At Large

Will the Frog Jump?

Hugo Chavez's proposed constitutional reform confirms the dictator's readiness to move slowly but irreversibly.

By 9.26.07

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How do you kill a frog? By placing it in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turning up the heat. If the temperature goes up too quickly, the frog will jump out. But if it goes up just slowly enough, the frog will boil to death.

This analogy explains why violent political insurgencies have often failed in Latin America. To succeed in consolidating power, a would-be dictator has to seize it slowly.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez recently unveiled a bold new proposal for constitutional reform. It's not clear if and when it'll go through, but if it succeeds, he will have boiled the frog -- becoming a dictator while working under a system that looks democratic from a distance.

Chavez's reform involves only about 30 of the existing 350 articles of the Constitution, but it is hardly a minor revision. It contains sweeping reforms that, if approved, would give Chavez the status and power of a tropical monarch.

The national executive will assume control of many activities previously in hands of state and municipal governments, such as the management of state and municipal hospitals and schools, as well as the administration of ports, airports and toll roads.

The president will have the authority to dissolve the National Assembly and convene a Constituent Assembly. It's hard to think of a more bald-faced instance of replacing rule of law with rule of man.

The president's term will be seven years, and he could be re-elected indefinitely, as opposed to the existing seven year-term and a limit of two consecutive presidential periods. In addition, he will be authorized to name as many vice-presidents as he deems desirable, accountable only to him, to oversee economic or political areas of activity.

The president could decide how to use international financial reserves, robbing the Central Bank of its autonomy, and spooking foreign investors. This will further erode the credibility of the government in the eyes of the international financial community, and increase net capital outflows from the country.

The president could also create new cities, new Federal Territories and new Federal provinces, a power he will no doubt abuse to reward his supporters.

The country will have a six-hour workday. Apparently Chavez hasn't paid much attention to the state of the workers' paradises of western Europe. This will lower industrial productivity even more, increasing unemployment in the medium-term and making the country less competitive.

The president will promote military officers, another authority previously in the hands of the National Assembly. The "Bolivarian" Armed Forces will include a new component, the Popular Militia, modeled after the Cuban Popular Army or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard -- a semi-official military organization that functions as a state within a state, empowering and enriching the president's supporters. Chavez describes it as an army trained to fight a guerrilla war against the "U.S. invasion."

The State will be socialist, both in a political and an economic sense, although private property will still be allowed, insofar as it does not collide with national interests. This model has proven a failure wherever it's been attempted.

Chavez has learned the importance of pursuing his plans incrementally. In February 1992, he tried seizing power in the traditional manner. After planning his coup for 10 years, it all came crashing down in 10 hours, thanks to his military ineptitude. In 1998, he won the presidency through elections, and though elated by the victory, he was depressed at the prospect of playing by democratic rules. Accordingly, he has focused his efforts on becoming a dictator while maintaining democratic pretenses.

Chavez's latest reform would be the object of a national referendum organized by the National Electoral Council, an organization he controls, and Venezuelans distrust deeply. Venezuelans thus face the dilemma of participating in a vote to install a "constitutional" dictatorship or abstaining altogether. Both alternatives have their risks.

Democracy loving Venezuelans are against the wall, but, paradoxically, so is Chavez. If the people, pressured to vote on the elimination of democracy in the country, opt instead for a massive popular protest, Chavez could be ousted again, as he was in April 2002, when some 700,000 indignant citizens marched against his abuses of power. As happened then, the frog could jump. But this time, it might result in civil war.

Gustavo Coronel is the author of the Cato Institute study, "Corruption, Mismanagement and Abuse of Power in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela." He served on the Board of Directors of Petroleos de Venezuela (1976-79), as president of Agrupacion Pro Calidad de Vida, and was the Venezuelan representative to Transparency International (1996-2000).

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About the Author

Gustavo Coronel, author of the Cato Institute study "Corruption, Mismanagement and Abuse of Power in Hugo Chavez''s Venezuela," was a member of the Board of Directors of Petroleos de Venezuela from 1976-79 and, as president of Agrupacion Pro Calidad de Vida, was the Venezuelan representative to Transparency International from 1996 to 2000.