Last August, President Hugo Chavez scored a surprising yet decisive victory over a well-funded campaign by opposition forces to end his presidency early. Both supporters and critics acknowledge his remarkable survival skills. The divisive former military officer has endured strikes, mass protests, time in jail and a failed military coup to remain in Venezuela's top political seat.
Many scholars say he now stands virtually unopposed as he continues to expand his power. This concerns Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum on Western Hemisphere affairs.
“President Chavez now has control over the armed forces, the judiciary and all key institutions. His government is heavily militarized with a lot of officers in high positions. There has been persecution of some civil organizations and individuals without any basis. There have also been some laws passed that come very close to what might be regarded as censorship of the press. So I don't think this is a step forward in terms of moving toward representative democracy.”
Venezuela has traditionally been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. But critics accuse Mr. Chavez of attempting to turn the government into a Cuban-style dictatorship. However, a comparison to Cuban leader Fidel Castro goes too far, according to political scientist Kurt Weyland at the University of Texas. “He is becoming a strong man and is clearly concentrating power, but he remains very different from Fidel Castro because he still holds elections, even if the opposition is not capable of really challenging him. It is not the case that there are widespread human rights violations in Venezuela at this point in time. There are not prison camps or other totalitarian symbols.”
But the United States considers many of Venezuela's actions undemocratic and has called President Chavez a negative force in the region. And a defiant Mr. Chavez has intensified his anti-U.S. rhetoric.
Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Thomas Casey accused Venezuela of supporting rebels in neighboring Colombia. “Certainly, there are some weapons, and ammunition from official Venezuelan stocks as well, that are known to have come from Venezuelan suppliers and intermediaries and into the hands of Colombian terrorist groups.”
Hugo Chavez's response was to call the United States a terrorist nation. “Attacks have come from the imperialist supporters against Venezuela. They are telling great lies with the intention of manipulating international opinion. They accuse us of buying arms for the Colombian guerrillas, but they are for our troops.”
The Venezuelan leader says he is arming his military to prepare for what he calls a likely
"invasion" by the United States, an idea dismissed by U.S. officials.
Despite such animosity, the two countries do talk about oil. Venezuela is the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States and the Chavez government maintains working relations with multinational companies, including U.S. oil giant Chevron.
Oil profits -- about $25 billion last year -- allow Mr. Chavez to carry out what he calls a "new socialist revolution." The leftist platform includes massive social spending. Hugo Chavez has built free health care clinics, subsidized food and created small manufacturing cooperatives. Political scientist Michael Shifter says these projects have galvanized his core supporters -- the poor -- who make-up around 60 % of the country's population. “Chavez does project a real concern for the poor. This is a sharp contrast to some of the previous governments in Venezuela, which were seen as out of touch with the poor and not terribly concerned with rising poverty.”
But critics warn that Hugo Chavez's "revolution" is bolstering the state's increasing economic presence. Mr. Chavez has set up a new state airline, a phone company and has placed more restrictions on private businesses. Many of his supporters are calling for a completely socialist-style planned economy.
With rising oil profits, President Chavez has extended his reach beyond Venezuela's borders. He is funding a television news channel for Latin America and he has promised to build houses for Cuba's poor and finance cooperatives in Argentina.
Although admired by more than half of the population, Hugo Chavez is strongly disliked by many in his country. His fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric and strong-arm tactics have been unpopular with the wealthy, the media and the business community since he was first elected in 1998. Opposition groups have tried to unseat him, including staging a coup three years ago.
Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas faults both Mr. Chavez and the opposition for the country's deep polarization, which he warns could damage Venezuelan democracy in the long run.
“It is very hard to get out of this stalemate between Chavez and the opposition. There is no middle ground. The opposition has largely been discredited and the Chavez government has done a lot of things that are not in the spirit of a democracy. It would not be easy to resume a functioning democracy that is willing to live in a spirit of compromise and negotiation, which is in many ways the lifeblood of a democracy.”
Even though most experts agree that President Chavez has not crossed the line from democracy to dictatorship, checks and balances to keep him from doing so are being eroded. But with public approval ratings of more than 70 %, Mr. Chavez could be on the Venezuelan political stage for some time. All the more reason, analysts say, disenchanted opposition leaders will have to create a viable alternative to Hugo Chavez's brand of socialism if they intend to defeat him in next year's presidential election.