (PDF) from the Venezuelan government (in Spanish) outlines the sixty-nine amendments in the referendum.
Critics say the proposed amendments are authoritarian, but the Venezuelan government is careful to point out the reforms will only be enacted with popular approval. Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, says discussions of the reforms were open to “massive public participation.” In a recent talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said the reforms are meant to accomplish “increased participation and social justice,” but did not explain why expanded presidential powers were necessary.
Social programs to bring cheap groceries, medical care, and education to the poor have expanded the president’s support, though some economists charge these programs will not produce sustainable improvements in health or education level. Others note that inflation, officially at 16 percent but thought to be higher, is significantly raising the cost of basic foodstuffs. Journalist Alexandra Starr says Chavez has merely tapped into the Venezuelan belief that the government should help. “Cheap gas strikes at the heart of the arrangement many Venezuelans feel they have with the state: ‘national patrimony belongs to all of us, and I deserve my share of the spoils,’” she writes in The American Scholar.
There are signs, however, that discontent with Chavez is growing. Earlier this month, Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, former defense minister and a long-time Chavez supporter, labeled the proposed constitution a “coup d’etat.” Dissent is appearing within the ranks of the military as well (Miami Herald). “There is a fairly widespread discontent, which doesn't have much political expression as of now,” says Edgardo Lander, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela, told the Christian Science Monitor.
Chavez’s political future will also depend on the ability of Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA, to continue producing the heavy crude that fuels his socialist revolution. The president spends billions of PDVSA's revenue on social programs, handouts to foreign governments such as Cuba, and defense. Though the company’s financial dealings and level of oil production are largely opaque, many analysts say oil production is down and the company is not investing enough. Venezuela was the ninth-largest global producer in 2006, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Two decades ago, PDVSA was considered a top-notch oil company. Now, it “amounts to the president’s $35 billion petty-cash drawer,” writes Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times Magazine.