Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chavez is facing one of the worst political moments of his 11-year presidency, and new polls show that — for the first time in several years — there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the opposition.
In recent weeks, things have gone from bad to worse for Chavez.
Venezuela has Latin America's worst inflation, there are growing electricity and water shortages, student protests have left at least two dead, new measures against independent television stations have galvanized the opposition, massive corruption scandals have embarrassed the regime, and growing internal divisions within Chavez's inner circle have led to the dismissal of key cabinet members.
The Associated Press, known to be one of the most dispassionate news agencies, said in a dispatch from Caracas that "the socialist-inspired governing model that Chavez calls his Bolivarian Revolution. . . is weakened and hobbling."
Most international media predict growing troubles for Chavez in September's legislative elections and in the 2012 presidential elections.
Not surprisingly, Chavez is stepping up authoritarian measures and is reacting with characteristic bravado. On Feb. 2, he vowed to stay in power "for another 11 years," and claimed that his "Bolivarian revolution" will be in power "for 900 years."
A new nationwide poll by the Venezuelan firm Hinterlaces shows that Chavez's political base is shrinking. Among the key findings of the poll, conducted in November, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points:
• Sixty-one percent of Venezuelans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction, while 37 percent say it is going in the right direction.
• Seventy-eight percent of Venezuelans say they disagree with Chavez's recent decision to pull the independent RCTV station off the cable television system, while only 18 percent agreed. RCTV's open air network was closed down by the government in 2007.
• Sixty-one percent of Venezuelans support the anti-Chavez student protests, while 30 percent reject them.
• Eighty-seven percent of Venezuelans do not want their country to become like Cuba, while 9 percent do.
• Twenty-eight percent of Venezuelans say they will vote for pro-Chavez candidates in September's legislative elections, while 26 percent say they will vote for opposition candidates, and 34 percent for independent candidates.
• Chavez's approval rate has gone down from 51 percent in February 2009 to 39 percent in November 2009.
• Fifty-five percent of Venezuelans describe themselves as "neither pro-Chavez, nor anti-Chavez," while 27 percent consider themselves pro-Chavez, and 14 percent describe themselves as "oppositionists."
• Seventy-five percent of Venezuelans say that the country needs new leaders, while 21 percent disagreed with that statement.
Venezuelans are suffering from "charismatic fatigue," the poll's analytical section says. They are increasingly skeptical about both Chavez's ideological rhetoric, and of opposition leader's anti-Chavez's speeches.
Chavez's strategy will be to deepen the country's polarization, stepping up his campaign of "idealization of poverty" to prop up the poor's "socialist class" identity, while at the same time stigmatizing opposition leaders as oligarchs who would restore the old order, it says.
"President Chavez's greatest strength is the absence of an alternative," the report says. "There is an emerging majority that is not happy with the present, but doesn't want to return to the past either. What Venezuela needs is not a big leader. One of its problems is that it has too many 'leaders.' "
In a telephone interview, Hinterlaces President Oscar Shemel told me that the opposition leader that most people said they would vote for is the charismatic former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, who garnered only 4 percent of voter support.
My opinion: Chavez is more vulnerable than ever in recent years, and -- barring a major hike in oil prices -- his regime's corruption and chaotic management will turn things worse. His plan will be, as they say in Spanish, huír para adelante (fleeing forwards) perhaps even fabricating a self-coup to cancel the upcoming legislative elections.
But to oust Chavez in 2012, Venezuela's opposition will need to find an outsider, a local version of Nicaragua's former President Violeta Chamorro, a widow whose children were on both sides of that country's civil war in the 1980's.
It could be somebody like Central University of Venezuela's President Cecilia Garcia Arocha, or Lara state Gov. Henry Falcon, or any other figure with a credible message of national reconciliation and economic recovery. That would pose the biggest threat ever to Chavez's dream of a 900-year "Reich."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.